Category Archives: 3 Self-portrait

Project 1.3 A self-portrait


Project 1.3 was to draw a self portrait in 60 minutes.

My prior experience of portraits and drawing from life

In 2016 prior to starting this course I have focused my attention on portraits in charcoal and pastel. Portraits were not something I had focused on drawing before and I have been finding it very rewarding to capture a likeness. However I have always worked from photographs.

Last year I took a lesson with Billie Bond, a fabulous local artist and sculptor, who taught me scaling up or down in size using a grid, sight sizing and the importance of studying anatomy. Since then I have used the grid approach. I have also experimented with tracing a fine outline of the main shapes and facial features using my laptop screen as a light box before working on the drawing to speed up my work. I am aware this may become a crutch and since starting the course have read plenty of advice from art tutors that drawing from life is key so is something I plan to ensure I do.

Use of preparatory drawings

I haven’t experimented with many preparatory drawings and notes when doing portraits before now. I will plan my actual drawing carefully in terms of taking measurements but that is all. Since my first attempt at the portrait, detailed below, I have been reading about the principles and elements of art and design. I now realise there are many things I need to consider as part of my planning, rather than going straight in and trying to produce a finished based by intuition or by copying a photo.

First attempt

With this context, unsurprisingly I approached this project and assignment with great trepidation. Drawing for only 60 minutes with none of my previous crutches to help me – what would happen? As I normally work in pastel, mark making in addition to blending and working without a stump felt like a mountain to climb.

I was determined to just go for it and did, and the result was very unsatisfactory. In fact I hated it and was hugely embarrassed by it! I tried to sight size and wasted nearly the whole hour taking measurements. Running of out time, I then began hurridly shading, falling back on using a 6B and trying to shade in a more solid way as I would with a pastel as the time ran out. After 90 minutes I had a dull drawing, lacking contrast, interest or balance featuring a squash faced version of me. The awful overhead light threw little shadow and I found it hard to pick out different tones. I had spent far too long trying to draw the eyes which were very detailed compared to the sketchiness of the rest of the drawing. The whole thing looked unnatural.

Reflecting on how to improve

I reflected on this experience for several days then tried to approach each aspect of the drawing in a more planned way. I thought about constraints that would force me to draw differently and tried to give consideration to some of the principles and elements I had been beginning to read about in my desire to take a more planned and informed approach. The result of these ruminations are as follows:

  • Lighting: I researched different ways to light me and decided to half draw the curtain as it was a very bright day. This threw such a level of cast shadows on my face and eyes that I would be forced to draw in very little detail around the eyes and to get on with the rest of the drawing.
  • Comfort, posting and capturing a feeling: I sat on a cushion, made sure I was fully comfortable and tried to sit in an interesting pose.I wanted to capture my sense of determination so thought about ways to hold my head. In the end I chose a slightly uplifted face and a flicker of a smile.
  • Focus: I thought about what I liked in my features to make doing the drawing enjoyable. I also considered what I wanted to bring out in terms of my personality. I like my cheekbones and so decided to partially tie my hair back so I could feature this in the drawing. I chose a lighter style jumper with more interesting shapes so I could trace contours with more expression. I also decided to include the chair to give the drawing a sense of depth.
  • Time constraints: I decided to strictly give myself no more than 60 minutes.
  • Process and proportions: I chose to quickly focus on capturing the main large shapes rather than using excessive sight sizing with a pencil. I first sketched a line representing my nose which I was happy with and then used this as an anchor point for my eyes to help with assessing proportions.
  • Researching types of portrait: I researched different styles of portrait that have used the different types of marks we explored on this part of the course. These are below. I decided I liked the expressive lines in the Jim Morrison picture but also liked the combination of more detailed facial shading using lines combined with the looser lines of the hair in the first drawing below by Paul Thomas – Drawing after Head of  Young Man by Raphael (Ashmolean Museum, Oxford). I was surprised how convincing the second drawing below was just using cross hatching and lots of light. The final two drawings below are self portraits by Kathe Kollowitz. I rejected these as disliked how heavy they were, but her work (she was the first women elected to the Prussian Academy of Arts) has piqued my interest and I will research her in due course.

So here I am after the event, captured for posterity as I was pleased with the result!


Reflections after my second attempt

I think the constraints, research and reflection I applied resulted in a far more effective drawing. There is more interest, more balance, more depth. It looks more like me and I think I have captured a flicker of the determination in my face I felt in improving what I had done earlier. I was pleased with the effect of the different types of lines and pencils I used, from 6B through to4H.

If I did the exercise again I would push myself even harder:

  • I still felt I had used quite a limited ranged of marks. There was little cross hatching and no dots for example.
  • There is generally an even weight to marks that could be varied.
  • I did not use the rubber in any way other than to remove a few lines I didn’t want around the contouring of my face and going to heavy on the shadow on my neck. Perhaps this is a good thing as I am becoming less reliant on the stump or rubber as a crutch.
  • I still don’t feel confident mixing different types of marks within a portrait. This is something I hope to work on. I am just not sure how. How do you decide whether e.g. to use solid shading versus cross hatching?
  • I am still working quite slowly but this is because I am still learning about drawing techniques and hope with even better planning I will be able to work faster.
  • I ran out of time to couldn’t finish my hand in terms of correct proportions so it is too small, same for my ear which seems too large.

Overall I am very pleased. I looked back at a few portraits I drew intuitively without this planning this time last year and can see a huge difference already. I feel am making a good amount of progress whilst accepting this is a journey not a destination! I am going to focus on more quick sketches from life in my sketchbook. I did a 10 minute sketch of my husband a few days later and again felt like the likeness was captured which has buoyed my confidence to continue my journey drawing from life. I am going to research life drawing classes in London and utilise the large floor to ceiling mirrored wardrobes in my bedroom to do some more self portraits. I have also downloaded the life drawing booklet from the OCA website and will use this to help me think about some poses I can do and draw at the same time.