My husband is learning to draw and wants to start to sketch people. When I suggested he could do worse than have a try at a self portrait, he commented that he thought it felt a bit vain to do so. That surprised me; I hadn’t looked at it that way. I countered that I think our own faces are the ones we are know best, and that at least we’re always available to model for ourselves. Anyway, in my limited experience, self portraits are rarely flattering, given the fixed stare, frown, clenched jaw and compressed lips which result from the intensity of effort involved.

It was a series of self portraits in pastel which prompted me to kick off this blog just over a year ago. It was a good adventure, and one which taught me a lot.  I’ve done a couple in watercolour since, but today was the time for a proper selfie in acrylic.

I got the mirror rigged up, paints out, and off I went – starting is often the scariest bit. The board (30x40cms) was prepped by a light sanding and then propped on my tabletop easel. Having sketched the basic features in pencil, I worked from the background forwards. For once I did have a plan for the background, inspired by the black glass of the oven behind me (I like to paint in the kitchen).

Self portrait acrylic apr 16

The skin tones really gave me food for thought, how to mix the right colours; it took quite a bit of trial and error, and I’ve still come out somewhat more tanned than I am in reality. The shadows on the face were especially challenging. What colour is that? The chin is definitely a bit odd (I might revisit that). The bit I like most, and tellingly which took least effort, was the ear. If the rest of the painting was as loose and yet still as convincing as that I’d be really chuffed. I found that the acrylics actually dried a little too fast for me to achieve the smoothness of skin tones I was hoping for. I can see how oils would be a bonus here. Yet the acrylics do offer a sort of coarseness which is appealing.

I’d hoped that using my 3/4 in flat brush throughout would help me to paint more loosely, but in fact it created some problems where detail was necessary, particularly round the eyes and nose. Rightly or wrongly, I persisted. I’d be interested to know what brushes other people use for portraits, all advice gratefully accepted!

As has been the case with every selfie I’ve done, this sort of looks like me, but doesn’t really. Having looked at my previous attempts I think that I am getting better at this business, although my stern expression seems to confirm my opinion that self-portraiture is a very serious business indeed.



Five minutes, some acrylic and a bit of newspaper, and here’s a kind of self-portrait. It actually looks nothing like me, but that’s ok. It was about smearing on the paint, not creating a perfect image. A finger’s an interesting tool to paint with, but I think I could have done with a bigger piece of paper to have more fun and worry less about detail. Not much more to say today!

Fingerpaint portrait acrylic 2


Feeling Blue

Long time no blog. But maybe I’m back in the game now that October’s over – I don’t know whether it was the transition of the seasons, or the half-term holiday, but I just haven’t been feeling like sketching recently.

Self portrait blue charoalHowever, I hope that’s all over now. When looking for some mount board recently I got my eye on this blue board, with a view to trying a charcoal/chalk portrait. I wasn’t fussed about who, which is just as well, as it ended up being me again. Funny how I keep being on hand to model when I want to sketch people…

I tried to keep the palette restricted, and ended up using charcoal (as planned), plus white and blue conte crayons. I dived straight in without any guidelines or prep, which goes a little way towards explaining why some of the elements didn’t end up quite as they should be. I was trying to concentrate mainly on higlights and shade, without too much faffing with the mid-tones. I’m not sure I’ve achieved this. The camera has, as usual, emphasised the whites more than is evident in the original, so what you see here isn’t quite how it looks in reality.

Interestingly, the sketch didn’t turn out to have the strong charcoal lined quality I’d imagined when I set out, probably due to the fact that I kept rubbing lines out with my fingers, leading to a smoother, slightly more contoured texture than I’d hoped for. On the plus side, I think that my previous self-portrait practices in pastels have really helped me today, particularly when it comes to speed of working, which feels like progress.

Value-able Lesson

Back on the selfie trail today. Yesterday’s portrait had left me unsatisfied; I could see so many things that I’d like to improve, and first among these was the lack of tonal value and contrast. This was even more strongly confirmed when I watched one of the Stan Miller videos on YouTube, kindly recommended by fellow blogger Laura at CreateArtEveryDay.  So, armed with my double mirror (which with some messing around lets me get a not-quite-face-on view of myself) I plunged in again this morning.

Self portrait watercolour 2I didn’t take enough time on the sketch, as I was so keen to get into the painting part. When will I learn? And I kept moving (naturally) which was of course unhelpful. Therefore, I don’t think this one looks very much like me. But that actually doesn’t matter this time. My objective was to get more variation of colour, and stronger colour, into the paint, particularly on the skin tones. I was also trying to achieve a greater contrast between the darks and the lights, and I feel that I’ve made a good start on this, although I could have been even braver…

Ignoring its many faults (the awfully patchy background wash which was an afterthought, the squiffy eyes and glassy stare, super-long neck, etc) I feel that I’ve made a great leap forward with this picture from the point of view of how I interpret what’s in front of me. I’m surprisingly encouraged.

Stretching Myself

It’s been a while since I did a self-portrait – April, if I remember rightly, in pastels. If you’re interested, my series of 7 pastel self-portraits (the good, the bad, and definitely the ugly, see day 2!) start here. Today it once again felt like a self-portrait day; I had the time and the inclination. Self-portraits are always really difficult, I think. There’s the whole business of sitting in front of a mirror, contemplating one’s flaws, and trying not to change position while attempting to get it down on paper. If, in the end, it actually looks like a credible person, I think you’ve done ok. And so much the better if it actually ends up looking something like you!

Self portrait watercolourThis one is a bit of a mixed bag. I think it looks sort of like me, although with all the fine wrinkles and bags airbrushed out. My excuse is that the portrait is quite small (9x6ins) and there wasn’t room for a lot of fine detail…also, I didn’t put my glasses on to look! I painted the face first, then the hair, and then added the jumper and cardigan after a pause for consideration and a deep breath (for fear of ruining it). Adding the strong colour meant I had to go back in and deepen the shades in the hair, which helped with the depth around the face somewhat, although the skin is still lacking sufficient deep tones.

Things I like: the blue of my jumper, and the way it bleeds out; my left eye, where the light is reflected; the light on the septum.

Things I’d change: more shadow tones on the face (if only I could decide what colour they should be!) as I look a bit over-exposed; the neck painting – too lumpy; the chin, which looks misshapen.

However, all things considered, my first ‘life’ watercolour portrait didn’t go so badly. I haven’t shown it to anyone who knows me, so I don’t have a third party view on whether it’s a ‘likeness’. I’m guessing that there are bits that look like me, and bits that don’t. I think I can live with that.

Seven Days of Portraits – Day 7

Following mSelf portrait 7y previous day’s work, I was very hesitant to knuckle down to this one, fearing that I’d take a step back. I finally took myself by the scruff of the neck and settled down to it.

I’d been tending to spend an increasing amount of time on the portraits, which coincided with using the dark boards, and this one took about 2 hours in total. The day was very changeable, and the light kept varying, which didn’t help; work was interrupted by a vast thunderstorm in the middle of the afternoon. I did make an effort to try to look less severe in this one; that was a struggle in itself.

However, persistence was finally rewarded. After some re-drawing of the features in the initial sketch (using the trusty white pencil) I finally produced a self-portrait which I think does capture ‘me’. It’s by no means perfect, but I’m encouraged that the progress from 7 days ago has been significant. It’s enough to make me want to go on and extend my experience to other people – anyone want to sit for me?

Seven Days of Portraits – Day 6

ArmeSelf portrait 6d and dangerous with a white CarbOthello pencil, I thought it was time to try another 3/4 view. I kept all the other factors the same – dark board, mix of pastels. And away I went.

Using the pencil helped enormously – I could actually see my guidelines, and what’s more the eraser worked on them too where necessary. Great stuff.

To my surprise this portrait worked out quite well. The pastels gave a good skin tone, and technically I was learning to handle them much more adeptly, and to combine the very soft pastels with the harder Contes where finer detail was needed. Although the expression on the face is rather worried and intense, it did turn out to have a bit of me in it. I felt that with the new board and pastels, and a huge amount of focus, I’d made a great leap forward. What a relief.

Seven Days of Portraits – Day 5

Self portrait 5

I’m back, and armed with 3 new flesh-coloured pastels and some lovely dark blue/grey mountboard. Oh yes. Just looking at the board made me itch to get started.

What I didn’t consider was that I wouldn’t be able to see the pencil outline on the dark board. So I spent quite a long time adjusting my position to try to get the light to shine onto the graphite to give me a chance at getting features in the right place. It wasn’t really enough though, and I knew I was going to need a better solution.

Once I got going, the new Reeves skintone pastels worked a treat, and went on beautifully, blending where necessary with the Conte pastels. This time I’d scraped my hair right back so that I could actually see the shape of my face properly. It did help somewhat, and revealed the contrasts in light and shade that were produced by sitting alongside the kitchen window.

In summary, this was a better effort, but still looked like someone else, not me. I couldn’t stop now, maybe the next one would be the one?

Seven Days of Portraits – Day 4

Self portrait 3

Day four, and back for more punishment. I dug out another piece of spare mount board, and having re-read Betty Edwards last night, tried again, face-on. I truly did try to do the measurements…it just turned out that the picture looked nothing like me, but like some poor (much younger, still intense) soul with mumps.

It’s so hard to see the truth while drawing, and to identify where things aren’t going right. If this had been an object, I would have turned the picture upside down to try to discover what exactly was wrong. But it wasn’t until I’d finished and left the picture that I realised the multitude of dimensions which aren’t right in this one – nose too long, eyes too far apart, face too round… it’s a long list. Plus, no bright blue jumpers in future.

So, I vowed next time to observe more and worry less about what the guidelines in the book say. On the up-side, I also decided I really needed some better, flesh-coloured soft pastels and different board. So off to the art shop – hurray!

Seven Days of Portraits – Day 2

I just had to try the self portrait again, to see if I could improve. This time I took some advice and found a piece of leftover mount board to sketch on; I didn’t worry too much at the time that it was a sludgy green. That, it turned ouSelf portrait 2t, was a mistake.

Overnight I’d done some reading about portraits, mostly from Betty Edwards’ book Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain. I’d been impressed by the way she managed, in just 5 days, to get her pupils from producing childish pictures to credible self-portraits. How hard could it be?

Betty gives a lot of useful advice about proportion and relationship between one area of the head and another. I used these techniques in my next picture. They did help, but the portrait I produced looked extremely cross and still didn’t look like me. In fact my son dubbed it Shrek princess, partly due to the green background which shows through the pastels (lesson learned).

I was encouraged that at least the board was a better surface than the heavily textured paper I had previously used, but decided that next time I would choose an even smoother card. And maybe not focus quite so much on the jowls…