Self portraits – why do artists do them?

by May 4, 2021Art Supplies

I screamed inwardly…

A question that has been on my mind for many years has been – Why do artists do self portraits?

I thought this may be an interesting subject to look at since I had to do a self portrait when I was at college studying graphic design/ illustration.

As part of our summer holiday project we had to produce a self portrait in any medium. I chose pencil as I like working in pencil. As it’s not a subject matter I relished, I screamed inwardly as this is something I was not expecting to do.

However, this is my self portrait from some years ago. It’s definitely something I do not want to do again. It felt odd looking at yourself in the mirror and trying to capture you. When I look at it now I still wonder if I can see me looking back at me!

Jane's self-portrait

So, other than ‘they are forced to’, why do artists do self-portraits?

So, to answer the question why do artists do self portraits and I took to the internet and did some research. Historically artists used self portraits as a kind of calling card, attesting to their ability to capture a likeness and giving a sense of their capabilities.

Artists’ self portraits are critical to our understanding of both portraiture and the history of art. They are the form in which many artists have come to be remembered, offering insights into their lives, surroundings, and even their state of mind.

The self portrait also allows you to see yourself as others might see you.

Inspirational portraits

Of course, there is another reason for self portraits and that is before the invention of photography, a painted, sculpted, or drawn portrait was the only way to record the appearance of someone, (or oneself). But, portraits have always been more than just a record. They have been used to show the power, importance, virtue, beauty, wealth,taste, learning or other qualities of the sitter.

I have produced drawings of people I have admired in my life and I have enjoyed working on them because I find them inspirational – I love what they do or did.

I’ve shown examples of these in the how to scale up a drawing using a grid.

Narcissism

Another question has arisen and that is, are self portraits narcissistic?

Through doing a little research I’ve found that there’s a thin line between narcissism and entertainment. Painting self portraits is definitely narcissistic, as they reflect an ‘interest in oneself and one’s physical appearance’ – which is the literal dictionary definition of narcissism. I’m not sure I believe that, if it wasn’t for the self portraits of past great artists then we would never have seen their faces through their own eyes. A snapshot in their lives from long before there were cameras to record the past.

The point is self portraits don’t have to look realistic. The style an artist chooses will alter the effect the portrait has on the viewer. Fauvist, and cubist portraits will all look very different and each will portray a different meaning.

Art history

A bit of art history for you;

Fauvism, a group of early 20th- century modern artists whose works emphasised qualities of strong colour over the representational or realistic values retained by Impressionism. The leaders of the movement were Andre Derain and Henri Matisse.

Cubism was a revolutionary new approach to representing reality invented in around 1907-08 by Pablo Picasso and George Braque. They brought different views of subjects together in the same picture (usually objects or figures) that appear fragmented and abstracted.

Jane says

“Overall I found the answer to my question and I have learnt why artists paint self portraits. It’s not what I want to ever do again but in some respects I’m glad I had a go..”

Jane is a member of the Gadsby’s team. She has a wide knowledge of the arts & crafts products and materials sold by Gadsby’s both from the perspective of an advisor in the shop and, for many of the products, from personal use too.

Please note that this is not a service that Gadsbys offer to clients – just an example of the private work done by one of the highly skilled and knowledgable Gadsby’s team shown for your interest.

 

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