3.2.1 self portrait

This is the completed painting, made in acrylic paint and acrylic inc on a 50×70 canvas, pre-washed in yellow ochre (after tutor feedback I modified it to soften that sharp line on the neck)


I tried to assimilate what I’d discovered from looking at the Matisse and Derain portraits I chose for my research article on self portraits, here.   They achieved the sense of a real head and shoulders located in space, by using colour tonally, with no concern for matching actual flesh tints; and by offsetting warm and cool colours to strengthen the sense of depth.  Even though they used broad brush strokes they managed to describe character and expression.

I wanted the painting process itself to be relaxed, free and open, so before starting on my painting I spent some time studying the structure and planes of the head and face, and practised drawing them from many angles.

It’s an action painting – of myself in the act of painting, head eyes twisted to look at myself in the mirror, arm raised to the canvas, a look of concentration.  The sense of movement is increased by my pose, the treatment of the background and of my hair.

I’m pleased with the outcome as a painting.  I like the drawing, and the movement; the freedom of expression in the use of the brush.  I like the colour harmony; the ochre background repeated in the forehead and hair; the green and red complementaries in the scarf, and the red repeated in the flesh tints; the blue and turquoise repeated in the shaded sure of face and neck, and complementing the orange and ochres.

I’m not so sure about the contrasts between light and dark in face and neck – perhaps they are a bit too extreme and therefore harsh – maybe this is what makes my charcoal drawing below a bit more like me – softer.

As a likeness I’ll give it half marks!  A friend said it looks like me, but also she could recognise my sister in it.  My husband was positive about the painting and can recognise me, but didn’t want me so serious and stern-looking.  


Here’s my process :  first the head sketches, to learn and understand how the head is structured, and how it looks from various angles.


When I’d had enough of poring over these head sketches, and felt I’d improved my understanding and skill a bit, I drew my own head and shoulders on the canvas in charcoal.  I chose a pose with my head tilted up, tilted to my left, and turned to my left, all at the same time! My practise had given me the confidence to be ambitious, rather than choose a simple front-on view, and I managed to get the features lined up reasonably well.  I wore a scarf to pull my hair tight so I could see the structure of my head better.  This drawing resembles me more than the finished painting.

I brushed the surplus charcoal off, and painted the main lines in burnt umber; I’d seen traces of these lines in the Derain portrait of Matisse, and knew they’d disappear in the final painting.


With a large brush painted I painted the background using indigo, sap green, turquoise, cobalt, white.  It loosely represented the backdrop I could see in my mirror, and I was careful to make the side of my front shoulder, which was nearest my source of light (a sunny window) darker than the other side.  I’d seen how Matisse popped his front shoulder forward in the picture plane by creating maximum tonal contrast between shoulder and background there  


 In the painting at the halfway stage I looked rather odd.

Looking again at the Matisse and Derain portraits, I noticed they’d both used warm colours for the face on the side nearest the light.  I felt my green wasn’t helping me achieve the sense of form I needed.  I warned it up with pink tints similar to those on the neck, and this did the trick of bringing the left side of the face forward.

For the lower half I dribbled acrylic inks onto the damp canvas, spraying more water on and tipping it all ways.  I used a rag to model the creases in the sleeves.  By now the light wasn’t helping, so I stopped here for the day.  Notes for next session – check the hairline, check values of the right eye, soften the planes of the nose, cheekbones, shadow under lips extend down and graduate.



2 thoughts on “3.2.1 self portrait

  1. janecrathern Post author

    Thanks Gina. I think without the head studies I’d have been hopeless at getting the features lined up. Meant I could relax a bit when it came to starting on the canvas



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