When was the last time that you painted or drew a self portrait? If the answer is anything other than 'last week', I hope this post serves as a motivation to do so. Full disclosure: I haven't made one for a long time, though made many during art school. When they were routine, however, I improved quickly with my facial anatomy. As artist it's easy to avoid self portraits: maybe you're not into drawing people, faces are hard to paint, you don't have a mirror handy... the list goes on and on. From my experience, though, painting self portraits is beneficial enough to overrule these obstacles - and I'll outline some of the reasons in this blog post.
1) People, Especially Faces, Are Challenging
If for no other reason, people are hard to paint because we're so familiar with the way people are supposed to look. This is both a blessing and a curse. If you do a self portrait, you'll be extremely familiar with the way you look - leading to a very challenging subject. Is that the exact reason you're avoiding it? Give it a chance. It's these challenging subjects that we need to aggressively practice, otherwise we'll never improve.
2) You Are Very Convenient Reference Material
As long as you have a mirror or camera, your face is a very convenient subject. It's often challenging to find a piece of reference material on the internet that's just right - but you have complete control of your own body. Maybe you're looking for a specific angle, or a certain type of lighting. It's even possible to use your own face as reference for non-human characters, or characters of the opposite gender. After all, reference is almost always more effective if you're not copying directly. To give your Orc a certain type of smirk or to envision a Troll's head from a particular camera angle your face is a surprisingly effective piece of reference. So whether you're making a self portrait, or just need some specific reference, your face is hard to beat.
3) Painting From Observation is Valuable
Photo reference is great, but learning to paint what you see is even better. Landscapes lose large amounts of information when captured with a camera lens, but a Plein Air painter knows that colors and atmosphere are best observed in person. The same is true when you're looking at a face: colors and details are much more vivid when painted from direct observation. With this in mind, using a mirror on your computer desk to paint your own face is a worthwhile challenge. If you've never done this, get ready for the frustration of drawing moving subjectmatter. Unless you've got perfect body control, you'll slowly change your pose throughout the exercise. This is one of the challenges of painting from life! though it is frustrating, it will help train you to freeze the image in your mind's eye and paint with a combination of memory and direct observation. This is a skill that transfers very well to other observational drawing like gesture sketching at the park or drawing portraits on the subway.
4) It's Easy to Measure Your Improvement
Painting technique does not improve overnight. As a result, one of the mental challenges with art is to carry on even when you are seemingly treading water. If you make a habit of painting self portraits, you will be able to compare them to one another directly. Unlike other subjectmatter which is less directly comparable, your face only looks one way - so a year of self portraits will make your progress obvious. Of course you shouldn't only paint self portraits -- just throw them into the mix now and again to serve as milestones.
What Are You Waiting For?
Get out there and paint a self portrait! Whether it's from direct observation (a mirror) or a photo, you'll learn a lot in the process. Also, feel free to practice styles other than strict realism -- this is a fun way to experiment and push your boundaries. Also, if you know of any good examples of contemporary or classic self portraits, let's hear about them in the comments!