I’ve never painted a self-portrait. I guess I never saw the point, really, although I know of an artist who painted a number of them because he himself was the easiest and least expensive model he could get. However, I belong to a small group of local artists and we are taking turns suggesting things for all of us to paint. The most recent challenge was to paint a self-portrait.
I knew right away that I wanted to do a pandemic self-portrait, mask and all. Because most of my face would be covered, I wanted to make my eyes as realistic as possible. And I wanted to include an exaggerated version of what I’ve been calling my “pandemic hair.” I have not had a professional haircut (or color, my color of the last several years being blue) since March of 2020. My partner cut my hair very short last May and I have not done anything about it since then. I have thick hair, and as it’s grown it seems to have acquired a life of its own, waving around my face in often ridiculous shapes. As I thought of the self-portrait, I visualized my hair waving all about, flying out away from my head.
I have found that symbolic paintings like this need a fair amount of time to develop in my imagination before I can start to paint. As time passed, I imagined leaves in my hair as well. And then I thought that I might include snowflakes, too. Finally, a few days later, I suddenly thought: and a bird! I could have a bird perched on my head! In this, I may have been inspired by a friend telling me a couple of months prior about one of her chickens flying up and landing on her head. What a story! I wish I’d had a chicken on my head! So this was my chance to have something similar. With the decision to add the bird, the painting in my imagination felt complete, so I started work.
I needed to find an image of a bird, so I looked in my bird identification book. I looked first at songbirds, searching for one that was positioned the way that I wanted. Finally, there it was, a photo of a yellow-throated vireo, a bird that was beautiful, positioned just the way I had in mind, and that even comes to Vermont.
Portraits are interesting to paint. Unless you want to forego reality (a perfectly legitimate choice), you do need to get it right. I once heard an artist define a portrait as a painting of a person in which the mouth is not quite right. So true! For this painting, I took a photo of myself wearing a mask by using a mirror. Then I printed it out, sized it, covered the back of the paper with pastel, held it up to my painting surface, and used a pencil to go over the primary lines. Voila! A faint “sketch” of my face with the proportions all correct.
Painting my eyes was not as difficult as I had imagined it might be. I think it was just one of those things that happens sometimes with painting. Occasionally I have to struggle and struggle to get what I want and occasionally it just comes. Mostly it’s somewhere in between. This one just came. I painted the rest of my face (mostly mask) and my crazy floating hair. I decided that the kinds of leaves in my hair mattered to me, and I chose oak and witch hazel, both trees important to the Celts, my ancestors. Once I had done that, I realized that adding snowflakes would detract rather than add to the image. Then I painted the bird. Then final tweaking. Here is the result. I am very happy with it indeed, because I feel that it shows something true about who I am. And that, I suppose, is the definition of a successful portrait! [“Pandemic Self-Portrait,” 10″ x 10″]