Getting the Basics: Although I created Self-portrait (pencil, 9×13) in my studio, I used an ordinary household lamp to provide strong, one-sided illumination. Then I carefully observed and drew the contours, shadowed shapes and highlights to capture the three-dimensional forms of my facial features. As with most subjects, creating a likeness is mostly a matter of breaking down the elements and defining them with the contrasts of light and dark.
You already know that the best way to improve your portrait-drawing skills is to practice. But sometimes it’s tough to find a model. So why not use your own face as your subject? Self-portraiture is an artistic tradition that dates back to the early years of the Italian Renaissance. What’s more, it can be a very rewarding experience, either as a somber journey of self-introspection or a way to poke some fun at yourself. Just follow these suggestions to get started.
Working With What You’ve Got: You don’t need a studio or a fancy lighting system to start developing your self-portraiture skills. Just place a kitchen chair or bar stool in front of your flat-hanging bathroom mirror. Then use an ordinary table lamp—minus the shade—to light your head and shoulders. Position the lamp so the bulb is at about a 45-degree angle from your head, creating distinct highlights on one side of your face and rich shadows on the other.
Gathering Your Tools
I recommend that you do a drawing first, which is much simpler and more manageable than a painting or sculpture. Choose a “soft,” blendable, erasable drawing medium, such as charcoal, Conte crayon, graphite or soft drawing pencil. (Don’t complicate things by using a colored medium, such as colored pencil or pastel, unless you’re already adept at dealing with color.) You’ll also need some type of drawing paper—white or toned—and a firm surface, such as a drawing board, to work on. Additionally, you’ll need a mirror large enough to see the reflection of your head and shoulders. It should be in a vertical, or near vertical, position. If you tilt the mirror significantly, you’ll probably distort your image. Of course, later on you may wish to experiment with distortion, but you should probably keep your first self-portrait simple. Your bathroom mirror will likely work just fine, but your bathroom lights are probably too diffuse for this purpose. To improve the lighting, I suggest finding a single, controllable source of light. If you don’t have a professional studio lamp, try using one of your household table lamps without the shade.
Making Yourself Comfortable
To pose, you should sit or stand in a comfortable position, with your head facing directly forward toward the mirror. As you become more skilled, you can try other positions, but for now, stick with a full-frontal view. Be sure you can hold this pose for a long time, as the slightest shift of your posture will throw everything off in your drawing.
Of course, no matter what pose you take, it’ll soon become uncomfortable. So when you need a little break, take it! Before you move, memorize the position you’re holding. If you’re sitting on a chair or stool, don’t move it. You may even wish to take the precaution of marking the placement of its legs on the floor with masking tape, just in case it’s moved. When you resume working, look at the part of your drawing you’ve already done, and use it as a guide to get yourself back into your original pose.
Lighting Up the Room
Next, you’ll want to position the lamp in front of you and off to one side, probably close to the wall beside the mirror. A good height for the lamp’s bulb is at about a 45-degree angle above your head, as you can see in my sketch. Your objective is to get the light to sweep down and across your face, illuminating and defining your facial features with sharp contrasts of shading, as I did in Self-portrait. You don’t want to see the lamp in the mirror, though, because its reflection may glare into your eyes and wash out those wonderful shadows.
You may find reflected light bouncing back into your face, probably from a nearby wall. Some reflected light is good for this situation because it can help define your facial features on the shadow side, but too much of it will drown out the shadows almost entirely. Keep adjusting the lamp until there’s a good balance of light and shadow on either side.
Above all, make sure the lighting is just right before you begin. Readjusting the light after you’ve been drawing for a while will yield a portrait that’s inconsistently shaded.
Getting Down to Business
Now you’re ready to begin your actual portrait. Your face is so familiar that it’s easy to take it for granted, as if you look at it without really seeing it. The key is to forget that you’re drawing your own face, and pretend you’re drawing a face you’ve never seen before.
To start, you might try making a few small marks to represent the placement of key features, for example, the top of your head, your chin, your eyes, your ears and so on. At this point, you just want to get the proportions correct. For most people, the width of one eye from corner to corner will be the same distance as the space between your eyes and the space between the outer corner of your eye and the edge of your head. (This is called the “five-eye rule.”) Also, the bottom of your earlobe will probably align somewhere between the tip of your nose and your upper lip. Careful observation of how your features line up, and the distances between them, will help you draw your face accurately.
Once you’ve got your features positioned in approximately the right places with small marks, you can start to fill in the basic values. Some areas, such as your eyes, provide helpful contour lines. But other features, such as most of your nose, are defined by the shapes of shadows, middle tones and highlights. Just work slowly, rendering your features with lines and value shapes until you’ve captured your own likeness.
Taking the Challenge
If you’re apprehensive about drawing a self-portrait, feeling that it’s too big of a challenge right now, make it easier for yourself. Focus on one part of your face, perhaps your eyes. How about just your nose or mouth? There’s no law or code of honor that requires you to draw your entire face the first time you try it. Self-portraiture, like any art, should be a rewarding experience, not a frustrating, disappointing exercise. And after you’ve learned to draw yourself from simple, live poses, you may wish to experiment with more elaborate self-portraits. You might arrange two mirrors to give yourself a profile view of your face, perhaps wearing your favorite hat. You might also use some modern technology—as I did in Man—to expand your options. Photography in particular can enable you to portray yourself in ways and situations that you can’t achieve with a mirror.
As you can see from the examples on these pages, inspirations for self-portraiture have no limit. So put on a happy face—or whatever expression you prefer—and draw, draw, draw.
Butch Krieger logged countless hours of portrait drawing during his years as a courtroom illustrator. Now he enjoys re-creating his own likeness in his Port Angeles, Washington, studio.
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