Spotlight on Self-portraits

There’s no handier or more affordable model than yourself when it comes to portrait painting. Because of this, we can learn from a huge legacy of marvelous self-portraits by artistic greats including van Gogh and Picasso. In fact, Rembrandt’s myriad images of himself chronicling both his affluence and poverty were Jim Thacker’s inspiration for his own striking Self-portrait.

In choosing a frontal, three-quarter view of his figure, minimizing the background and using shallow space, Thacker confronts us head-on in his skillfully rendered depiction of himself in his studio. The lighting from presumably a north window is soft and is often the most effective way to define form. Thacker’s choice in using a mirror for reference instead of relying on a photo is greatly to his credit, and will benefit him enormously as he further develops his portrait skills.

Areas to Work On
The success of this self-portrait is in Thacker’s accomplished technique and his simplification of his subject. His casual pose with his brushes and one arm resting on a chair is well-composed. The minimal props he included reinforce his message: This is a serious artist who gains satisfaction from his work and isn’t afraid to continually challenge himself. Still, there are ways Thacker could strengthen his work. The composition could have been further enhanced with different lighting. In addition, he could have concentrated more on edges and been less literal in his rendering. Both the side lighting and scrupulously rendered, hard-edged effects detract somewhat from the main focus of the painting.

Art Principles At Work
Establishing a dramatic light source. Lighting plays a key role in creating a dynamic composition. Therefore, it helps to experiment with the angles of your light. Artists working in the traditional method typically use a single source of north light—which comes from either a window or skylight—to illuminate their subject. Ideally the light source from a window should be at or above eye level to create that diagonal stream.

The light source in Thacker’s painting would be more effective in defining the figure if it came from a slightly higher source, as demonstrated in the sketch on the next page. To achieve this higher angle, the lower windowpanes could be blocked off up to eye level. This would create the dual effect of a stronger light on Thacker’s head and diminished diagonal light across his figure, in addition to throwing the lower portion of his figure into shadow. This angle of light would also minimize the repetitive verticals at the bottom of the painting created by the chair, and the light and shadow on his smock.

Working with edges. Sharp edges and strong contrasts invite attention; conversely, soft edges and less contrast allow those areas to recede. Used appropriately, you can bring greater focus to your center of attention with edges. In Self-portrait, naturally, the viewer’s eye should go to the face. But the collars on Thacker’s shirt and smock are very crisp and bring too much attention to this area. Likewise, the shoulder on the right could be softened and the hairline blended in some areas so it merges more naturally with his complexion. The smock has been rendered carefully and literally, but it would also look better if Thacker were to lose a few of the wrinkles and soften some edges instead of minutely representing every fold.

Even in the area of his face—and not for reasons of vanity or flattery—he could soften some areas and make some of the darks less pronounced. If Thacker were working from photographs, it would have been even more important for him to address edges, since photographs tend to create more contrast.

Lessons Learned
When painting or drawing a self-portrait or other figurative work, don’t overlook the opportunity to experiment with the lighting. Try using natural as well as artificial light, and angling your subject in a variety of ways to see how the light models the figure. Beautiful effects can be created by allowing the light to rake across the form to create long shadows. And, shadows give you the opportunity to create abstract shapes that add great interest to a composition.

Also, make an effort to keep your compositions simple. Ask yourself what you’re trying to bring out about the subject and where you want your focus. Extraneous items will only detract from the center of attention if you bring in too much detail. I don’t mean that you shouldn’t include detail at all, but instead use it selectively to enhance your image. Attempt to vary the edges within your painting so you have a combination of both crisp and soft edges to move the eye within your painting. Try to avoid being too literal or contrived in your interpretation of your subject.

Most important, paint from life at every opportunity. Photos provide artistic possibilities that shouldn’t be overlooked and can be an invaluable reference; however, the ability to paint from life and solve the myriad of problems that occur when doing so will equip you with countless experiences you can use when you need to paint from photos. There are many more subtle compositional decisions to be made when painting from life—for example, how your model’s clothing or hair may fall from one sitting to the next. Making these decisions and many others will help you develop your skills as an artist, whether you paint yourself or others.

About the Artist
Birmingham, Alabama-based Jim Thacker has been drawing and painting for “as long as I can remember.” He has primarily painted landscapes and seascapes, but upon retiring has focused on portraits. During a portrait workshop with Daniel Greene, Thacker asked for advice on what to do when you don’t have a live model to work from. Greene’s reply: “Do what Rembrandt did—paint yourself.” Thacker has thus far enjoyed the experience.

Dean Mitchell received his formal art training at the Columbus College of Art and Design in Columbus, Ohio. His work, which deals with the universal themes of life, death, family and psychological and spiritual revelations has appeared in numerous publications and can be found in private, corporate and museum collections across the United States. Mitchell works in oil, watercolor, egg tempera and pastel, and his paintings have garnered a number of regional and national awards, including the top prize in the 1999 Arts for the Parks competition. Mitchell lives in Overland Park, Kansas.

You may also like these articles: