Self Portrait, Shadow and Contrast Struggles

I came across a really interesting article a few days ago called How to Be an Artist – 33 Rules to Take you from Clueless Amateur to Generational Talent (or at Least Help you Live Life a Little More Creatively). It’s a crazy long title, but basically the article has some detailed practical advice for artists from an art critic named Jerry Saltz. As I’ve written before, I’m no doubt an amateur hobbyist still trying to learn. Because of that, I may not have enough experience to relate to everything in the article. But some of the advice is seems pretty great, like his encouragement not to be embarrassed and some insightful ideas on brainstorming and idea generation. I’m really glad I found it, because even though I don’t anticipate ever becoming a pro or anything, the author shared a ton of valuable information.

Aside from being useful and interesting, the article put me in an interesting mood too.  Most of my drawings are pretty informal, and quite a few are of actors, musicians, or athletes. A sketch of Gary Oldman from the Fifth Element, for example, is basically fan art. In other words, maybe not “art” in the way a professional critic or someone who frequents galleries would consider. So I thought, what could a somewhat artistically un-creative fellow like myself do that would be more along those lines? Well, I could draw my family. Which is great and I very much enjoy…but that’s something I do pretty often. Or, how about a self portrait! I thought I could even push the envelop and try to get some more depth of shadow and contrast, which is something I struggle with.

Most artists experiment with self-portraits at some point, at least I think that’s true. Is that true? Maybe I made it up. Well, anyway I’ve actually tried a digital self-portrait and did one in pencil a decade or two ago. And naturally I’ve included myself in some family portraits, but in those I’m never the main focus. So this was sort of a new thing for me. As usual, I’ll start with the finished product, talk about the process, then share a progression .gif. Here’s the final product:

I’m actually a little surprised at how this turned out. Usually when I’m drawing myself, my wife and/or kids are also in the sketch, and I’m much more focused on making sure I do a good job on them. So, often there is some detail that I flub on myself, like a botched nose shape, weird beard, or facial shape oddities. This time though, I think I put together a relatively accurate version of myself. I captured my large beak, long face, and deep-set eyes, as well as my small mouth pretty much in the right proportions. I think I got the hair and beard color right too, which hasn’t always happened.

As I mentioned above, I also wanted to push myself a bit farther in terms of contrast and shadows. When I draw, I’m honestly a little afraid to venture out of my comfort zone. I’ve overcome a few big hurdles, like trying color and then applying color thickly. But one of those lingering hesitations is depicting deep shadows and bright light. I’m just not great at it, and I feel like it’s something I need to push forward on to become a better artist. So with this self-portrait, I really tried to make something with higher contrast. I think I did alright, but it could have been better. If this was really accurate to life, I would have had much deeper shadows on the right side of the picture (eyes, side of the nose, etc). Next time, I really need to press on some darker grays.

Another nice thing that happened here is that I don’t think I forgot anything! Sometimes, I actually forget to shade an ear, or don’t add eyelashes, or forget a number of other small details. But I don’t think I did this time (although I probably will notice something after I publish it). Here’s the progression .gif, as promised:

Amdall Self Portrait Progression

I particularly want to note the third from the last images, where I had only filled in the pupils of my eyes. My wife said that version kind of freaked her out, that I looked like an undead creature or something. I thought that was pretty funny, because it is sort of a scary image. Very frightening self-portrait!


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