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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  • Wow, Jon nicely done.

  • Lovely self portrait – very well done!

  • This came out so nicely, Jon! You are really coming along on your art journey – I had a quick read down that long article, too, but I don’t have enough time to ponder on it, today! Personally I think the secret to making progress as an artist is to show up, often, and work as hard as you can, but have fun with it – diligent practice – the more you do it, the better your progress towards wherever you are going πŸ™‚ Merry Christmas to you and yours, hope you have a good one and a happy, arty, New Year! πŸ™‚

    • Hey Hilda, thank you! Actually, that’s pretty well in line with what the art critic said (in different words), to immerse yourself in art and practice practice. I think what you say is definitely true, it seems like even looking back two or three drawings, I can see how I’ve learned something or developed a bit. Small steps, but noticeable to me.

      I hope everything is going well with you! Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!

  • Well done, portraiture is hard to get so that it feels as well as looks objectively “right”. Your self-portrait looks to me to have something “right” about it. My own efforts over the years have varied a lot and this has raised interesting questions and potential lines of enquiry. It is a very worthwhile thing to do. Good effort and best wishes for Christmas and new year.

    • You are right about that, self-portraits are deceptively hard. You’d think it would be really easy to draw your own face right? I mean, you see it everyday. But it’s pretty tricky. What sort of variations have you come across when you’ve tried it? Development of different styles?

      Thanks for the comment, and Merry Christmas/Happy New Year to you!

  • Hi Jon, your self portrait is very nice. Also thanks for sharing the article with advice for artists. I ll have at look at it now. Surely, it will give me some ideas for the new year! Merry Christmas!

    • I appreciate that Iasonas! It’s definitely an interesting read, and I like that it’s sort of in a long checklist format. It actually just randomly popped up on my Google “Discover” (formerly “Google Now”) feed, I guess because I’ve been browsing similar stuff. Happy holidays to you as well, have a great start to 2019!

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