One Month of Oil Painting – A Self Portrait

Perhaps this post will trigger a bit of deja vu, as it’s a topic that I’ve already covered somewhat recently. This is all about self portraits, but with the added twist of a medium that is still quite new to me. As you can tell from the barrage of recent posts, I am all about oil painting these days. I started in this new direction back at the end of September, and in that time I’ve really been going wild. As I’m writing this, I think I’ve done almost 20 paintings, with this self portrait being number 10. Obviously I’m pretty far backlogged in terms of blog posts, but hopefully I’ll catch up if I actually slow down on the painting itself.

Every once in a while, I find it’s nice to attempt a self-portrait. After all, what face are you more familiar with than your own? My kids and wife are surely very close, as I’ve drawn them all many times. But trying to depict my own face is kind of a nice pulse check, even when it comes to crossing over into different mediums. Aside from pencils, I’ve also made a couple of brief (and not exactly great) forays into digital self-portraits. My last couple of pencil self portraits were actually pretty good in my opinion, and probably showcased my progress in that moment in time effectively.

As I discussed in my last post, although the improvement isn’t completely steady when it comes to painting, I do think it’s safe to say I’m learning more with every attempt. I’m certainly getting more comfortable with how to expect paint will behave on paper, and how I can achieve certain looks. There is still so very much to learn and so many ways to grow, which is exciting. But at the 10th painting, this felt like a good time to deploy the trusty old self portrait. Again, this can serve as an effective pulse check, which seemed appropriate at this point.

A timeline of my first paintings. All oil paint on paper, finished in October 2022.

It’s interesting to me to consider the timeline of improvement when it comes to anything related to art. Comparing self-portraits is one thing I’ve discussed. But in the more immediate sense, it’s also fascinating to me to see how my painting has changed even over the course of a month. On the surface level, there have been some ups and downs in terms of quality in my opinion. But looking more closely, I see the unique lessons learned from each painting. How I learned about solvents/thinning mediums, paint blending, and how specific colors move and blend together. There’s still so much to learn, but I’m so excited to see how wide open this all is in terms of what is still out there for me to explore.

I got back into the art hobby in summer of 2017 starting with graphite pencil, eventually progressing into colored pencil in 2018. Over the course of those five years, my drawing technique and style improved quite a bit. Because I hadn’t done any sketching in over a decade, I had a lot of basics to learn. When I finally got brave enough to make this leap to painting, fortunately all those lessons learned from pencils didn’t just vanish. I was (somewhat to my surprise) able to lean on those years of experience to help me put something to paper that was familiar. However, just to put in perspective, according to stats on this site I’ve done 141 colored pencil drawings and 23 graphite drawings…so there is quite a lot ahead of me I hope.

Anyhow, getting back to the discussion of self-portraits. In a way, the potential exists for self-portraits to become somewhat of a boring exercise. Especially if you do them too often. Yes, it is a good way to test your skills on something that should be relatively comfortable. But drawing that same face that you are already familiar with could threaten to become tedious. Fortunately, the fact that this is oil paint instead of pencil certainly eliminates that possibility this time. Here’s the painting:

Another self portrait. Oil paint on paper.

First and foremost, let’s look at my primary test: Does it look like the subject? Yes, I do think this looks like me. But I don’t think I’d say it’s a perfect likeness. I struggled a bit on the mouth, particularly where my mustache covers part of my upper lip. I think the previous two colored pencil portraits were almost perfect likenesses from an accuracy standpoint. Another interesting aspect is the fact that, despite starting this with a graphite pencil outline, I somehow got outside of that guidance as the painting progresses. I think that’s actually been a real challenge on many paintings, as it can still become easy to lose your place as you move forward. In particular, although I do have a pretty large nose, this depiction is a bit exaggerated.

To help mitigate these issues straying from my sketch boundaries, I’ve started trying to move away from pencil outlines completely and instead do an underpainting. I’ll talk a lot more about that in the near future, but for now I’ll link a video that shows what I mean. This painting of Melina from Elden Ring will get its own blog post in a couple of weeks, but I’ve been using a proportional divider and a very thin, mauve-brown paint to create a more loose outline. Then, I’m trying to follow more of a “shape/mold the paint” approach as I’ve seen from artists like Chris Fornataro.

Okay, back to this one though. The color is pretty solid overall; I got some good mixes and contrast here. But I really want to expand my color selection to incorporate more different cool and warm variations. Alpay Efe does this to great effect, leaning on a wide variety of tones. At first, I was surprised how he was able to get so many blues, yellows, and even greens into his blends. But the more I’ve seen it in action, the more natural and logical it seems. I am definitely leaning heavily on Alpay Efe’s color use/visual aesthetics and Chris Fornataro’s underpainting and shaping/molding techniques as I learn. If you’re also learning to paint as I am, I highly recommend both of their YouTube channels; they’ve really helped me a lot.

Speaking of YouTube, I did actually record a real time video for this one. I actually found a potentially great solution for camera placement, so I might be able to show some improvement on these. I think someday I need to just invest in a real camera rather than smartphone. But in the meantime, at least I might be able to record these without having my head in the way too much. This specific video isn’t perfect in terms of placement, but the two most recent I’ve shared to YouTube are much improved in my opinion!

If I continue sharing these paintings chronologically, I’ve got an interesting one on tap. I was asked by someone if I could do some portraits of Holocaust survivors for a cultural day event. I ended up doing four portraits (more than what I intended) and the event was a really good experience. There’s still an aspect I’m waiting to hear more about, but that might end up as a separate post if needed. And then the next step, I’m going to start sharing some paintings that involve my exploration of these underpaintings.

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