Research Point: Artists’ self-portraits


Going back a couple of year ago……..em…… ok a bit more than that, I remember the first art book that I would personally own was that of Rembrandt given to me as a school art award and I proudly to still have. The endless hours I would spend flipping through the pages looking at this mastery of painting but particularly I kept looking and comparing the etching self-portraits of his various facial expressions and the paintings depicting his aging process.



Self-portraits Rembrandt, 1630-34



Self-portraits Rembrandt, 1630-34

In this series of etching self-portraits we find Rembrandt having captured his reflection in various poses and facial expressions; emotional depiction. On once depicting that moment of surprise, of anger, a tranquil state of mind or laughing and so on.  Taking a closer look at his etching technique, it becomes apparent that there is movement in his line marking but also the use of a range of line drawing. For example he uses hatching and cross-hatching lines for the facial area keeping the highlighted areas blank white while for shading he gradually builds up darker tonal value by overlaying these lines and even though there is contrast of light and dark he still maintains his intermediate tones giving a smoother transition to tonal value. For the hair the line used changed into a different manner imitating the flow of hair; and hence texture.



Rembrandt Self Portrait as a Young Man 1628

It becomes a different visual experience looking at an image of a painting from an art book or a screen image to having the privilege see the paintings in person, right in front of you at an exhibition that had on display the comparison of Rembrandt and Caravaggio’s paintings in the Netherlands. Rembrandts self-portraits in a way captures the documentation of the aging process as each pose, and behind a facial expression Rembrandt tells a story; his moments of happiness, excitement, sadness and sorrow of the loss of his wife and son. It becomes a visual outline life journey where we see Rembrandt at a younger age in his 1628 self-portrait. Even though the sitting is staged in dramatic chiaroscuro light scene, we still are able to pick up the carefreeness of his young tender age. In this almost side profile pose most of the facial features are difficult to distinguish as they fall into the cast shadow areas.


Towards the end of his life Rembrandts self-portraits become a testimony to his mastery of painting and how life in an inevitable manner has taken a toll. Looking at the above latest paintings one is right way draw into the paintings as Rembrandt’s direct visual contact with every viewer becomes an intimate dialogue as he begins to narrate the story of his life, his achievements, hardships, aspirations and disappointments, because this is simply how life is. In most of his paintings Rembrandt uses the chiaroscuro effect to give a more dramatic effect to the concept of his painting.




Section of the fresco wall painting “The Last Judgment” St. Bartholomew displaying his flayed skin, 1535–1541,_Giudizio_Universale_31.jpg

Through artwork and comparison, the earlier fresco painting by Michelangelo to the “The Last Judgment” one gets a good sense of how an artist evolves both through painting technique and concept as this becomes the means by which is a reflection of the artist’s personality, and understanding of life. Just like Rembrandt comparing the earlier portrait facial expressions, use of color which was more carefree in a way to “The Last Judgment” we see the weight of the hardship of life taking its toll on Michelangelo. Here we see a more troubled soul sensitive to awareness of life’s journey, the end. Michelangelo did paint his self-portrait in traditional depicted paintings but a self-portrait that stood out in its uniqueness in terms of concept was how he painted his self-portrait incorporated into the composition of “The Last Judgment”, where it takes the role of St. Bartholomew flayed skin; a rather humble means of self-depiction.


Gustave Courbet



Self-portrait (The Desperate Man), c. 1843–45, Gustave Courbet

Even though this an earlier artwork of Gustave Courbet, before he developed his hyper realistic approach to painting; being a firm believer that painters should paint the world around them through a realistic means of depictions, what becomes apparent is the choice of contemporary pose where Gustave with a dramatic “desperate” self-expression, leans forward, ready to spontaneously leap out of the canvas; picture plane. The chiaroscuro sharp contrast of light and dark adding to the dramatic facial expression scene.


Van Gogh

Van Gogh is another historical painter who continuously kept painting his self-portraits a means of continuous effort to capture self-awareness. In his innovative transition of painting style from the impressionistic painting technique to a more post impressionistic expression in the brush stroke manner; style but also how the use of color as he begins to not give great emphasis to light, not holding the key role to his painting but the symbolic significance of his choice of color palette as well as composition. Van Gogh does not just paint but sketch paints building thick layers of expressive block of thick paint resembling line formation.



Vincent van Gogh – Self-Portrait 1889

In his 1889 self-portrait there is continuous balance of movement of his expressive brush strokes giving emphasis both on the self-portrait subject matter as well as the background negative space where his brushstrokes take a decorative role. In this portrait his tonal value takes a subtle presence, as there is cool tone shading but not in a dramatic sense. What appears to prevail though is a daring random dark outline giving prominent definition to the overall effect.



Vincent van Gogh, Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear, 1889,

In another 1889 self-portrait “Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear”, Van Gogh gives evidence of the aftermath, the bandaged up ear that after a dispute with considered friend Gauguin he cut off. Perhaps his frail psychological state of mind together with the now acquired impressionistic approach to painting gave way to the post impressionism. Here there is still tonal sensitivity, suggestion of shading in the three-quarter profile but in an even more subtle way. Here color starts the journey of symbolism as the white part of the eye is painted instead a green tone that is consciously balanced throughout the composition mainly on the coat garment and background. The defined black outline still is present but is selectively applied and appears as another cooler blue tone outlining the bandage wrapped around the chin area.


Frank Auerbach

selfportrai tauerbach-large


Something Primordial: Self-Portrait, 1958

The first impression one get when viewing this self-portrait of Frank Auerbach is a contemporary approach to depicting portraiture as a result of pure expressionism; repeated expressionistic intense charcoal line markings, smudging applied on a rough patched up drawing surface. Both darker and highlight tones rebelliously escape the perimeter of location creating a chaotic interplay between the extreme dark and light tones. As this happens the intermediate tones balance themselves throughout the composition both onto the subject and the background. The truth is that Auerbach does not consider himself and expressionist painter as he is not concerned with the emotional and spiritual aspect involved in the expressionistic movement but rather in this chaotic attempt to resolve the experience of being in the world of paint; it is in the presence of this chaotic world that the artist tries to impose some kind of order and record it through painting.


Marlene Dumas



The artist’s self-portrait Het Kwaad is Banaal (Evil is Banal), 1984

I consider Marlene Dumas one of the most daring contemporary artists of the 21st century. As an artist who has not hesitated to break and challenge every theoretical, aesthetical and technical foundation of academic knowledge. Looking at her 1984 self-portrait it is obvious that she holds the key to great knowledge but then move on to break each and every one, redefining the concept of painting, use of color and acknowledgement of light and shading. The “deathly” cool black gray tones tone used for shading as a sharp contrast to the flesh highlight tones, the roughness of the orange color tones applied to represent the hair. And this whole visual experience of viewing her work becomes an extreme, confronting, uncomfortable truth of the vulnerability involved. In a way this genius self-portraiture provokes, disturbs and comes across as a nonconformist reaction but at the same time deeply moves you.

Alexandre and John Gailla



Self-portraits by Swiss artists Alexandre and John Gailla

And who says that portraiture should only appear in the form of a painting? Here the line takes a 3D form; a sculpture of a mesh of closely packed red fibers that have taken the shape and form of human upper torso, head, giving the impression of fine network of nerves, arteries and veins. Having research into their work the red sculptures tell a story of a line that went for a walk. These sculptures are 3D sketches made out of wire and nylon threads taking different expressions taking the role of the memory of every surface and fold appealing to the psyche rather than the intellectual reflection.


Gareth Bate



Plastic Paintings: Self-Portraits Installation at 401 Richmond St. W., Toronto, acrylic & ink on plastic tarp, Oct. 07 – Feb 08.

I think that I always have this tendency to look for that something new and intriguing in any kind of art form. This could be the use of a nonconventional media such as the in contemporary artist Gareth Bate’s series of self-portraits who paints a series of portraits on plastic surfaces. As he collectively displays this body of work it becomes and art installation of self-portraits. Irrespective to the rule that liquid media will tend not to stabilize onto a plastic smooth surface the artist consciously chooses to ignore this and proceeds to attempt to create tone, shading and high lighting through bold paint brush strokes of monochromatic color tones. The accidental, repelled liquid as it gathers in droplets throughout the painted plastic surface and dries it gives another dimension to tonal visibility. Then there is also evidence that he comes back and superimposes more liquid media onto which this time the altered repelling surface starts to become a bit more accepting. This leads to the buildup of tone and texture.

 Mary Ellen Croteau



“CLOSE”, Self-portrait made out of plastic bottle caps

Again, here is another contemporary artist whose media plays the vital role in the depiction of a nonconventional use of media. The media used here are thousands collected plastic bottle caps of various cool and warm color tones. And I am wondering how long did it actually take her to collect this unique profound new considered media taking into consideration where to find the all these bottle caps of a wide range of color tints. As she stack different colored caps together she creates further and smoother tonal transition. Her innovative use of this plastic art media had given shape and form to her 8 feet by 7 feet self-portrait titled “Close”, a political and radical statement against the accumulation of waste, an environmental concern. From near one sees only the combination and stacking of various colored plastic bottles but stepping back the self-portrait photo-realistic image begins to appear. This was inspired by Chuck Close’s pixelated large scale portrait.




Chuck Close pixelated self -portrait, 2012

Angela Palmer



Layered MRI Self-Portraits Engraved in Glass Sheets by Angela Palmer

Angela Palmer’s self-portrait of layers of glass engraved sheets that remind the viewer of “organic, anatomical” maps and visual topographies. The composed layers of glass onto which she draws though engraving starts to form a three dimensional internal architecture, a sketched x-ray of the internal side profile of her head; the repeated line marking of sketching until the self-portrait begins to take shape and form.


Sean Cheetham




The unique aspect of Sean Cheetman’s self-portrait is his contemporary approach to self-depiction that draws the viewer to observe a suggested story behind the hyper-realistic mask of portraiture. Here the hooded man with the black eye and scar cut below his bruised eye captures a dramatic story. His direct gaze almost implies and in a way attempts to communicate the need to reveal a certain vulnerability in the form of hyper-realism that as the painting technique begins to move away from the face it starts to lose realistic depiction and gets lost into an oblivion of flat and at the same time expressive painted surfaces of dark color tones.

















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