Self-Portraits

By Lilly Green

“When we invite children to create self-portraits, we offer them mirrors and encourage long, sustained study of their faces from [an] unfamiliar perspective. Then we ask them to re-create themselves on paper, weaving together the image that they see in the mirror with the person they experience themselves to be. Their portraits are eloquent statements of self.” ~Ann Pelo

Artists have represented themselves through self-portraiture throughout the course of art history. If you walk into any museum today, you are likely to see a self-portrait on display in any number of techniques or styles. Self-portraits were a way for even the poorest artists to practice portraiture and develop their own techniques and skills without the need for a model. Even artists from as early as the Renaissance were known to have created self-portraits. This work, called “Portrait of a Man with Red Chalk,” is believed to be a self-portrait of Leonardo da Vinci from around 1510.

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Other artists like Rembrandt, Vincent Van Gogh, and Frida Kahlo were known for creating many self-portraits throughout their careers. Van Gogh, one of my personal favorite artists, famously painted himself throughout different stages of his career, even representing himself bandaged after mutilating his own ear. An artists’ self-portrait is often introspection and tells a story of his or her life at that particular point in time through the use of color, the style or technique, and their expression or choice of clothing. These portraits are often a blend of who an artist is from the outside mixed with how he sees himself on the inside. Van Gogh’s self-portraits show his evolving style of painting and give us a glimpse into his fascinating life and mind.

The Olive Side children were recently introduced to self-portraiture and we have simultaneously continued our study of black and white. I had children choose to draw with either white oil pastel on black paper or black oil pastel on white paper. With a mirror set up in front of them, children were then asked to study their faces. I encouraged them to notice details such as eyelashes, eyebrows, the shape of their nose, and anything else like moles or freckles that are unique to their own faces. Some children looked in the mirror with such excitement as if they had never thought to look at those details before. Once they began to draw, I occasionally reminded them to notice these details and asked if they wanted to include them in their self-portraits. Olivia excitedly said she needed to include the mole above her eyebrow and after being encouraged to look more closely at his eyes, Benton decided to draw his pupils and irises. Atlas said “my nose is big. My head is super big like this big. And my hair is long. My neck is on the bottom of my chin. I need to draw the bottom of my eyelashes.” I asked children to think about their facial expression and how they wanted to represent themselves on the paper.

Did they want a serious portrait or a smiling portrait?

Did they want to smile with their mouth closed or show their teeth?

Each child naturally seems to have their own style of drawing and made their portrait personal and unique.

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To continue our study of black and white, I had each child copy their first self-portrait onto the opposite color paper with the opposite color pastel. So, the children who chose white pastel on black paper then drew with black pastel on white paper, and vice versa. This exercise was an interesting way for the children to see the stark contrast of the black and white. Both portraits, the original and the copied version, look incredibly different when seen side to side. The contrasting lines in each seem to emit a different feeling or mood.

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I am excited to continue our journey into self-portraiture and I am especially eager to see how the children will choose to represent themselves in these self-portraits when they have further developed their fine motor skills and have been introduced to a more diverse palette of colors and the ideas of texture, light, composition, and different styles. My hope is that, like we are able to do with Van Gogh, we will be able to study these children’s self-portraits and imagine their life’s story in this moment in time.

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