Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Our Portraits Our Selves…the Classic Self-Portrait

The first in a series exploring the female self-portrait in contemporary realism.

You’re so much prettier in real life!

You’re such a narcissist, always painting yourself!


These are among the top comments women artists get when we show paintings of ourselves. 

In trying to be complimentary, edgy or friendly, the art viewing public betrays that they don’t really know what to make of this thing called a “self-portrait”. They’re also grasping at whatever straws they can to try to start the discussion.

And, if you don’t start doing some ’splaining, you know what’s coming next; the viewer will confess they can’t even draw a stick figure (not true; they can and they have) and then ask how long it took you to do that… (in art years? a lifetime) After that you might as well talk about the weather and the home team because all hope for a meaningful discussion has left on the high school bus headed to the division championships down-state.

In polling artists whose faces and bodies have been the subject of their self-portraits, a distinction quickly becomes apparent and must be made clear. As an artist, the reasons you might want to depict yourself in art, fall into two loose categories; the classic self-portrait and the use of self as model and muse. And of course there are many variations in between. 

The first of a blog series about self-portraits, we’ll examine what I shall call the classic self-portrait.

Designed by the artist to say something true and meaningful about herself,  classic self-portraits are honest expressions with humble and sincere titles like “Self Portrait with Gray Hair,” like Stanka Kordic’s drawing below.

Stanka Kordic, Self-Portrait with Gray Hair
Sophie Ploeg, Self-Portrait with Lace Collar

Of her classic self-portrait, Sophie Ploeg says,  “I have let go of the notion that painting a ‘self-portrait’ must, somehow, show the real, true, deep inside me. That is just impossible so I paint what I like. I paint what is interesting. A mood, a texture, a colour combination, anything. Whether my nose is too big or not—I am too old to care.”

Much of Sophie’s work explores antique lace, in intimate and intricate detail. Her Self Portrait with Lace Collar was exhibited in the 2013 BP Portrait Award Show at the National Gallery in London. The following year she exhibited again at the National Gallery, this time it was seven new works created because of her BP Travel Award. Her proposed mission was to travel the great museums of Europe seeking out antique lace in art and life and use it to inspire more amazing art.

Terry Strickland, The Stake-Out
Terry Strickland painted herself as her alter ego or secret self, to kick off her epic Incognito Project where she asked her friends to dress up like their alter egos. Even with the staging involved, Terry’s painting is a classic self-portrait because it really is about Terry.

“This was the first piece from my Incognito Project. I thought if I was going to ask people to reveal their alter egos I should be willing to reveal mine. I see myself as a voyeur, an observer of humans. I was playing off film noir, but saw myself in the role of the [traditional 1940s] detective rather than the femme fatale, but it seemed wrong for me to dress like [a male detective]. I am a very feminine person so I dressed as the femme fatale in the role of detective. I've never smoked but for some reason I always envisioned this painting of me smoking. Everyone seems to like this painting and the only unusual comment I got was from a woman who told me that she used to smoke and I was definitely holding the cigarette like a man, I took that to mean like a person with authority. So I like that—I think a feminine/sexy person can also have power.”

And many classic self-portraits show the artist in the act of painting.
Sadie Valerie, Self-Portrait at 41
Sadie Valerie discusses her self-portrait and says…
“Any sort of self-expression is narcissistic. It's weird we hear it more as applied to self-portraiture. I wonder if women hear the accusation more than men? There’s that tough line for women [to toe]. We are supposed to look “good” within a very narrow range of acceptability, but we are also not supposed to look like we try hard at conforming to the ideal, much less think too much about it.

As for my own 3/4 length self-portrait, I was pretty intentional about draping myself in black from the apron-bib down, just to side-step the issue for now. To be mired in the “do I look acceptable” train of thought AND the “planning a painting” train of thought at the same time causes a sort of circuit-overload. Usually those two trains of thought are better left separated.”


Alexandra Tyng, Canvas’ Eye View

Alexandra Tyng responded, “Too intense for what?” when she was told by several people that she looked “too intense” in her self-portrait. Alex also says, “Because, to be honest, I am an intense person.”

Alex’s answer to the common question “Why don’t you paint yourself smiling?” is very logical. “Because I don’t smile when I’m painting,” she says.

Alex explains, “Now I worry so much less about how I portray myself, and I’m happier with the results. Maybe I’m past the age when I’m supposed to look sexy or maybe I’m supposed to look like a character, but what can I do about it except be honest? If I made myself look younger and more glamorous, it would be pathetic. I want to celebrate life, not bemoan the aging process.”

Though, ten years ago she was told by a friend that a self-portrait she painted made her look “too severe, not as attractive as she really was.” “I immediately put it in the closet. Today I took it out of the closet and decided he was right. In my desire to be honest, I had veered too far in a negative direction.

Linda Tracey Brandon, Self-Portrait with a Palette

Linda Tracey Brandon says that her portrait, with its red background makes her husband uncomfortable. “My husband won’t let it into the house because he thinks it looks like I’ve painted myself in Hell or something. Which, incidentally, gave me an idea for another painting, which I’m starting to work on. ”
Nancy Bea Miller, Painting Girl
Nancy Bea Miller’s self-portrait shows her in the act of painting while wearing a Muslim Hijab. She notes that people often mistake this head covering for a Christian nun’s veil, but that this ambiguity makes for a more interesting painting.

“I am engaged on a series of artwork (and research) on head covering, its history, significance, politics and aesthetics. This is just one of several head-covering pieces I have made to date using different coverings from different cultures and religions. I have discovered that when you actually don another culture's garments you get a different perspective on that culture, and it is far more intimate than just looking at someone wearing the garment. I’ve always found different culture’s head-coverings, to be very beautiful and visually arresting. I am intrigued by what head covering signifies as well as its aesthetic.  I buy and am sometimes given all kinds of head coverings...this one was billed as an “all-purpose hijab, useful for emergency situations.” It’s plain white nylon and you can roll it up and stuff it in your purse easily, then whip it out and put it on when you need to.” Nancy says, “I think it is fascinating to look at the similarities in design and intention between very different cultures.”

A timeless form of figurative art, the classic self-portrait has been created by just about everyone who calls themselves an artist. Often they are the most coveted, rare, debated and personal works left to us by artists from history. And in the days before photography, the Self-Portrait was often the only record of what a painter actually looked like.

Elisa Counis, Self-Portrait.
Women in the Act of Painting talks about what little we know of this
exquisitely talented painter from the early 1800s.
The self-portraits left to us by women artists in history are an especially important record; they verify that a particular female artist actually EXISTED, and there is a body of work out there for which she should be given credit.

Nancy Bea Miller has for years now, written a blog that deals with just this issue, “Women in the Act of Painting.” Many of the works she features are self-portraits that poignantly illustrate just how few of these incredibly talented female artists we’ve actually heard of.

Stay tuned to this blog for further installments on the theme of the female self-portrait in contemporary realism! We have just scratched the surface on this fascinating subject!

by Judy Takács
Cecilia Beaux Forum

Chair New Media Relations
Portrait Society of America



  1. Thank you, artists, for your articulate expressions, both written and painted.

  2. Very interesting. So glad to see these paintings and thoughts.

  3. Such a wonderful post, thank you again for including me. Really interesting to see everyone’s thoughts on self portraits.

  4. Love the introduction, perfectly true ! Looking forward to the next instalments!