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Some artists’ faces are just as recognizable as their artwork. Take Vincent Van Gogh, for example. Almost anyone would recognize his Starry Night—but you’d probably also recognize his self portrait that features his solemn gaze and flame red facial hair. And Frida Kahlo’s floral crowns and unmistakable eyebrows make her instantly recognizable in her many self portraits.
Since the 15th century, artists have commonly used self portraits as a form of self expression. But exactly what is a self portrait? Below, we’ll explore a self portrait definition, as well as famous examples of self portraits.
The simple self portrait definition is a portrait of an artist created by that artist him- or herself. (And if you’re wondering, “portrait” definition in art is a painting, drawing, photograph, or engraving of a person.)
But if you ask an artist, “What is a self-portrait?” you’ll likely get a more complex answer. For artists, self portrait artwork represents the whole artist—in other words, how he sees himself, what he’s feeling, and how he wants to be seen by others. It’s not necessarily about creating a realistic image of yourself; instead, it’s often an exercise in self-exploration.
The History of Self Portrait Art
Before the 15th century, self-portraiture was found here and there, but it didn’t become an established genre until the Early Renaissance, when cheap, good mirrors became more widely available.
Artists have experimented with painting themselves ever since that first surge in self-portraiture, turning from paint to cameras, and later, other technologies as they sought to create new and more innovative representations of themselves.
The Difference Between a Selfie and a Self Portrait
More than 93 million selfies are taken every day, but are selfies the same as self portraits? Most artists would say there’s a difference between the two—although they can overlap.
Traditionally taken at arm’s length or in a mirror, selfies are inherently replaceable. If you don’t like the image you capture, you can immediately take another. For many artists, true self portraits are more deliberate and introspective, and they generally take more time and effort to create.
However, that’s not to say that artists can’t use selfies as a self portrait. An artist can certainly choose to represent him- or herself through selfies—but generally, they are considered two different types of art.
The purpose of a self portrait largely depends on the artist. For some, it’s about accessibility. When asked why she photographed herself, the late Francesca Woodman famously said, “It’s a matter of convenience. I am always available.” Other famous self portrait artists got started, at least in part, for similar reasons.
“I was the easiest and cheapest model to deal with—first by looking at my reflection in the mirror and later by taking photos of myself,” Athens-based painter Nikos Gyftakis explains.
For other artists, it may be more about the opportunity to play and experiment with new techniques. When you’re alone, you have all the time in the world and can work without deadlines. Still others use self portrait art to re-shape their sense of self or foster self-acceptance. They want to push themselves emotionally to see themselves in a new light.
Self portraits can take many forms, from a traditional photograph to abstract art. Below, we explore examples of self portrait photography and self portrait art from four famous self portrait artists who specialize in the genre: painter Nikos Gyftakis and photographers Mariell Amélie, Patricia Lay-Dorsey, and Jocelyn Allen.
Self Portrait Photography
Born and raised on the small Norwegian island of Andøya, Mariell Amélie first started taking self-portraits at the age of fourteen, on a “very pixelated webcam” on her father’s self-built computer. As she grew, she moved into the natural landscapes that surrounded her home, often accompanied by her father, who acted as an assistant.
At the time, her self-portraits offered her the chance to inhabit an imaginary landscape—one where anything was possible. “I wanted to create a world I didn’t live in but that I would fantasize about,” she says. “I was building a world where I could be exactly who I wanted to be. I would forget about the time and place for seven hours and not even notice the world go by as I was photographing.”
These days, Mariell Amélie works across all genres, ranging from landscapes to fashion to interiors. But self-portraits will always have a place in her heart, especially now that she’s moved from Andøya to London. “Whenever I am home, I will dive straight back into self-portrait mode; I spend days playing around with ideas,” she says.
“My self-portraits have definitely been my subconscious mind telling me that I am deeply attached to Andøya, as all my shots are created in the landscapes and the empty houses you can find up there. In a way, maybe that’s what has kept me grounded in the ten years I have spent in London.”
Patricia Lay-Dorsey was diagnosed with chronic progressive multiple sclerosis in 1988. Twenty years later, she began taking self portraits, a practice she continues today. “The physical act of taking a photograph is the easiest part of taking self portraits,” she tells us. “What can be hardest of all is looking at the photos on your computer after you have downloaded them. What you see there is what other people see, and we don’t usually recognize that.
“When I was taking the self-portraits for my book Falling Into Place, seeing my body and the assistive devices I need to use was the most challenging part of the process. I soon realized that I had been living in denial since receiving the diagnosis, because now I had to go face-to-face with how I looked to others. That meant claiming my identity as a disabled person. Hard as it was, it was transformative. I would not be who I am today had I not undertaken that project.”
“While working on my Falling Into Place book project, the conscious act of seeing each moment of my life as worthy of note made me wake every morning with an air of excitement and the question on my mind, ‘What should I photograph today?’” Lay-Dorsey says. “Instead of seeing the symptoms of the chronic progressive MS with which I lived as a negative, they became a positive because they could give me unique subjects to capture with my camera. Seeing my life as art not only changed my point of view as an artist, but my attitude toward my life.”
Self-portraiture can be frightening, but it can also be exhilarating. When photographer Jocelyn Allen first started taking pictures of herself, she thought it was a short-term project, but she learned that the more she did it, the further she pushed herself creatively—and emotionally.
“The first time I had nude pictures/pictures of me in my underwear in a project, I felt so awkward about putting the project out there—particularly posting it on my Facebook, as I knew people from my teenage years would see it,” she remembers.
“I then made a subsequent series in which I included diary entries from 10 years previously, and I felt even more awkward about people seeing them than the nude pictures. But as these projects were about learning to love myself and my body, they felt like steps I had to take.”
Allen’s work deals with anxiety as a core concept, and she says the process has been therapeutic. By diving headfirst into her fears, she’s learned that she has the strength to overcome them. “My self-portraits have helped me accept myself and my body more, though I think it will forever be a work in progress to feel completely at peace with myself,” she tells us.
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Self Portrait Art
Self-portraits are rarely stagnant—they change and evolve as an artist transitions from one stage to the next. “I have come to the conclusion that the self-portrait is an inexhaustible subject,” Gyftakis tells us. “The more I analyse the forms, the colors, and the lines of my face, the easier it is to generate new aesthetic solutions. And as I dig in further, new questions arise.
“My self-portraits were my first successful attempt to communicate my philosophy and to understand the way I see the world as an artist. They’ve also helped me play with the element of time.
“On the one hand, I have created so many self-portraits at different times and ages in my life that I’ve cataloged the march of time and maturity of my painting skills. On the other hand, I form my self portraits in such a way that my experience—my past, present, and future—all blend together. This constant flow of colors and energy represents my psyche’s landscape.”
He tells us, “The most difficult part of creating a self-portrait is to be objective and reveal sides of yourself that may be well-hidden. The most rewarding part is to succeed in doing it.”
With all this inspiration, you might be wondering how to draw a self portrait of yourself. Truly, there are no rules—but if you need some guidance, make sure to check out Skillshare’s many classes on the art of self portraiture.
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