Tuesday, April 9, 2013

New Self Portrait - "To Paint or to Play"

As promised, I thought I'd share some more about the process of painting what turned out to be a very challenging new self portrait.

The idea for this painting has been brewing in my head for almost a year and a half now. I've only seen a handful of artist self portraits that incorporate other figures or elements, but those are usually the most fascinating to me. The one I felt most inspired by for this project was a self portrait by Gustav Osterman, "Self Portrait with His Dog". If you take a closer look at the dog, you can just make out one crazed eye which, for me, completely makes this painting!

For my own interpretation, I wanted to depict my dog the way she is when she's impatiently waiting to go for our walk. Whether I'm at my computer or my easel, she frequently comes up to me and places her head on my lap, looking up with those sad puppy eyes. I originally considered doing something where she had her leash dangling from her collar, but when I sat down on my studio couch one day, and looked over at the full-length mirror that I had stuffed in the corner of the room, the idea for this composition occurred to me and I decided I had to give it a try.

I painted essentially what I saw in the mirror. A 28x12" canvas worked perfectly for the long, rectangular composition. I completed my head and much of the block-in during the first sitting, which took several hours (maybe... I don't really keep track of the time when I'm painting self portraits, nor do I give myself many breaks--a very bad habit).

This was day 1. Bella was finished in a matter of minutes. I posed her on my lap by placing a cracker on my leg, and awarded it to her after quickly blocking in her form. I had to finish some of the details from a photo I shot on my phone, but she did a very good job of staying put for as long as could be expected of a hyper Springer Spaniel.

The tricky part arrived when it was time to paint the hands. Since my left hand was always moving as I worked on the painting, I wasn't sure what to do with it. At first I thought it would be important to be holding a brush, so that's what I tried to do. But after hours and hours of frustrating work on it, I started to hate it and wondered if I'd made a terrible mistake. At that point, it was time to put the painting aside for a few days - completely out of sight - and give myself some time away from it. That was the best decision I made. Below is the painting with a very sad looking arm and hand...

After coming back to it two days later, I realized that as humbling as it would be, I needed to repaint the entire arm and hand. I got back into position in front of the mirror, and carefully posed my arm in a way that was simpler and also better for the composition - something that would lead the eye into the painting instead of causing a visual stopping point. I had to scrape and sand some of the paint off to smooth the surface, but after completing that, and going over the whole arm with a fresh coat of middle-value flesh tone, I was able to repaint the whole thing in a fraction of the time it took on my first attempt. I was infinitely happier with it this time around, and was so glad I had decided to risk it!

"To Paint or to Play" (finshed) - 28 x 12" - oil on linen 

I've already gotten a number of insightful interpretations of this portrait. While I can't always help what happens with my own expression (the focused look and parted lips always happen), this painting somehow ended up a little different than all of my previous self portraits. It has a feeling of openness and vulnerability that I've never shown before. Am I really that transparent? That insecure? I suppose the bare feet betray me. The dog, too, represents more than a literal image of my precious Bella. She is, in essence, everything that competes with my work, for better or for worse. She is the laundry, the grocery shopping, the phone calls, the social life. She represents the balance I must find in my life in order to make great art. One can't just work. There should be room for play. :-)


  1. Your self portraits are always so beautiful. This painting feels very intimate especially with your dog resting on your lap. I love the hand in the end because it leaves us wondering as well as your expression feels a little questioning.Love all the WIP photos!

    1. Thanks, Celia! I admire how well you've interpreted the work. It's always great to hear an objective opinion. :-)

  2. you are a solid painter...
    i would like it if you continued self portraits like Vigee Le Brun


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