I’m going to start this blogging project with an old painting. This self-portrait is about 4 years old.
Artists get a lot of criticism from non-artists for painting an abundance of self-portraits. It seems very conceited to always draw your own face. However, there are a lot of reasons for them:
1. Models are expensive. Most artists can’t afford to drop the hundreds of dollars it can cost to get a model to sit for a few hours. When we are looking for a figure to practice or experiment with it makes sense to use our own faces. There is no reason to spend time and money finding a subject for something you aren’t sure about, and if you destroy your own image there is no one to be upset about it.
2. To identify oneself. When an artist is processing information, they do it through their work. Everyone is constantly defining themselves. It is like keeping a diary. You may assume that artists make paintings solely for others, but often it is for our own benefit. Only, our diaries go on display.
3. Because it’s familiar. For every hour spent painting, there are often two or three spent thinking about and planning what to paint. Artists never stop working. Some of our best work is spent staring into space thinking about a concept. You may familiar with writers’ block, but we get painters’ block. Self-portraits are a good way to push through a dry period. Why? Because they don’t always require the intense planning and research of other work. Sometimes you just have to paint what is physically there, even if it means painting yourself.
This particular painting fell into the 2nd category. I was taking History of American Art in undergrad. I came across a painting of Ezra Stiles. He was an early American theologian and philosopher. The Portrait of Ezra Stiles by Samuel King, completed in 1771, was a monument to Stiles’ broad range of thought. On the day the portrait was completed, Stiles wrote in his journal, “These Emblems are more descriptive of my Mind, than the Effigies of my face.” It is clear from his statements about the painting that Ezra did not wish to preserve an image of his likeness nearly as much as he wished to preserve a snapshot of his studies.
This is the idea I wanted to emulate in my painting. At the time I was leading a college Bible Study, and we were doing a series on the religions of the world. The idea behind my self-portrait was that in order to really know what I believe I must familiarize myself with what I don’t believe. While Stiles’ portrait shows mostly books by Puritan and scientific authors that he agreed with, mine shows books on faith and science which I have studied but don’t personally believe. While I painted it I was contemplating what it means to believe in something, because it requires you to reject everything else. But the only alternative is to believe in nothing, because you can’t logically believe in everything at once.
Although self-portraits come across as pretentious, the idea behind this one is whether it is possible to preserve one’s own beliefs without becoming theo-centric or judgmental of the beliefs of others.
What do you think a portrait of your thoughts would look like?
7 thoughts on “Portraying the Mind.”
Thoughtful approach. At my ancient age, I’m kind of in the school, now, of thinking that *all* of my artworks are self-portraits; it’s only that some are more representational than others. Anyone who thinks that’s pure egocentrism on the artist’s part is of course entirely forgetting that what we do and say, write, think, and show the world, is all self portraiture in the same general sense.
That’s why I like the underlying idea of your portrait here so much. Your own question of whether preserving one’s own beliefs inherently causes or invites a hubristic attitude of self-rightness and self-righteousness is, I think, answered with your ability and choice to study other points of view or belief systems in order to understand your own. That’s the whole point, to me: never assuming that the process of learning and believing is complete but rather listening thoughtfully, critically, respectfully, and with the courage to learn further.
That process continues, for me, to confirm that many ideologies and philosophies and faiths (never mind approaches to any number of other topics of study) are not only not mutually exclusive in their entireties but can often inform and enhance our understanding of our own views. Seems to me that your measured approach is beneficial in both academic and artistic ways, besides the spiritual.
Thank you Kathryn,
I agree that every work of art is a self-portrait to some degree. It’s such a personal activity. It can sometimes be difficult to explain just how much of yourself goes into it.
Sometimes I feel like we live in a world where it can be difficult to define yourself outside of normal parameters. It makes it difficult to be a part of a group and break the mould for that group.
I like the Surrealist view that identity is always in flux. I can be one thing today and tomorrow I will be something different, so why limit myself. I like knowing that learning is never complete, and also that I am never and always complete, and it is okay to be what you are in the moment.
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I love that this portrait really captures a specific time in your life. It was a time when you were learning so much about yourself and the world at large, and I think it really comes through in this painting. I am glad that you have this image to look back on and remember what brought you to where you are.
To answer your question, though, is difficult. I think the portrait of my mind would be hazy with a lot of images of the things I want in my life, mixed with the ones of what is most important. I think it would have a dream-like quality of my future aspirations circulating around with the concrete images of my here-and-now. I’m not sure that it would be an attractive painting, but maybe interesting to look at.
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Thank you so much for sharing my blog!