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?