The Original Selfies

It seems you can’t escape people posing for selfies wherever you go. Most selfies show a fish eye lens view of their subjects, often in carefully rehearsed poses. I have run into this celebration-of-self behavior at restaurants, museums, hiking trails, and tourist attractions. I even saw one mother trying to take one of herself and her child on top of a wild buffalo in South Dakota. The buffalo didn’t cooperate.

But my snobbishness was brought up short when I realized that artists have been producing selfies for centuries. They’re called self portraits. One of my favorites is by Elizabeth Louise Vigee LeBrun, an 18th century French portrait painter. I love it because it is by a successful female artist from a time when such creatures were as rare as unicorns. Then there’s such panache in her hat, though her hair looks a bit unkempt. Finally, she proclaims her calling by showing her palette and brushes.

Painted in 1782

I am not someone who takes selfies, in part because I hate to have my picture taken even by myself, but I needed one for a Wanderlust class exercise. We were to paint self portraits using the three primary colors plus white. To give us a start, we were to take a selfie, posterize it to get the main blocks of values in our face, and trace the outline of our face onto paper or canvas.

At first I thought I’d skip this exercise, but then I changed my mind. It didn’t require butterflies, birds, or inspirational sayings, so it stood out from many other assignments. I duly took a selfie, posterized it in PhotoShop Elements, and transferred an outline to watercolor paper.

I used the high tech window method to transfer the outlines.

Then I began to mix skin tones from my four paint colors. My initial doubt turned to amazement when I saw how to do that thanks to teacher Christa Forrest. In fact, after a while my paint palette looked like I had been smearing it with makeup samples.

A coffee filter I used to clean my brushes.

The first passes were crude, with uneven skin tones.

The eyes are so wrong

Looks like I was rubbing bronzer on my chin and neck.

Once I was satisfied with my skin, I added collage paper to the page bottom and coated everything with clear gesso. After that dried I used colored pencils to fine tune details. The gesso gives enough tooth to grab the pencil lead and add texture.

Finished portrait. My eyes aren’t really that green. My hair is that gray.

I spent more time on this exercise than on any other ones to date, but the teacher broke down the process and made it doable. To judge from the work posted in the course forum, I don’t think as many students did this exercise compared with others. As was noted in last week’s discussion about classes, sometimes you learn more when you reach beyond just having fun.


Filed under Commentary, Completed Projects, Techniques

10 responses to “The Original Selfies

  1. Norma Schlager

    I think you did a fabulous job. I, too, hate selfies and have never taken one that I liked. Your shading on the hair and face are wonderful. Good for you!

  2. I like it! It has a vibrancy that many more “professional” portraits lack, to my eye. I also like the first version; the colors look very fresh!

  3. This would definitely be out of my comfort zone. Thanks for sharing your feelings and your process. Your finish is well done – attention to detail, colors well mixed and balanced and you look great.


    • Well, I wouldn’t say this was in my comfort zone, but I enjoyed trying something new. If I do another selfie I’ll have to put in all the wrinkles that I omitted somehow.

  4. I wouldn’t have thought of earlier self portraits as selfies, but I think you make a great point. I think your portrait is so good. The detail of paper and color pencil adds a nice bit of warmth and more depth. I really like your first pass piece too. It is wonderful to read your process and see the evolution.

    • Thanks. Maybe I can actually pick a makeup color that’s right for me now that I’ve learned to blend skin tones. Good eye to catch that my clothes are actually collaged paper.

  5. Edith

    Amazing first self portrait! My mom said of my first: ‘well, the good news is you don’t really look like that!’ But I could see myself in it and I counted that as a win! My next ones were better if a bit weird.

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