3.1 twenty self portraits

This exercise is to make 20 A4 ink studies of my face, spending up to a minute on each.  I spent plenty of time between campaigns, reflecting on what I’d done, each study informing the next.  When I’d completed the exercise I laid the studies out on a table in order to review what I’d done.  There was a clear development in my approach visible.  The first studies were made with hard, black brush strokes which look quite tight.  Then came a series of drawings, quick explorations of line and contour mainly, the blind contour drawing being in my opinion the best.  Then back to black ink, I started to loosen up, but when I started using colour and wetter washes the portraits started to loosen up more and acquire more character. Then, reading Emily Ball, I made some larger charcoal dust drawings, pushing the dust around with the palm of my hand. Finally, two loose, wet A2 ink studies.  These are my favourites from the 20, because they are fresher, looser and more confident than the others.

None of them bear a great resemblance to me, although it has been noted that I look quite sad in many of them; I was feeling down at the time I made them, so at least I was successful in capturing my mood!


As suggested I looked at the ink paintings of Marlene Dumas for inspiration, and found this video particularly helpful. https://youtu.be/fFZt6Zmee7A The video has Dumas talking about her work and working on a large painting in ink on paper, on the floor. In it, she uses the ink very fluidly, pushing washes around, pouring them, tipping the paper, drawing pigment out to describe lines. This must be how her faces get their blurred, mutilated look. I like how she says that there is no guarantee things will work out. Also that she paints awkwardly..struggling to reach the far side of the large support on the floor; searching around for something she can’t put her hands on.

Her walls of faces present like a series of mugshots. The faces look vacant, slightly bruised. Each face is unique, but en masse somehow they all look the same.Her portraits in ink are mostly full frontal, centrally placed on the page. They nearly all have fairly flat, young (child’s and young adult’s) faces, their expressions and characters individual but understated.  The outlines of the heads are defined, rarely is there much hair to obscure the shape.  The head is a flat oval, close up, little tone defines the sphere of the skull, angle of cheekbones, nose or jaw; the features, eyes, nose, mouth, are painted on like coals on a snowman’s head.

The Tate’s summation of her work is interesting on her sources: “In the past Dumas produced paintingscollagesdrawingsprints and installations. She now works mainly with oil on canvas and ink on paper. The sources she uses for her imagery are diverse and include newspaper and magazine cuttings, personal memorabilia, Flemish paintings, and Polaroid photographs. The majority of her works may be categorised as ‘portraits‘, but they are not portraits in the traditional sense. Rather than representing an actual person, they represent an emotion or a state of mind. Themes central to Dumas’ work include race and sexuality, guilt and innocence, violence and tenderness”.  http://www.tate.org.uk  I’m interested in the idea of a portrait not necessarily representing an actual person etc.  This goes away completely from the conventional idea of a portrait as a copy of a face.

On her technique, in this article in the Guardian observes: “Looking at Dumas’s paintings, I am often struck by how little there seems to be on the canvas. The images coalesce out of almost nothing.”  www.guardian.co.uk . The article goes on to say how her portraits are more like wet drawings than paintings.  Painting wet into wet with water based media, there’s little scope for reworking, and overpainting wouldn’t work.

I made my first three ink self portrait paintings on photocopy paper, Looking in the mirror and keeping to the one minute stricture.  The first one is best – I seem to have used less line and mark, and more wash, and avoided over-working.  I’ve looked at some student blogs on this exercise, and decided to not get despondent at my attempts.  The point is to try, and to gain experience, not to expect skilful results and not to worry about achieving a likeness.

Next I made some quick drawings, the idea being to explore the contours of my head in dry drawing media, without the distraction of trying to manipulate ink on the paper.  These were done quickly but without the one minute deadline.  I prefer 5 and 8 – nice confident lines and less fussy.  9 shows the spherical form of the head, and I’ve got the angles and perspective off the pose.

Back to the ink paintings, I added more water to my diluted ink to get a better middle tone, but still ended up with monotone mostly.

I switched to coloured ink, which helped me achieve some tonal variety, and I started painting more in big, wet washes than line, inspired by the Dumas video and the way she pushes the washes around to coax the portrait out.  Features can be created from the washes and their frayed edges.  15 & 16 in particular are now starting to show promise – it’s amazing how these faces appeared and settled down into themselves with merely a few broad washes in a minute’s (max two!) work.  15 has an intense, startled, anxious look.  19 looks like a person in repose, maybe sleeping – I like how the middle line of the face is described by the blue wash (the paper is all white – it only looks coloured as the photos were taken in poor, artificial light).  My eye is drawn back repeatedly to 18 – the head is well positioned on the page, the pose is interesting.

I tried other colours – yellow and black together, green.  In 20 and 21 I reworked the surface when it was still wet, muddying and overworking .  22 by contrast was done more confidently and at a faster pace, and is more effective.  Every painting I’ve done so far is different, but each of them has captured a little bit of me.

I read chapter 2 of Emily Ball’s Drawing and Painting People – A Fresh Approach, and jotted down some thoughts and ideas to follow up.  She talks about painting the head as opposed to painting a portrait, to get away from the idea of making a copy of the way we think people look, the ‘staid idea of creating a portrait’.  Of the drawing media she believes charcoal is the most tactile and painterly and can act as a link between painting and drawing.  Ink, she says, is also a bridge, sharing the qualities of both, with its ability to ‘slide, puddle, drip and mix on the canvas or paper to give new marks; washes, drying, create their own delicate edges; the ‘fluid, unpredictability of the ink’ encourages us to ‘improvise and go with the serendipity of the results’.

I followed her exercise to make a self-portrait on A2 brown paper, with no mirror, seeing by touch alone (Kindle loc 582).  The idea is to steadily explore the entire head with the left hand, never removing it from the head, whilst drawing blind with the right hand, never removing the charcoal from the paper.  The first is recognisably human, the second looks like a loveable puppy dog!  What was important though, is that I drew by feeling and responding to the three dimensional and tactile qualities of my head.  The outcomes actually reminded me of portrait drawings by Frank Auerbach; I decided to persevere with them, using rag and putty rubber to erase and smudge, before going in again with my charcoal to augment the marks.

Another exercise I tried was to make a charcoal dust drawing (Drawing and Painting People – A Fresh Approach, Kindle loc 702). Tipping crushed charcoal and pastel on to the paper, working quickly, pushing and pulling the dust with the heel of the hand to discover the form of the head; then with a stick of charcoal drawing the features, clarifying the shape of the head; erasing, altering, adding lines and marks, smudging, rubbing away and redrawing until the head feels right.  The hair in my attempt below has heaps of curly, frizzy texture, as a result of feeling the texture as I responded with charcoal.


My next two attempts in ink were done flat on the floor, on A2 sheets of smooth, 300gsm paper, allowing me to pour plenty of diluted ink, puddle it, jiggle and tip the paper, using rags and pipettes as well as big brushes, pouring and spraying water.  I tried different approaches to my usual one; instead of starting with the outline of the face, i started with a pale toned blocking in of the whole head and shoulders.  I allowed myself about five minutes for these.

I enjoyed painting and drawing these faces, and really surrendered the idea that they must look like me.  They capture bits of me here and there, but each stands on its own, with the suggestion of a character or an emotion.






Drawing and Painting People – A Fresh Approach by Emily Ball, pub The Crowood Press, 2009


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s