What's a self portrait? The answer is in the name: a representation of yourself that you make yourself.
And today, now that most of us carry phones with front facing cameras, it’s easier than ever to capture your own image.
But what separates a self portrait from a selfie? That answer isn’t so simple. Because self portraits can be painted, embroidered, illustrated, collaged, or photographed, there’s no easy definition you can apply to the format.
So why have artists throughout history made self portraits? It turns out, self portraits capture much more than just their face. And they can play a bigger role in a person’s creative process than you might assume.
In our tenth episode of Curious Minds, we interview figurative artist Shane Wolf (@shane_wolf) about self portrait madness and mixed media artist Nneka Jones discusses how the format gives creatives free rein to experiment. Fine art photographer Cristina Otero (@cristinaotero)and visual poet and photographer Danny Bittencourt discuss how they use self portraits to explore emotions rather than aesthetics, and graphic artist and illustrator Ohni Lisle talks about what it means to see yourself reflected in your work.
You can download the transcript of this episode at the end of this article.
“If I had a dime for every time I recommended self portraits to people, I'd be a millionaire,” says Otero, who began taking self portraits at 13.
Though Otero also does fine art photography with models, for her, self portraits offer a much more intimate and authentic image because if there’s one person you can trust to understand your concept… it’s yourself. That’s why, “when it’s a really personal idea, I prefer to do it myself,” she explains.
Another practical reason why artists throughout the ages have chosen to create self portraits? Because when you only have yourself to please, there’s a lot more freedom to explore.
“If I’m going to get into something I’ve never done before, I probably would start with a self portrait,” says Wolf, since self portraits offer, “anytime, anywhere, any place, unlimited time for an artist to fool around” and experiment with different color palettes and techniques.
He especially enjoys using self portraits to test extreme expressions, experimenting not just with painting but also with the challenging poses he can achieve.
These self portraits also offer a visual diary, not just of changes in his painting technique but also his face and body. Though he does admit to omitting a few wrinkles since “flattery is a fun part of the game too,” the use of self portraits as a visual record means that over-embellishing would defeat the point.
Because while everyone can fall victim to vanity, when it comes to self portraits making yourself look good is rarely the goal.
“It doesn't matter how I look, it just matters that I'm connecting with how I feel. So if I'm miserable, I'm going to look miserable. I'm not doing Photoshop to take off my pimples,” says Bittencourt. “If you focus only on the way you look, this will be the most important thing in the picture. But if you focus on what you want to express with this picture, the way you look is just a consequence of that.”
Expressing something that’s more than just skin deep, and that goes beyond looks, is the sign of a powerful self portrait. What it expresses can vary greatly.
Just as artists like Frida Kahlo used self portraits to explore her identity, artists like Claude Cahun and Cindy Sherman have used themselves as models to explore different personas. Just as certain artists might use self portraits to reveal something about themselves, others like Francesca Woodman intentionally court ambiguity.
“I don't want people to just look at a piece and see Nneka Jones, I want you to get that broad message that I'm trying to communicate,” says Jones, reflecting on a recent self portrait that was created in part as a response to the Black Lives Matter protests of 2020.
“While I was working, I was kind of thinking of what was actually happening not only to me, but in a general sense, with women of color, and how we have progressed throughout the years and how these stereotypes no longer hold us back from doing certain things. Different women are now breaking different glass ceilings,” Jones explains, reflecting on how the process of creating her self portrait was different compared to other portraits she creates.
“Usually I would develop the concepts for my pieces, and then execute. So I would know what the final piece would look like before I even start stitching. And this one, I thought I knew what the final piece would look like. While I was creating, it kind of changed.”
Another curious feature of self portraits is that they don’t have to show a creative’s face. Wolf for instance has made plenty of self portraits of his foot, while other artists have taken a more abstract approach to self representation.
For creatives like Lyle, making super self-referential work all of the time isn’t particularly interesting but using illustrations as a way to explore different personas and facets of her personality is.
“I’m kind of past changing my appearance every six months like I used to, but [illustration] is still a way to exercise that… it’s fun to have this experience of being someone else [because] arguably everything I do is a facet of me. Even if it doesn’t look like me, it’s an extension of me.”
To learn more about how creatives use self portraits to express themselves, how the medium can shape their other creative output, and what differentiates self portraits from selfies, you can listen to Curious Minds on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts.
Click on the link below to download a transcript of this episode. It will be saved in your Downloads folder as a PDF.
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CM S1E10 The Most Intimate Portrait Transcript.pdf