4 Must-Know Tips for Painting a Self-Portrait

When painting a self-portrait, you get to be your own model, which has a few obvious advantages: you’re always readily available and guaranteed not to complain! Jokes aside, self-portraits have an introspective quality, which often makes them some of the most powerful and interesting images in fine art.

Many artists did paint self-portraits at one point in their career. Rembrandt and Frida Kahlo come to mind when thinking about artists famous for their self-portraits. Rembrandt painted close to 100 self-portraits during his lifetime and Kahlo around 50. Read on for tips on how you can paint self-portraits just like the masters.

Here are a few tips if you want to give painting a self-portrait a try:

Tip #1: Start with the man in the mirror

The first problem to solve is, how are your going set up painting a picture of your own face? While you can paint a portrait from a photograph, I recommend placing a mirror next to your canvas as the easiest setup.

When painting with a mirror image, try to arrange the mirror and canvas so you can see yourself without having to move your head and body too much. You could also try setting up two mirrors; this allows you to paint a 3/4 view of your face.

Mirror Face - Painting Self-Portraits

Mirror Face by Sandrine Pelissier

Self Portrait Painting - Craftsy.com

Watercolor by Sandrine Pelissier based on photo by Paula Vander

Tip #2: Pay attention to lighting

As with portraiture in general, lighting is one of the most important elements. Lighting allows you to achieve the desired contrast between light and shadowy areas. One of the most commonly used lighting angles for portraits is created by placing a light on one side, just slightly above the head. This casts a perfect, small shadow along the bridge of your nose.

“Study on the proportions of head and eyes” by Leonardo da Vinci via Wikimedia

Tip #3: Check your proportions

It helps to do a preliminary drawing before painting. This helps you to get the facial proportions right. All faces are not equal, and everyone’s facial proportions will be slightly different. Paying attention to those variations will help you get a more accurate likeness.

Use these measurement tips to help draw your face more accurately:

  • Avoid the inclination to draw the eyes too high on the face. The eyes should sit halfway between the chin and the top of the head.
  • The space between the eyes is about the length of one eye and equivalent to the width of the nostrils.
  • A vertical line starting at the pupil of the eyes should meet the outside edge of the mouth.
  • The top of the ears should be situated at roughly the same height as the eyebrows. The bottom of the ears belongs a tiny bit lower than the tip of the nose.
  • The tip of the nose is situated halfway between the chin and the eyebrows

Tip #4: Think about style, composition, and story

You might want to convey more than just a likeness with your self-portrait. Try thinking about ways to make the image more expressive or how the portrait can tell a story. There are so many ways you can make your self-portrait more unique — brainstorm various elements you could add to the portrait itself or to the background. Perhaps you could choose to paint in a particular style or with an unusual composition.

If you are working in front of a mirror, you will be initially limited in terms of facial expressions, as a smile, for example, cannot be held for a long time. Don’t worry, you can add elements to the portrait afterwards!

Self Portrait of an Artist

Self-portrait ADD series using watercolor and mixed-media by Sandrine Pelissier

Note: This self-portrait is a bit more personal with an added “setup” element that helps tell a story.

Want to know more on how to paint a self-portrait? Check out the Craftsy class The Classic Self Portrait with Kerry Dunn and explore the relationship among shapes, objects, and hues that create stunning self-portraits.

Have you tried painting a self-portrait? Did you like the experience?

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