Tips for Painting a Self-Portrait

Self-portrait oil painting by Rembrandt, 1628
Self-Portrait by Rembrandt, 1628, oil on panel. Photo by Lisa Marder

Although there are general guidelines and proportions for drawing a human head, individual features can vary greatly. Once you’ve identified the planes of the face and the lights and darks, which can give a general impression and likeness of a person, it is the particulars of the features that can really pinpoint someone’s uniqueness. 

Bitmoji App

A friend introduced me to a free app called Bitmoji which lets you create a personalized emoji avatar you can send to others through various chat programs.

It allows you to select from a menu of features the best ones to represent what you actually look like. In doing this it highlights the importance of slight differences and variations in individual features and illustrates how they contribute to a person’s unique visage. 

Bitmoji breaks the self-portrait down into face shape (thinner, medium, wider); skin tone; hair color; hair length; hair type; hair style; shape of jaw - pointy, round or square; shape of eyebrows; eyebrow color; shape and angle of eyes; eyelashes; the size of the pupils, with or without highlight; the color of the eyes; the shape of the nose; the width and shape of the mouth; the shape of the ears; eye details of small lines and wrinkles; cheek bone details; other face lines in the forehead and brow; blush coloring; eyeshadow if any, accessories and clothing.

These are very basic and the selection is limited, but the app highlights some of the things that are important to pay attention to and how slight variations in a feature or proportion can radically alter the look of someone's face.

The app is fun to play with if you have a few spare moments while waiting somewhere, and may even spur you to try painting some self-portraits to try to capture the particularities of your own face that the limited features in Bitmoji don't quite capture. 

Why Self-Portraits?

Before Bitmoji avatars and selfies, self-portraiture was a common and well-respected practice.

The reasons are several: for one, your subject is always available; for another, your subject is affordable, in fact free; and while your subject can certainly be judgmental, you have the choice to keep your self-portrait private and not let anyone else see it, as you would a journal.

Some Tips and Proportions to Pay Attention to for Self-Portrait Painting:

  • Shape of your head: round, oval, squarish, thin, wide, etc.
  • Angle and length of the jawline: pointed, round, or square
  • Height of the forehead: distance from the eyebrows to the hairline
  • Distance between the eyes: generally the distance between the eyes is the same as the width of an individual eye 
  • Distance from the eyes to the side of the head: this is also generally the same as the width of one eye
  • Depth of the eye sockets. You don't want your eyes to look like they are sitting on your face. It is important to get the lights and darks correct between the brow bone, the cheek bone, and the eye to convey a sense of the eyeballs seated in their sockets. 
  • Shape and angle of the eyebrows
  • Length and width of the nose. Generally the length of the nose from between the brows to the bottom of the nose is the same as the length of the ears. 
  • Distance from the bottom of the nose to the mouth: this is about one-third of the distance from the bottom of the nose to the chin.
  • Width and fullness of the mouth and lips
  • Fullness of the cheeks and angle of the cheekbones
  • The face is divided roughly into thirds with the hairline to the eyebrows being one-third, the eyebrows to bottom of the nose the next, and the bottom of nose to chin the next.

  • The outer edges of the nose line up with the inner corner of the eyes.
  • Generally the outer corners of the mouth line up vertically with your pupils.

Working From a Photo

If you are working from a photo of yourself, a good exercise to practice drawing your likeness is to enlarge the photo in black and white, fold it in half, and then try to draw the mirror image on a blank piece of paper. Although our faces are not perfectly symmetrical, this is a good way to start to notice the angles, spacing, shapes, and proportions of the features and to get a reasonable likeness of a person since half of the face is, in fact, a photograph of the person and half is a drawing.

 

Then tape the picture of yourself to the wall or easel to use as a reference as you work on your painting. 

Using a Mirror

If using a mirror, place a red dot on the mirror between your eyes to help you keep your place and locate your features as you look back and forth between the mirror and your painting while you work. Set the mirror up so that you can easily see yourself and the photo if also using one, and can easily reach for your palette and water or solvents.

Remember to keep stepping back and checking your image from a distance. It is easy to lose perspective when you work closely to your work. Getting distance between you and your painting helps you to assess your work and proportions more accurately.

Remember that mirrors distort our image somewhat - they make us appear slightly smaller than life and inverse our appearance, so if you part your hair on one side, it will be parted on the other side when you look at yourself in the mirror and paint what you see there.

You will notice that you are staring intently at yourself in the mirror as you paint and this will be evident in your painting. Many self-portraits have this intensity of gaze as a result. 

Lighting

It is helpful to have strong light shining on the side of your face. You might try for the effect of chiaroscuro, a strong contrast of light and dark, as Dutch painter Rembrandt used in the over sixty self-portraits he did during his lifetime.

Drawing

Mark lightly on the canvas or paper with charcoal or graphite the horizontal lines representing the eyebrows, and the eyes, and short horizontal lines for the bottom of the nose, the mouth, the bottom of the chin and the tops and bottoms of the ears. Draw a light vertical line representing the center of the nose and mouth. These guidelines will help as you sketch in your drawing.

Start with Grisaille or Black and White 

The next step is to lay in the values with a grisaille or tonal painting using black and white or burnt umber and white. Think of the painting as a sculpture as you carve into it, describing the contours by blocking in the shadows around the nose, the eye sockets, and the lips.

Get the values right before getting the details of the different features. The eyes are especially important as they are what the viewer is most drawn to and reveal much about the character of the subject.

Read How to Start a Portrait Painting.

Experiment and Try Different Expressions

Once you've done a self-portrait capturing the intense gaze that is so common among self-portraits, try to vary your expression. Painters of the Renaissance, particularly Rembrandt, explored and became quite adept at representing many different expressions of the human face, and he did many self-portraits in which he studied his own expressions.

According to museum notes from the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, the Netherlands, about the image shown above, Rembrandt experimented early on in his painting career: "Even as an inexperienced young artist Rembrandt did not shy away from experimenting. Here the light glances along his right cheek, while the rest of his face is veiled in shadow. It takes a while to realize that the artist is gazing intently out at us. Using the butt end of his brush, Rembrandt made scratches in the still wet paint to accentuate the curls of his tousled hair."

Painting a self-portrait is the perfect place to try experimenting with different painting techniques and color palettes, so pull out a mirror and give one a try. You have nothing to lose.