Thursday 6/28: Some Final (Feminist) Thoughts on Self-Portraiture

(Note: this post focuses mainly on cisgendered women’s experience of beauty standards as it applies to self-portraiture. Not everyone in my class identifies as a woman, and I wish I could include that perspective more in this post, but it’s not my experience and I can’t even begin to do it
justice in the timeframe I have to write this post. My apologies for that; I’d prefer to be more inclusive.)

Generally, when a woman is sitting in front of a mirror for hours on end trying to perfect something, she’s not striving for her face to look exactly as it does. There’s a cultural beauty ideal in place that bears no relationship to what anyone actually looks like, though woe betide you if you try to ignore it. Flipping the script such that the ideal you’re striving to replicate is already on your face—it is your face—is a necessary component of drawing a likeness.

Trying to create a realistic, accurate likeness of yourself is a quietly revolutionary act. To do so is to state that your own face is a valid subject for art as it is, without the sort of prettifying symbolism that the left brain traffics in.

None of the portraits done for this project look standard-issue “pretty” to me, and I found that striking during the critique. I mean this as the highest possible compliment: pretty is generic and average and nonspecific, like faces averaged with a computer. This is how we look at ourselves when we’re hard at work and less concerned with beauty than with how intricate our own eyelids are. These portraits were created with very dark charcoal, which Professor Ruby notes contributes to the sense of seriousness and weight. There’s strength in these expressions. The portraits are looking you straight in the eye, and the expressions are neutral. There is no deference to the viewer to be found here.

It’s unusual to see women’s faces displayed publicly with serious expressions. This is presumably out of a show of consideration for what the (generally presumed to be male) viewer will think. There’s so much policing of women’s expressions because it is assumed that we should be outwardly pleasant and deferential when in public. Expressions of negative emotions or no emotion get in the way of the male viewer’s ability to believe that a given woman is just that thrilled to see him, a generic stranger.  “Telling women to smile” turns up 66,600 Google hits as of today (and 48 million without quotes). This leads to a certain amount of self-policing: most women will make much more of an effort to look happy in public than men will. Even when I was a kid, I used to consciously smile when I played the cello publicly. It was partially because I enjoyed it, and partially a performance of looking pleasant while I was being watched. Ms. Hagar, my cello teacher, once told me that I never played as well in public as I did privately because I devoted too much mental energy to what the audience thought of how I looked while playing. She was right: this societally-encouraged concern for appearances hurt my ability to  do well at more important things.

Spending 20 hours with a laser focus on how I actually look as the goal for my final product, I had to forget about judging the way I look in the mirror and start to respect what I see in the mirror. We all did. I could see from the finished portraits that my classmates spent time focused on getting the highlights of their piercings and shadows of their noses right and making their lips accurately asymmetrical, instead of creating perfect button noses and bow lips. I can see the six people I spent this month learning with and all the trouble that we put into learning to really see ourselves, and I am so proud to have been a part of this class.

Photo by Jessica

Thursday 6/28: Eyes

Early this morning

I came into the studio at around 8:45 this morning and worked until 2:25 with only two 5-10 minute breaks. I’m somewhat disappointed that I didn’t manage to finish the portrait, but it’s interesting to me to see how much my mind tries to fill in the remaining details. Human beings like to see faces because we gather so much information from others’ facial expressions, and that makes it so that the mind fills in the blanks at the mere suggestion of a facial feature. Given that people see faces in grilled cheese sandwiches and rock formations, there’s not much danger of my drawing failing to look like a face, even with some gaps. Honestly, even if I hadn’t tried to finish it today, there’s still enough suggested by the portrait that it’s a reasonable likeness of me.

Not even close to the correct left eye

I struggled with the eyes today. I drew several versions of my left eye, but I never did finish my right eye. The scale of my drawing requires that my eyes go off the page, and it’s hard to understand what I’m drawing when I’m only drawing half (or 3/4?) of it. I eventually ripped a page from my sketchbook, taped it to the side of my easel, marked off the width and height of my eye, and tried to extrapolate from what I’d already drawn to see what the eye as a whole would look like. I also made the tortoiseshell markings on my glasses to help guide my understanding of my eyelid’s shadows and folds. It helped, but I never did get the left eye quite right, and I only got in the neighborhood of starting my right eye.

This helped.

I think part of the issue is that I didn’t get the thick black line created by my eyelashes. The individual eyelashes aren’t visible at this level of detail, but there is a line there. I may continue to work on it this weekend. To my surprise, I seem to have drawn a fair representation of my sister’s eye, or possibly my dad’s, but with my thick eyelids. Genetically, that’s about 50% right, so that’s not too bad.

My portrait as it went into critique. I have an eye, which I seem to have borrowed from someone.

Wednesday 6/27: Umwelt

Professor Ruby pointed out today that I am drawing my self-portrait tilted, in much the same way that my chair was tilted. At this point, there’s not much to be done about that, and I think it makes it a more effective representation of how I see myself. I spent much of my childhood playing with beagles: is it really surprising that I tilt my head when I’m thinking hard?

Biosemiotician Jakob von Uexküll has theorized that different creatures can have an entirely different experience of the same environment based on their differing sensory capacities. A jellyfish has a different sense of the ocean than a shark does, which is different from the way that a blue whale or a crab understands its environment. This notion of a self-centered environment is called umwelt in semiotics; it’s a clear descendant of various views of perception dating from 16th century philosophy and earlier.

Umwelt is the idea that because their senses pick up on different things, different animals in the same ecosystem actually live in very different worlds. Everything about you shapes the world you inhabit–from your ideology to your glasses prescription to your web browser

One of the better illustrations of this point that I’ve ever seen is this xkcd comic, which has the above quote as alternate text. Open that link in a few different browsers and on different devices. (For the lazy, a few versions are collected here.) There are dozens of different versions of this comic, and the site chooses a version to display based on your browser, the size of your browser window, the location associated with your IP address, the website that referred you to the page, and lots of other variables.

My environment

I’m struggling with the shape of my glasses and my lips right now, but I’m encouraged in that struggle by realizing that everything I draw accurately and everything I convey about the way that I sense things is helping me to explain my experience of the world and the way I interact with my environment. I spent three hours this morning on it, two this afternoon, and half an hour late at night in which I made actual progress.

Burning the midnight oil to get my glasses right

Tuesday 6/26: Where are these shadows coming from?

Today the last day of class, and it was a very right-brained, visual, non-verbal day for me. As such, I’m going to let the pictures do most of the talking.

The more I work on my self-portrait, the more I realize that the shadows just seem to happen by themselves when i let my right brain take over and just slowly, continuously erase. Frankly, I have no idea how to draw my lips as a whole, but I’ve been trying to just sneak up on them. If I can get the context of my lips right, then I can just continue onto the lips and make it all nicely continuous.

I did take a break from my easel to do some blind contour drawing of my lips. I was having trouble understanding the shape, and I needed to stop and see in a way that wasn’t really happening while I was erasing.

I immediately started making notes on my blind contour (which looks like a sort of delightful lobster claw to me, but definitely reminds me of my lips). The left peak of my lips is higher and pointier than the right one, but I’d drawn them the opposite way. I also needed to make the top edge more defined and the bottom edge lighter.

As I compared notes between my blind contour and my drawing, I had a flash of insight that helped me create the bottom edge. I never consciously worked on the shadow below my lip, but you can see that it’s appearing.

I spent two 1.5 hour sessions on drawing before class, and 20 minutes afterward, so about 5.5 hours total, but it really did not feel like that much. I’m amazed at how much progress I made when I let my right brain take over and let the variations in value happen naturally.

Monday 6/25: Looking up to Vincent

My nostril at the start of class

I’m still a little intimidated by my attempts at realism. I’m should-ing, but I’m trying not to. It’s hard not to feel a little nervous in my attachment to this. It’s supposed to be me, and it’s supposed to be accurate. I’m having a particularly hard time figuring out proportions based on what I’ve drawn. There aren’t many things on my face that are measurable in left nostril-widths. (Note: looking over this on Friday, I can’t believe how wrong I was about that.) Professor Ruby gave us more instruction in class today about how to understand facial proportions with the string and/or a solid object, but it’s slow going.

One thing that’s giving me a bit more confidence is reading more about self-portraiture and other artists’ struggle with proportion. In the sections on portraiture in Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain, Betty Edwards talks about how van Gogh (whose self-portraits are some of my favorite paintings) struggled with proportion. She cites a letter he wrote to his brother about how he was working on proportion, which is “necessary to draw the slightest thing.” I attempted to find the full text online, but the translations must be different, because has 35 letters that are similar enough to come up in a search. Point made, Vincent van Gogh told his brother that proportions were hard, many times.

Edwards uses his “Man with Saw” drawing as an example of his struggles with proportion. To be fair, this isn’t the most representative example. Going through this incredible gallery of van Gogh’s drawings, it’s probably the worst-proportioned thing van Gogh drew after he became serious about art.

Van Gogh’s Man with Saw, via

However, the eyes are too high on the face, which is a common error. (Edwards calls this the “cut-off skull problem” which is a little morbid.) People believe that the features take up more of the face than they actually do; this is because facial features like eyes, noses, and mouths draw the eye and give more visual information than the forehead or the chin and cheeks. Van Gogh was five years older than me when he did this, which is incredibly comforting in terms of my worries about being too old to learn to draw. Within a year, he was doing drawings like this. I doubt I’m ever going to get to his level; I enjoy art and it’s something I want to get better at, but it’s unlikely to be my life’s work and obsession, like it was for him. Still, it’s encouraging to know that this kind of improvement is possible.

It’s been amazing to spend a few hours immersing myself in van Gogh’s processes. I’d never seen more than one or two of his drawings before, and looking at the progression, I’m just fascinated and encouraged. Though, given his mental health problems and self-doubt, I feel a little bad for picking on Vincent van Gogh’s early work. I haven’t done very much to really understand proportion in 3.5 hours I spent working on my actual drawing today. Anyone have a time machine? I know just how to make his day.

Thursday 6/21: Noses Emerging into the Light

Professor Ruby instructed us to start by using the kneaded eraser to erase the lightest highlight and scaling to the darkest black in our portraits. In most cases that would be the shine on one’s nose and the darkness of the nostril, but for me it’s the reflection on the edge of the right lens of my glasses and the dark matte plastic of my frames. I tried erasing those first, but it didn’t really work well. I switched to working on my nose fairly soon.

We’re using the string technique again, but I’ve noticed that I’m getting better at sighting without using a tool. Don’t get me wrong: the string is still very helpful, and having a physical reminder to check my proportions is invaluable, but I started in by mentally noting proportions and only rechecked them with the string when reminded later. To my surprise, I wasn’t very far off at all. This is one of the surest signs I’ve seen that I’m progressing as an artist.

I kept struggling with when and how to draw my freckles, and I had a smudge of charcoal on my face that was impairing my ability to see the shapes of highlights on one side of my nose. I was also constantly worried that I was drawing things too large. However, when I started planning this project, I decided that my most distinctive features are my hairline (especially the curl on my right temple), the asymmetry of my nose, the shape of my lips, and the chicken pox scar above my left eyebrow. I think I’ll be able to fit everything important onto the page, at any rate.

When this technique is working well, it feels like I’m just revealing the image that was underneath the charcoal all along. It’s less like conventional drawing than it is like polishing silver or removing makeup. It’s been years since I’d seen this Dermablend ad, but I couldn’t stop thinking about it in class.

(Note: the end result of this video is a little grotesque. I doubt most people would be bothered, but skip it if a man tattooed to look like a grayscale “visible man”-style zombie sounds disturbing to you.)

I only spent about 20 minutes working on this after class, but it was very intense work for me. I don’t think I stopped being frustrated and realized that it was a good thing if I couldn’t erase everything until I looked at this photo and realized that the dark spots look like pores.

Wednesday 6/20: Set-Up

A previous Art 160 class’s self-portraits

Today’s class was mostly set-up for the final project, a photorealistic self-portrait created through erasure drawing. Erasure drawing is a subtractive technique: by removing media (charcoal in this case) with the eraser, you can create a lot of interesting effects with lights and shadows.

Drawing a photorealistic self-portrait is a daunting prospect. I’ve known this project was coming since the first day of class, and many self-portraits from previous classes hang around the studio. They are uniformly impressive. I recognize most of the artists who did these. At first, I found them encouraging: at the end of this class, I’ll be able to create something like that. Now, I’m a little intimidated. Those students had all semester to learn visual thinking. I’ve only had a month. (And what if the displayed portraits are the best ones? Selection bias is a real possibility here!)

Professor Ruby demonstrated her technique for toning the paper for this project. Using a stick of Char-Kole, one vigorously draws on the palette (a separate sheet of paper) in order to grind down the charcoal. Then, using a wad of institutional-style toilet paper, one transfers this to the sheet of paper that we’ll be drawing the portrait on. It’s very slow work getting the page dark enough for the drawing, but it’s important that it be dark enough so that there’s a range of available shades between the darkest unerased portions and the lightest highlights.

I got strangely worried about getting my page dark enough. At one point, Julia asked me how I’d gotten mine so dark, and I thought she was crazy—hers looked much darker than mine from where I was sitting. I got up, looked at my classmates’ work, and realized that we had all reached about the same shade of dark gray, but it looked darker from farther away. It’s always interesting to realize a new way that my brain and eyes are conspiring to fool me again. From then on, I’d check my paper against the finished self-portraits hanging in the studio at various points. From a distance, they all looked much darker than mine, but I realized I was getting close when I looked at them from nearby.

I finally developed my own technique for getting more charcoal on the paper. I would grind down the charcoal as before, but instead of using the toilet paper to apply it, I’d tip the palette onto the paper and use the toilet paper to smear it. I’m not sure if it actually did work better, but it seemed to.

I spent about 2 hours outside of class trying to perfect my toned page. It was a little obsessive, but it was important to me to get this project off on the right foot.

Tuesday 6/19: Extending a Project

This was probably the most formal critique we’ve done in this class. Professor Ruby prompted us to talk about each project in terms of its design elements and principles, and we had a surprising amount to talk about.

Toward the end of each critique, we discussed what the artist could do to extend their project. For Julia’s project (a jar preserving the ephemera of a relationship), Celeste thought of a romantic narrative that could be built from the piece, Rae thought of a companion piece—an opaque jar with a clear lid that would force the viewer to put more effort into seeing the objects inside, Ruby suggested making a timeline of the relationship using the items contained in the jar, and I wanted to create a museum exhibit about the relationship and fully contextualize and openly display all the bits of romantic ephemera.

I would really like to stick some cards for them, thon, and hir in this incredibly gendered display, and I would never have thought of this without Rae’s “For Them” card.

This aspect of the critique underscored how differently each of my classmates sees a given piece. I’m a child of the 90’s. All my life, I’ve heard that you, me, and every amoeba living under my fingernails are all special and have our own unique perspectives that no one else shares. However, I spent enough time on Livejournal in the early 00’s to appreciate that this is a often a weaker sentiment than Barney and Baby Bop implied. However, listening to my classmates and their wide-ranging ideas for where to take the same project was exciting and mind-expanding in the same way that a good collection of short stories or essays on the same theme is. I find that I often don’t really understand an issue until I’ve read at least three perspectives on it: my understanding of Spinoza owes considerably more to the Cambridge Companion to Spinoza than my initial reading of his works, even though I don’t really agree with any but the most uncontroversial positions from those essays. In the same way, I probably won’t wind up doing anything like my classmates’ suggestions for expanded works, but each proposed project enriched my understanding of the possibilities contained in each piece and all the possible approaches one could take to a given project.

I’m not sure how I’d expand on my eye chart valentine. I could make it larger and more like a “real” eye chart, or I could make it possible to project it and do something resembling an autorefractor machine. I could create color blindness tests out of flower petals. I could partner with someone who is hard of hearing and help create an audio piece about the effect that hearing aids had on their life. I could create a series of images about the various ways that eyeglasses have improved my life and use them to promote charities that provide eyeglasses to low-income people or help people start eyeglass businesses in the developing world. For the time being, though, this is my companion piece. It expresses the open-mouthed awe I felt at seeing nature clearly for the first time. It’s a little silly, but so are five year-olds with new glasses.

Tuesday 6/19: Flowers

A selection of my flower photosOn Tuesday morning, I went to the Farmer’s Market (source of all of the best art supplies) to get flowers. I knew I wanted something pink or magenta with large, defined petals, but I wasn’t expecting to be so lucky as to find magenta gerbera daisies.

I thought I might be able to get away with placing a daisy (with stem removed) on my scanner and editing the resulting images. This…did not work.

My next option was to take photos of the daisies on a white sheet of paper, which would then be edited to be transparent in Photoshop. Daisies are surprisingly terrible models, by the way. I had to use a combination of a piece of purse hardware left over from a sewing project and a bit of the daisy’s stem to get any of them to stand up straight. I played with the lighting between shots and found that natural light without any other lighting seemed to work best.

I went to the Mac lab in the studio to edit the photos in order to use them on the valentine. I think it wound up looking like clip art, and I’m not sure whether I mean that as a compliment to myself.

The daisy with background removed and color levels somewhat altered

I wanted to have a line of daisies looking progressively less blurry going vertically down the page, to convey the idea of the text more visually. I spent some time putting that together in Illustrator and Photoshop and editing the text further. I really wanted to get the eye chart looking like a flower petal.Here’s the finished (digital) product. There are some problems with the images: I did not allow for enough space for the Gaussian blur to not get hard edges, and I couldn’t really figure out how to fix that in Illustrator. However, I’m generally proud of it.

After that, I experimented with adding real flower petals with hot glue. I also added photosensitive nail polish to create the effect of illumination creating rose-colored glasses.

A few experiments

The final product I presented is at the top center. It was a little busy, but I think it worked as a valentine and as something I was proud of.

Monday 6/18: Design Statement for Eye Charting

I want my valentine to evoke the experience of getting glasses for the first time. I didn’t get them until I was five years old, and I’d never really been aware of a world in which everything was sharp and clear. Trees were blobs on sticks, flowers were more colorful blobs on thinner sticks. When I walked out of the optometrist’s office wearing glasses for the first time, it was like gaining a superpower: trees had leaves and flowers had petals. It was as though I was looking at my hand and seeing each individual cell, along with the hand as a whole.

So, while trying to evoke that sense of wonder, I’ve been struggling with the wording for my eye chart. The line I used for my first mock-up wasn’t bad, but I’m not crazy about it. It doesn’t really seem like a valentine to me; more of a statement:

I love flowers. I never knew you could see petals from far away until I got my first pair of glasses.

I went through a few versions of this in my notebook, trying to chart out the arrangement of letters in my notebook.

I love flowers. Until I was five, I thought you had to be close to the flower to see its petals.

I am myopic, and I didn’t understand that flower petals were supposed to be visible from a distance until I got glasses.

My first glasses gave me superpowers. And flower petals.

My first glasses gave me flowers and leaves.

My first glasses gave me flowers, with petals.

I knew I liked the imagery of my glasses giving me flowers, so I finally decided on this:

My first glasses gave me flower petals for the first time.

This whole process has reminded me of the scenes from Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban in which Harry learns to conjure a patronus. (They’re much better in the books than in the movie—Harry struggles with it much more—but I don’t have a copy with me, alas.)

The patronus is a happy memory made corporeal through a charm. As Professor Lupin explains, you have to have absolute focus on an adequately strong happy memory in order to conjure one. This seems reminiscent of what we discussed in class on Thursday: if you design from a place of wonder, that sense of wonder is likely to be present in the final product.

I spent two hours after class playing with the letterforms in Illustrator and tweaking the wording further. I decided on Rockwell for the font, and started experimenting with putting the text in the appropriate format for an eye chart.