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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

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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 vangoghletters.org 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 vangoghgallery.com

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.