Faces Oil Painting Painting People Portrait Self Portrait

Six Self-Portrait Studies

Painting quick self-portraits seemed like a good way to work through my feelings while supporting my elderly mother in hospice. In all six of these self-portraits (above and below) I focused on capturing something of what I was feeling…

2017010-Self-Portrait_#6, oil on Arches Oil Paper, 15x11"
Winter Self-Portrait #6 (but really 7), oil on Arches Oil Paper, 15×11″

Painting quick self-portraits seemed like a good way to work through my feelings while supporting my elderly mother in hospice, especially with my limited studio time and energy. The most recent, #6 above, is my favorite so far because I focused on finding light, beauty and strength rather than darkness (and because I omitted my frown lines). I used a limited palette of titanium white, yellow ochre, venetian red, cobalt blue and a little Gamblin Asphaltum and a cool white light bulb.

Studio set-up with mirror
Studio set-up with mirror

Here’s my funky set up with the big mirror  propped up on a dresser drawer. In all six of these self-portraits (above and below) I focused on capturing something of what I was feeling in a short session (3- to 4-hour studies) without worrying too much about getting a true likeness.

Self-portrait 2/3/17, oil on Arches Oil Paper, 12x9"
Self-portrait #5B -Yellow, oil on Arches Oil Paper, 12×9″

In #5 above I draped a yellow cloth over my hoodie and down vest (it was cold in the studio) and tried to keep shadow and light separate so that nothing in shadow was as light as anything in light. I had trouble keeping my head in the same position in the mirror and started too large for the paper. A lot of fear and sadness in this one. I used a warm bulb in my lamp.

Self-portrait #5A-Red,  oil on Arches Oil Paper, 12×9″

(update: Accidentally left out the one above when I wrote the post so had to number it with a letter prefix.) I was seeing red that day; mad but determined

Self-portrait 2/1/17, oil on Arches Oil Paper, 12x9"
Self-portrait #4-Lavender,  oil on Arches Oil Paper, 12×9″

In #4 above I draped myself with a lavender cloth and looked for interesting colors reflected in my face. I look as weary, faded, and washed out as I felt. I used a cool daylight bulb in my lamp.

Self-portrait 1/27/17, oil on Arches Oil Paper, 12x9"
Self-portrait #3-Green, oil on Arches Oil Paper, 12×9″

In #3 above I draped myself with an acidic green cloth whose color represented to me the anger I was feeling that day. It also reflected the green onto my face, especially when I turned off most of the other studio lights so there was very strong contrast in the lighting. I’m looking pretty skeptical and like a scary clown in this one. I used a warm light bulb on this one and those below.

Self-portrait 1/25/17, oil on Arches Oil Paper, 12x9"
Self-portrait #2, oil on Arches Oil Paper, 12×9″

I was too tired and unfocused when I started #2 above, and when I realized the drawing was too big for the paper and that my head position had changed too much, I abandoned the painting early on.

Self-portrait 1/21/17, oil on Arches Oil Paper, 12x9"
Self-portrait #1-Grey, oil on Arches Oil Paper, 12×9″

I painted #1 above shortly after we moved my mother from her lifelong home in Southern California to a wonderful hospice here in the Bay Area where we could be near her. I look sad, scowling, belligerent and Dumbo-eared. But I was also happy to be back in the studio even if it meant I had to stare at myself for hours. I stopped at 3 hours when I ran out of time and energy.

23 replies on “Six Self-Portrait Studies”

Thanks Joy. Same is true for portraits. I had an in-law I really despised many years ago. I decided to paint her portrait–make her an ugly mean witch–but as I painted her face, as my brushes caressed her image, I began to feel compassion for her and by the end her painting wasn’t of a mean witch but of a person for whom I could feel compassion.

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The meaning of “self-reflection” certainly takes on a whole new meaning in terms of self-portraits. When one “self-reflects” in a journal, we are in a sense looking inward and are far removed from the physical world, including our own outer shell. Yet I find the practice very difficult, even intimidating and haven’t had the courage to “let loose” – I cowardly rely on the writings of deep thinkers and authors to understand my own thoughts…..I just hate what I myself write…..So, attempting a self-portrait is even further beyond my level of comfort or courage (and I’m not referring merely to painting techniques, but the fear of looking myself in the eye for an extended period of time.) Kudos to you for following through with your project in spite of external circumstances and having the courage to come back to the drawing board, so to speak, 5 more times and allowing art to be such a healing source of expression. This was such an inspiration and so was your touching response to Joy’s comment. I am deeply moved!

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Thanks Gaelle. I hear a lot of fear and critical self-talk in your message. Art of any kind sure brings up those feelings in droves but I think the only way through is to just tell the fear it’s not helpful and proceed on your way looking for a way in past the fear to enjoying or at least being one with the process, trying to recognize the mean voices and banishing them each time they arise (“thanks for sharing, now go to your room!” or something like that). The more I catch that voice and quiet it, seek the courage to just do the work, the easier it gets, especially if I first reassure myself I don’t have to share it with anyone unless I decide I want to later. In other words forget about the outcome, the product and just go for the discovery, the investigation, the what if I try this, see it as an adventure not a job or something I must succeed at, just a stepping stone.


Thank you for your kind and uplifting advice in response to my comments on your February 10th blog. Taking the time to encourage me during your own bleak time is so very thoughtful. My sincere condolences for your recent loss, and I wish you lots of good restorative painting days ahead, which have already yielded that wonderful still life painting of winter begonias. Much appreciated!


Thank you for sharing these beautiful self portrait studies. Sending prayers for you as you go thru this difficult time.

Sent from my iPad


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Dear Jana, You are a beautiful person and I am so glad that you shared your troubles with us as painful as they are. I love your work and your courage to share each of your self portraits, what a stimulus for the many of us to do the same. I like the first one the best, too, bit the others are also of great value. So many words to say thank you so much, and prayers for your Mom and all of you going up! God bless, C-Marie


This was a really good exercise! I like the one that you chose as your favorite. The whole series reflects your mood at what must be a very difficult time for you and your mother. I sympathasize.


After looking at each portrait many times I too decided I liked #1 the best. The reason is I like the way the left half of your face is in light and the right half is in shadow. I feel this is representative of both the relief and happiness you felt as well as the sadness in moving your mom to the assisted living home near you and your sister. It was a hard decision on my part as I feel each portrait is strong and expressive. I wonder which portrait I would have chosen if I knew you personally. How brave of you to tackle putting your feelings to paint and showing us your results. I really admire you for it.

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