Sunday, May 4, 2008

Self Portrait

Why do artists paint self portraits? There are many reasons: Who else will stay still as long as the artist wants? Who else is as available at all hours? Who else can we satisfy as easily regarding the results? It was a combination of all of these - though mostly the last one - that led me to try this. I wanted to tackle a face, and I really was concerned about doing this to anyone else, especially this large (almost 18 inches from top of hair to tip of beard).

I think it's a good likeness, better than I've done before. My drawing skills are better than they were the last time I tried a sketch of my face. That other exercise was done under duress (most of me resisted while my inner artist insisted). This image came more naturally. I think this captures the family nose, the Magyar features, the dominant mono-brow, my salt-and-pepper hair and beard. This is how I see myself - and that's another reason for self-portraiture. We all see people differently. I know this must be true from the time years ago when I shaved off my beard and mustache just before a big company gathering, and people ranged in reaction from not knowing what I'd changed, to not recognizing me at all (one guy sat right next to me, assuming I was a stranger, until I spoke to someone else and my voice made him jump). We tune in to different aspects of faces. When an artist captures a face in paint, it's edited down to the things the artist is tuned to - what you get is not the person, but how the artist sees the person, now made visible for everyone else. This does a pretty good job in my case - this is how I look to me.

I can't say when the idea came to do a self portrait on this piece. I was going somewhere else entirely, then it needed a face, then it became my face, then it became only about my face (the other things that were going to be in this painting no longer worked or needed to be there). I may still go to that other place on another piece - I'd like to. But this isn't it. This is still wrapped up in daydreams of summer, though, and late evening summer skies. So it's not just me, it's also my thoughts.

PS - yep, the family thought it was not the me they see (too severe, too Asian). They had a good time with it, as did I. Not so long ago I could not have joked about my painting - I would have had to do something about every comment. Now I just think the different viewpoints are smart, interesting, funny - but not necessarily compelling me to change the work.


Alex said...

It is very much a 'truth' that the artist's perspective distorts the image. While this is unarguably "you," it is certainly not how I perceive you. (I won't use this space to point out how my perception of your features differs from yours. I don't think it's relevant.)

However, I do find it interesting that what I had first dismissed as exaggeration is, in fact, an honest commitment to your view of yourself. I applaud your commitment and the bravery inherent in sharing this view with us.

I will point out one difference between this portrait and the face I usually see... The face I'm familiar with is smiling.

Steve Emery said...

Many thanks for the comment, and the thoughts behind it. It made me think about how we look at ourselves in the mirror and generally don't see smiles. I smile at other people (so naturally they see me that way) while I look into myself with concentration (so that's how I see myself). I suspect this is true for most people.

It also made me think of all the people I know whose "at rest" face does not look inviting. Many of them are actually sunshiny persons, quick to smile or laugh. I had heard for years that, "As we age, we get the face we deserve," which is a reference to the way faces show the accumulated emotions expressed over time. If we laugh and smile a lot, we get "laugh lines." If we worry or frown most of the time, we look like it all the time. "Johnny, if you keep making that face it might get stuck!" But in fact I think genes and other forces (like gravity) have as much or more to say about the shape and default expression on our expressionless faces. Mine at rest isn't happy looking - I think few Magyar faces are - but inside I'm generally pretty upbeat, and I laugh and smile more easily and far more often than I frown.