The Self Portrait

I painted this;

Figure 1 Self Portrait with a baleful eye, oils on 81 x 81 cm canvas

I worked from a photograph that I squared up onto an acrylic ochre ground, I painted a grisaille using black acrylic paint thinned with water

Figure 2 Grisaille stage complete, with the pencil grid visible in places

I then painted the final layer in oils, sometimes matching the tone of the grisaille, and sometimes using thinner paint to let the grisaille shine through.

It is a standard renaissance technique of a grisaille painted over with thin layers of oil paint although to complete the painting in a single layer is a bit of a tall order and the final layer was thicker than your average glaze. The whole thing took about 4 hours using a 50 mm decorating brush.

That is how it was done, why was it done? There is a long tradition of self portraiture in art and if you don’t do a self portrait people apply Freudian analysis to your other works to form an opinion of you, you must have heard the one about the Mona Lisa being Leonardo in drag (Hall p8).

The theory is that there is always something of the artist in his works because he must have been moved enough by his subject to want to spend the time to paint it in the first place. The Freudian analysts seize on this fact often ignoring the fact that an artist has a basic need to paint and will paint almost anything that he is remotely interested in to exercise that need. The remote interest could be as simple as how the light falls across an object.

I was interested in how the light falls across a human face and unfortunately I was the only human to hand with the time to spare so I painted myself.

The baleful eye provides a useful link to the Cindy Sherman exhibition I saw at the weekend. I did not know I had a baleful eye until the paint was dry and I think there is something about that baleful eye that says “Are you lookin at me”. It is just like Shakespeare said, “the world’s a stage, and each and every one of us must play his part” (Presley) I was playing my part, just as Sherman does in her film series or Artimesa Gentilesci in her history paintings.

The size of the painting and filling the frame with the head gives it a contemporary feel reminiscent of Saville or Lucien Freud, not Sigmund, that was three paragraphs ago.

What would I do if I had to do it again, well I would work from a sketch and mirrors rather than a photograph, that’s the narcissist in me talking, they say that the camera adds seven pounds, well it did, to my moustache, and then another seven pounds to each and every one of my features. Of course I would also allow myself a couple of extra glazes to smooth the transitions.


Hall. J. (2015) The Self Portrait: A Cultural History. London: Thames and Hudson