Every art teacher I have ever encountered has requested that their students produce at least one self-portrait. Many request even more. The reason for such a fascination is a mystery to me and has been a hurdle in my art career ever since pre-school, when the pattern began. I could ask an art teacher, but I’d rather create a passive-aggressive blog post in order to express my disdain for the artistic selfie culture.
I do not enjoy making self-portraits in any way. I do not like when I inevitably mess up and am forced to see my face distorted to look more like a gremlin than a human. I do not like finding or taking a reference picture that not only makes me look good, but is also from an angle that I can actually handle drawing. And most of all, I do not like observing my own face with the level of scrutiny necessary to reproduce it on paper.
I don’t think anybody really enjoys every piece of their face, and there is no better way to coax one’s insecurities out of hiding than to ask them to reproduce said flaws for the sake of art. So why are art teachers so insistent on doing so? And why from such a young age?
In the kindergarten classroom, portraits cover the walls at almost every time of year.
I asked a few kindergarteners what made art so important to them, and almost every one said either “I like to use crayons” or “because it doesn’t have to be real.” The children were so excited by the power they had to create reality out of nothing with their paints or markers in the classroom.
The concept of a self-portrait probably didn’t occur to them as a problem, seeing as the point of art is to make things that don’t exist anyway. When I was in kindergarten, I tried to draw a portrait, even using a mirror to make sure it would be accurate. I ended up with literal stars for pupils and a unibrow to rival that of Bert from “Sesame Street.”
But self-portraits seem to evolve from just another outlet for a childish imagination to more of an exploration of self-discovery as an artist grows older. For me, that concept is enough to keep me from even attempting one.
Vincent van Gogh’s self-portraits are famously reminiscent of his life at the time of painting. When he experienced large bouts of melancholia, he painted himself bedraggled and afraid in dark and muted colors. However, when his mind was not too much for him to handle, he looked happy and the colors were brighter and more lively.
Are art teachers checking on my mental stability based on the colors I use to draw myself? Do they wish to force me into that self-discovery? Do they want to bring out the sense of childish wonder that brought so many young people to draw themselves with stars in their eyes?
If that is the reason, Ms. PK has succeeded with me. The last time I attempted a self-portrait, I had pink hair and clear skin. My flaws were entirely erased, whether or not the insecurities that accompanied them were. Regardless, self-portraits can make or break an artist’s mental stability. They either force you to accept your insecurities, or force you to feel a sense of guilt upon omitting them.
I asked Ms. PK for her opinion on the subject. This is what she wrote.
“Why not a self-portrait?! Artists throughout the centuries have created self-portraits, to catch a likeness, to reveal the inner self, the soul. Self-portraits are a record of who you are at a certain time in your life. The intimate drawing of your own face with all the information right in front of you forces you to see. The study of facial proportions and learning, for example, that drawing a line down from the corner of the eye hits the corner of the nose, and that the center of the pupil matches up with the corner of the mouth is useful in the initial stages of a self-portrait, but really looking, really seeing to depict one’s unique identity is very special indeed. You might just find out something about who you really are.”