Each January, we come back to an 'All About Me' focus topic, which includes - among other regular features (more on those later) - a self portrait study.
As well as inspiration, the artists themselves offer opportunities for biographies and mini-projects, and there's so many fascinating tangents and offshoots on offer too. So many places to visit! So many rabbit holes to explore! An overwhelming range of possible directions, really. Safe to say it's a topic that's sure to last. Which is good, because it's taken me ages to pull this together!
I've hunted all over the internet for self portraits to include in our study and have ended up a wonderful, if extensive (!), range of 35 which I would love to share with you. I hope this collection will be a source of discussion, art appreciation, enjoyment, and gateways to other projects for many years to come.
I have tried to include portraits in a range of different media and techniques; across different countries, cultures and periods of history; and to feature a rich range of people, from the well known to the obscure.
The only thing I have avoided is anything too obviously ‘dark’ because I’m aiming this as something that can be revisited over time from a young starting point. I've been quite careful here, with a sensitive audience in mind, to avoid giving anyone nightmares! If starting from an older age/with a less sensitive child (/both, really) then you could include works like Andy Warhol’s final self portrait, Gustave Courbet’s ‘The Desperate Man’, Salvador Dali, Tracey Emin...the art world certainly has no shortage of personalities!
Besides Dürer’s ‘Self Portrait at the age of 13’, I struggled to find examples of self portraits created by children, so perhaps this is an omission our own children can address using some of the ideas below...
The possibilities with self portrait are overwhelmingly endless, but here are some ideas to try to get started. [Remember: mistakes, imperfections and surprises are all part of art! You are not 'getting it wrong' you are creating something.]
👩🎨 Draw directly onto a mirror using whiteboard markers/window crayons
👩🎨 Draw a self-portrait on paper frame (use a printed template, or there’s some nice cardboard ones available from the Ikea ‘Måla range at the moment). Use skin tones crayons/pencils, paints, pasta, fingerprints...the world is your artistic lobster.
👩🎨 Overlay a sheet of clear material (e.g. a sealed empty laminator pouch, the perspex from a photo frame, or an acetate sheet) on a large print out of your child's face so they can trace over the top of it with wipeable markers/window crayons.
👩🎨 Make a personal collage around a photo/drawing of themselves, or add a cut out photo (or several) of them at the end on top of the collage (raised on little paper concertinas?). For collage inspiration, try wrappers of favourite sweets, magazine cut outs (of hobbies, weather, places, foods, occasions etc), colour samples, numbers (a favourite/their age), letters of their name, flags, maps, a date (birthday), photos of relatives/friends/pets, zodiac symbol(s), flowers, finger/hand prints...
👩🎨 Build a portrait of a face using letters (handy if you have a small moveable alphabet set, or some alphabet fridge magnets). Try using letters from their name, or from meaningful words.
👩🎨 Create an arty invitation using an empty picture frame and a selection of loose parts...
Lovely wooden things sold specifically as 'loose parts' pictured, because they're pretty, but a selection of nuts, bolts and washers or a big bowl of nature finds would do the job just as well!
👩🎨 Stick a few cut out copies of the same picture of your child in a row onto a paper backing and ask them to add something to/around each photo that says something about them.
👩🎨 Make a self portrait pizza and eat your face.
👩🎨 Can you reveal part of yourself while concealing all of yourself? How could you show some of your personality without showing your face? What pattern(s) would you choose to represent yourself? [See: Delaney Allen's image in the download below]
👩🎨 How could you show part of your personality using your shadow? What background will you choose? How does this represent you? [See: Vivian Maier's image in the download below]
👩🎨 Set up a shot and take a photo of yourself using a self timer.
👩🎨 Can you create a self portrait using a continuous line drawing, or a wire (or pipe cleaners!). [See: Alexander Calder's image in the download below]
👩🎨 Use jigsaw pieces in a self portrait (draw/stick on the reverse of an old puzzle, or make use a set with missing pieces).
Self-portraiture is an irresistible invitation to learn more about an artist by first exploring how the artist views themselves. Where more than one self portrait exists, we can see how their identity and image change over time. It's also a great way to get us thinking about how we see ourselves, and to explore deep and unusual topics...this is more accessible than it sounds!
Deep is not the same as dark, and these ideas are open to all ages. Young children can offer their own unique take on these concepts and we'd miss out on their (often surprising) insight and (often frank!) perspective if we didn't make space and opportunity for their involvement. Of course it's not just about what we'd miss out on though. In short - don't assume these suggestions are too complicated and write them off.
Think of the topics below as dinner conversation starters, where everyone around the table can contribute. Don't serve them with pressure or expectation - if they flop, or turn into something silly, that's fine; if they turn into something more in depth or academic, also fine. Either way, I hope you enjoy the discussion, debate and digestion...
💭 Robert Cornelius’ self image (taken in 1839) is the first known photographic portrait. Do photographs count as self portraits? (Why/why not?) Is there a difference between a photographic self portrait and a ‘selfie’? If so, what are the differences?
💭 Ai-Da is a robot that (/who?) can create self portraits [see download below]. This quickly opens up a can of philosophical worms. A selfie by an artist without a self? The mind blows!
Also, is Ai-Da's art any different to something created by a print machine or a computerised engraving tool? How can you tell if something is made by a human or a machine? What 'self portrait' are we creating for ourselves in digital form? Yikes.
💭 Carolyn Lee Anderson's Self Portrait: Between Dinetah and Mni Sota [see download below] features her ancestral (Navajo) homeland and her birth home, with herself grounded in her earth home between them...
(1) What does 'home' mean to you? Is it one place, or more than one? Or not a place at all?(And how could you represent this in art?)
(2) How do you like to connect to the earth? Why is this connection important? (How would you represent this connection in your own self portrait?)
💭 I’ve found a few of the images featured in our study via the National Disability Arts Collection and Archive (https://the-ndaca.org), which is a brilliant resource and an excellent springboard into exploring the disability arts movement more deeply, as well as disability history and disability activism. Delve in!
💭 Gustav Klimt said, “There is no self-portrait of me. I am not interested in my own person as a ‘subject of a picture’ - more in other people, especially women, but even more so in other appearances. I am convinced that as a person I'm not particularly interesting. There is nothing that special to see when looking at me.” (On Fear and Self Portraits, 1990)
But, Frida Khalo said, “I paint self-portraits because I am so often alone, because I am the person I know best.”
So, two entirely different opinions to chew over there. Which angle do you relate to most? How important is it to have a self portrait of an artist available to understand their work? Or do they distract from it? Discuss!
And perhaps this gem from Delaney Allen could deepen that discussion further... “We tend to identify ourselves through others- I am her son, their friend, his girlfriend. But how do we find ourselves when we are alone?”.
Down the rabbit hole I go.
💭 Explore the theme of duality that features in some self portraits (for a couple of examples of this as a starting point - not included in the compilation below - see Frida Khalo (The Two Fridas) and M.F. Hussain).
Have you heard the parable of the two wolves? It's a little tangential, but go with it; a great opportunity to deepen emotional awareness, self understanding, and compassion. It goes like this...
A grandfather is talking with his grandson.
The grandfather says, “In life, there are two wolves inside of us which are always at battle. One is a good wolf which represents things like kindness, bravery, and love. The other is a bad wolf which represents things like greed, hatred, and fear”.
The grandson stops and thinks about it for a second then he looks up at his grandfather and says, “Grandfather, which one wins?”
The grandfather replies, “The one you feed.”
Much to get into! It's delicious. Sooo, how do you feed a good wolf? Are our inner selves really so extreme? Is the bad wolf just looking out for us in ways that aren't healthy? Is it more helpful to acknowledge (and decline) or ignore (or suppress) what the bad wolf says?
Artistic and linguistic metaphors for good and bad things often use black and white/dark and light colours. Can you think of any examples? (Muhammad Ali certainly could!) How did this evolve? Does this perpetuate racism? (Wolves, generally, also suffer metaphorically, I know.)
Can you think of an example of a situation where these wolves would disagree? What would they each say? What would you do? Do your wolves have names? Mine do, obviously. Gosh I love this. You can probably tell.
Just for fun
Watch this awesome music video. Towards the end it features a child pulling some shapes - always extra lovely to show children other children doing these brilliant things. Try this yourself with a mirror, or a friend!
FREE PRINTABLE! YAY!
Disclaimer. I do not own any of the artwork in our study and take no credit for any of it; that belongs to the artists. So, with that in mind, I wanted to clarify that I am making nothing from this download beyond the warm fuzzy feeling of satisfaction that comes with sharing something we're enjoying, and that works well for M's off piste educational journey.
I'm aware that Rembrandt is unlikely to care that I featured his work in our art study given that he's very dead, but many of the artists are still alive and making a living doing their thing, so I would wholeheartedly encourage you to get know their work more. And if you are one of those artists: you're brilliant, and pretty please don't sue me. 🙏😘✨