Starting A Self Portrait With The Composition Study

Continuing from my post earlier this week about creating my yearly self portrait and in time for Jerry’s Artarama Self Portrait Contest, I am beginning the process with a composition study sketch.

To read the previous post explaining the process of creating the general concept of the portrait, specifically the self portrait, click here: Painting The Self Portrait

And to find out about the contest, click here: Jerry’s Artarama Self Portrait Contest

Creating a self portrait can offer many opportunities for thinking outside the box.  I don’t intend to suggest that a standard, straight-forward self-portrait isn’t good enough, when in fact some of the most brilliant paintings I’ve ever seen are indeed a straight-forward (but hardly standard) a portrait of the artist.

Self Portrait Ideas


However, even Rembrandt played around with variety in the self portrait, and after doing so many, I’m sure it made sense to try something new now and then.

At least for me, after painting about 20 self portraits over the years, I’m looking forward to trying something that expresses more than just my skill level at the moment.  Typically, I’ve used a self portrait as just that, with the understanding that it would reflect on my life that year as well.  I have never intended a self portrait to be a statement about my life, nor do I have this aim now.  I only want to have a little more fun with it

So, knowing this, I began playing around with reflections.  What is not shown in the video above is that I wandered around my studio, my house, outside my house and even through my neighborhood checking out any reflection I could find.  I was particularly interested in window reflections, looking in from outside.  Some day I may try this, but not this year.

This year, I finally chose to keep it in the studio.  The weather changes a lot in March here in Colorado, and I don’t want to chance the trouble it causes while my schedule is so tight and unforgiving.

In the studio, I finally opted for a fairly normal looking composition with a straight-on angle through a mirror, but including the painting of the self portrait in progress in the reflection.  This poses an interesting challenge because I actually have to turn around, take in the image and then turn back toward the canvas.  It means being a little extra attentive.

The fun will come in by altering the styles for the self portrait from the portrait within the portrait.  It’s possible though, once I get into it, I’ll be so immersed in the technical aspects, I’ll neglect making anything too different.  This happens sometimes as I fall in love with the piece in progress and decide against doing anything more.

The Composition Study

For the composition study, it’s actually very simple.  While you can do this in color, I like to keep it on paper with charcoal in case I need to make a lot of them.  I don’t want to be tied into the material if I’m not happy with how it’s working.  With charcoal and paper, it’s easy to invest 10 minutes of time and no more than tomorrow’s kindling if it turns out bad.

In a composition, I am only looking at the broad shapes and angles.  I want to get an idea where the viewer’s eye will be led through the final painting.

Circuit of AttentionThis is a technique most often used by advertisers, but it is nothing new.  The Renaissance artists paid close attention to this, utilizing color, tonal variety and angles to move the viewer’s attention through the painting and always returning to a particular area of focus.

Creating a sort of Circuit of Attention, the viewer’s gaze will freely wander the painting and subconsciously continue to come back to a particular area of focus.

In my self portrait, I am working with a parallel image which will create a bouncing back and forth between the two portraits in the image: my self portrait, and the painting of my self portrait.  I’m doing this to create the attention on the relationship between the two portraits.  As I continue with final painting, I will pay attention to ways that I can provoke the viewer’s eye to continue a sort of dance between the portraits.

It is especially important to look for areas where the viewer’s attention will fade off or escape the painting.  These are typically overwhelming areas of negative space, but they can also be areas of too much clutter or information.

One of the best things to look for are if there are lines pointing the attention away and out of the painting.  A tea pot, for example may be positioned so the spout points toward the side of the canvas, and the viewer will see the teapot, but the attention of the viewer will have not remain long.

This is where composition studies can be so helpful.  Work on the broad shapes and main angles.  Look for areas where the focus can circulate or move dynamically through the painting, or else where the focus will get trapped or leave altogether.

Considering this in advance will ensure a stronger piece of art and the satisfaction will be exceptionally rewarding.

I hope this helps.  Please comment if you have questions, and if you work on your composition study, I’d love to see it.  You can share your own studies at my Facebook Page:

My only request is to not freely post any and all of your art.  If it’s not really related to one of my blog posts, it won’t stay there.

Okay, stay tuned for next week when I share the color sketches studies for the self portrait.

Matt Abraxas Fine Art and Illustration Studio

~Matt Abraxas