Self-Portraits (and Why)

sketch of teen girl

I’ve been sketching my own face off and on for the past twenty years.  Above is a scan of the first sketch – August of 1993 would have put me at eighteen, and weeks away from leaving my small, rural hometown and going to college.  I remember standing in my bedroom, sketching the image in the mirror of the art deco vanity.

Even then, I was aware that it was a reflection of more than my image in the mirror, so I insisted on keeping the lettering on my sweatshirt backwards, even though I didn’t place a sketchpad in my hands in the image.  What I didn’t know when I did that first sketch was that I’d started something I would revisit over the years.  My sketch pads are full of scribbles. Stupid stuff, doodles. There aren’t any recognizable images until you happen upon the next self-portrait.

What I like about the one at eighteen is that you can tell I’m insecure and scared. You can tell I want to hide. I want to hide inside huge clothes. I want to hide behind my hair.  I look like I’m peeping out a window just getting my first glimpse of a wider world, and realizing that I have to go out there and face it.

Fast forward twenty years:

three sketches

Last night, I did these. I’ve never added color or ink before, so let’s blame my new habit of reading comics for that.

I didn’t set out with the intention of actually doing an “official” sketch. I was playing with lighting, with my hair, with color. I guess this is as official as any of them ever are, though.  I was trying for less detail, more “cartoony” looks in the lower two. To make it look less accurately like me, and more like a character.

I think the top one looks the most like me, which is not surprising. Pencil is my preferred medium for these things.

I had a blank face while I sketched. Sometimes I smile. I don’t like the sketches where I smile. They never look really happy. They look contrived and forced. I don’t smile when I’m sketching my dog, why the heck would I do it when I am sketching me?   I don’t mind the blank facial expression. Brett’s first response when he saw these was “I think of your mouth as bigger than that because you’re always smiling.”   The only other thing he said was that the one in color “has the right hair.”

I do these because it forces me to reduce my face to line, contour and shadow. When I’m trying to sketch the shape of my eye, I’m not worried about who it is I’m looking at. It forces me to step away from my assumptions and the things I expect to see in my face, and lets me see what’s really there.  The internal dissonance between the warring observations of the mirror and what goes on inside my head is often put to rest after my sketch work. It’s there, on paper. Just as I saw it.

Sometimes, the sketches will show me something about my internal state. The 1993 one looks terrified. The 2011 one looks really tired, with deep circles under her eyes. My tiny pencil faces have varying degrees of confidence. Varying degrees of pain.  Last night’s ponytailed sketch looks truly blank to me. Neither happy nor sad. Neither confident nor shy.  She doesn’t look tired, or excited, or anything at all. She just is. I just am.

I’m okay with that.



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