Drawing Your Self-Portrait

Many artists depict themselves in one or more self-portraits during their careers. These portraits do more than simply show us what the artists look like. They often reveal the artists’ personalities, interests, and lifestyles. In this activity, you will be drawing your own self-portrait, and in the process reveal something about yourself.

Materials: a pencil; scratch paper, a large sheet of paper; tempera, water colors, or colored pencils; a thin black marker, pen, or colored pencil; and a mirror and/or a photograph of yourself. If using a photo, the picture should tightly frame your face as you look straight into the camera.

Warming Up: Look at the Portraiture PowerPoint and review three to five of the portraits from The Person behind the Portrait.  In partners or small groups, discuss what you learned about the characters in the image from the portraits.  Think about how what you learn might help you create your own self-portrait and discuss that with your partner/small group. Be prepared to share the ideas of your partner/group members with the whole class.

Now think of the things that make you who you are, which might include some of the following:

Make a list of at least five words or phrases that describe who you are.  Share your list with a partner/small group.  Add to your list if your discussion sparked new ideas. Keep your list in mind as you create your self-portrait. 

Getting Started: To begin, take a close look at your face in the mirror. Look for unique details such as the shape of your nose, the shape of your eyes, and the shapes made by your hair. Notice that your eyes are midway between the top of your head and the bottom of your chin. Next, look at the contours of your face. Take your finger and follow along the edges of your face. If you press slightly, you’ll feel the bone structure that makes your face unique. Look at the areas where shadows appear.  Try to identify the shapes the shadows make and note the way the shadows darken the face.

If you have a photograph of yourself, repeat the process you used while looking in the mirror. As you are drawing, refer back to the mirror and your photograph.

Remember that your self-portrait will express who you are and how you perceive yourself. Objects, clothing, and the background of your portrait can also be clues or symbols revealing information or feeling in a portrait. The media you use to make a self-portrait can give a certain feel to the portrait, too. For example, for strong color impact, an artist might use tempera; for fine line detail, an artist might use pencil.

Brainstorm and choose the following:

Try a few quick sketches of your portrait to decide on the best composition. Consider the placement of yourself in the composition, the background, and the placement of objects.

The Activity: To start your drawing, orient your paper vertically.  Then follow the steps below to help you create your face proportionally:

  1. Sketch a large, slightly egg-shaped oval with the small side toward the bottom of the page. Leave only enough room below the oval to later add the neck and shoulders. Leave room at the top of the paper for hair.
  2. Draw a vertical line through the center of the oval. This is the center line.
  3. Draw a horizontal line halfway between the top and bottom of the oval. This is the eye line.
  4. Draw a horizontal line halfway between the eye line and the bottom of the oval. This is the nose line.
  5. Draw a horizontal line one-third of the distance below the nose line and the bottom of the oval. This is the mouth line.
  6. The top of the ear on each side of the head is even with the eye line.
  7. The bottom of the ears are even with the nose line.

Once you have your face drawn proportionally, add all the other key elements to your self-portrait. Look back at the mirror and/or your photo regularly as you draw.

When you’ve finished, hang up your drawing and stand back from it. Are you satisfied with the result? If so, sign and date your drawing at the bottom. If not, try another one. You’ll get better with practice.

Want To Do More?
Study self-portraits by Frida Kahlo, Rembrandt van Rijn, and Vincent van Gogh. What can you tell about these artists by looking at their portraits? How does their choice of medium affect the results? Do a self-portrait in another medium like charcoal, chalk, or tempera paint. Only, this time, work abstractly. Exaggerate your features. Use line and/or color to express something about your personality. When you’ve finished, pin both of your self-portraits up and stand back from them. Which one do you feel is better? Why? Ask others what they think of your portraits.

Want To Know More about Proportions?
Extended Lesson:

The Eyes

The Nose

The Lips

The Hair

The Neck

The Jaw