Self-Portraits of a Stranger


Drawing, for me, more so than writing, has been about looking outward; the glance directed at others real, imagined, and everything in between. It is the ultimate tool of observation, the all-inquisitive Eye cooly extended forward.

The thought of doing self-portraits almost never occurred to me, and when it did, it was met with a hard pass. I’ve always looked at others’ with a careful dose of admiration, admiration which ceases at the threshold of inspiration: it is impressive, but not so impressive that I’d want to try it. I was aware that this stood in stark contrast with the way art usually makes me feel; if I like it, it stimulates me.

If it stimulates me: I must try it.

I didn’t allow myself to question this impulse to censor: self-effacement at all cost, after all, has often been my natural instinct. Why should I want to draw myself? What would be the purpose of spending the same amount of time and care on my face, a face I see, and very seldom like, when I already know it well enough? when I would probably discard it as soon as it was finished? when the very idea of selfies make me uncomfortable? when my eye is a weapon turned on my body with the precision of a knife, dissecting its every surface?

My neuroses are showing. 

Somewhere down the road, I took a drawing class, in a genuine attempt to:

a- get out of my own head,

b- find like-minded people in order to pique my inspiration (I had fallen in a rut of late),

c- tame my nascent ego: I’ve treated my drawing the way one would nurse an adolescent tantrum: you couldn't possibly teach me anything.

While my drawing, was not affected in any way, I, myself, came out of it completely reborn. Over the course of the semester, I was made to try things I hated (and thus confront the notion that life had hardened me to the point that I was unwilling to try new things); I was critiqued and criticized, and the rawness of it was an exquisite punishment, a reminder that I had become complacent, and that my laurels had been poisoning me for far too long; I was challenged and dragged out of my comfort zone; my eyes were opened — wide: not only to the magnitude of my world, but also to how much bigger I could make it, by looking inward and probing the dormant child who had loved drawing before she could even write.

The rawness of it was an exquisite punishment, a reminder that I had become complacent, and that my laurels had been poisoning me for far too long.

Much of this flash of insight was prompted by the months-long task we were assigned during our very first class: namely, to make (draw, sculpt, sketch, paint) a self-portrait every single week. Irritation gave way to a profound paralysis I tried to brush away, before I realized it was going absolutely nowhere. It did not take long, every time I sat the paper on the desk and swiveled the mirror to face me, to be reduced to near-tears. It was embarrassing, hilarious, until it wasn’t anymore. Repeatedly crying in front of a mirror because you have to draw yourself is quite bewildering, and I absolutely refused to tell my teacher — or anyone, for that matter — that it was the reason I hadn’t been turning in that particular assignment. 

It doesn’t take a genius to know that this has nothing to do with the drawing, with the task at hand, but with something else entirely. Despite my lifelong turbulent relationship with my body, it still took me nearly four months before I admitted that that “something else” stemmed from there, rather than obsessive self-criticism about my abilities.

My very first self-portrait was so impersonal, I could have been drawing a stranger; and perhaps that had been the intent. I cast furtive looks at my reflection as I traced vague, unfocused lines that could have been forming my face, or that of some girl who may have looked like me. The end result was something so beneath my skill that I tacked some tracing paper onto it, sprayed the whole thing with glitter and labeled it “interpretative”. No one can argue with interpretative art.

The second self-portrait was, in many ways, better-but-also-worse. I had been crying again, which gave me an idea: I pounced on watercolor, latching onto it like a lifeboat, and as underwhelming as the outcome was, it was still something. Watercolor is forgiving, in that it allows for an impressionistic approach, which is precisely the cop-out I was looking for. Yes indeed, I would call this one impressionistic.

Inspired by my accomplishment with the previous one, I decided to swing the other way for the next one: namely, venturing into bold, robust charcoals to produce something that, in theory, was me, but wasn’t exactly me either. I hid behind the thick, slate lines and the aggressive strokes of shadow, the way I hid my tenderness behind leather jackets. I proudly handed this one in, the explanation ready on my lips: expressionistic, ha-ha. 

I suspect my teacher could see through me, but I’d meet her halfway with a cheeky, ready made, borderline-pretentious answer before she could purse her lips in disapproval, and declare my efforts so-so.

This one’s cubist. It’s just the way it is, sorry you can’t see my eyes very well.

Oh no, it’s pop-art. I’m meant to look like a cartoon.

You did say we could inspire our self-portraits from works of art. I went with Pollock on this one. 

But over the following weeks, my self-deception began to waver, as I ran out of excuses and of ways to hide: I had papier-maché-ed myself, lathered my own face behind dense, heavy oils, sketched liberally over one of my photographs, fair-isled a tiny replica of me, and so forth, until every medium screamed back in exasperation: why don’t you stop being difficult, and just draw your face? 

Before the purely hidden emotional aspects come into play, the Ruminator, present in every artist, of every kind, takes a seat at the table. It's hard enough to have to set the pencil on the paper the right way when all the while, there are thousands of things running through your head. You think you're going do it wrong before you even do it; you think you're going to spoil the entire thing, like it's something precious, like it's something perishable, like it's not even yours, which is very irrational, seeing as you have a near endless supply of paper, pencils, erasers, and ideas (those you have too much of, admittedly). 

You do too much, and you are a narcissist ... You try too little, and ... it’s not even art anymore.

Why don’t you stop being difficult, and just draw your face?, the voices would say again, in tandem, and to this I would respond: the already delicate affair is made all the more daunting. Although you are no longer exercising your talents for others, the care and the attention given is expected to be the same. You do too much, and you are a narcissist, it's overdone, it's a conceited piece of art trash. You try too little, and it's a whole different debate. It's not even art anymore. Or maybe it is, in this twisted, anti-aesthetic way, which in itself might still be considered a piece of art trash. 

You overthink, you try to tell yourself, with little conviction. Well, for something that's supposed to be so straightforward, and so intimate, self-portraits are way more complicated than they have any right to be.

Drawing has eviscerated me ever since I could pick up the pencil. It is an exhilarating sensation, the feeling that you are going head to head with that which will reveal the deepest parts of yourself, to yourself. It follows, then, that as I grew more and more tormented, over the years, by things intrinsic and extrinsic, that prospect got scarier and scarier. To turn the Eye inward, unto everything I was growing to despise, was the equivalent of looking at the proverbial abyss: I know how the rest of that sentence goes. 

It might be the fact that, in order to draw yourself, you have to look at yourself both ways: firstly, as if you did not know who you were, as if you were seeing yourself for the very first time, as if you were another person seated in front of you. And then, concurrently, as a person you know too well. You know this face. You see it everyday. You know what could make it beautiful, you know what makes it hideous, and while it's easy to look away, usually, when things get too intense, when you are ashamed, when you think a little less of yourself than you should, when you don't recognize yourself and when you are scared because you know you are capable of hurting yourself: try as you might, this time you have to hold your own gaze. You have to keep looking. Beyond when it's too painful, when it's embarrassing, when it's uncomfortable. You have to keep looking. And looking, and looking. 

Until you think you've got it right, until you end up with said self-portrait. All your fears, justified or not, have led to this, and maybe you'll think it was worth it. 

I couldn’t have known that a self-portrait assignment for an art class I almost didn’t take would have led me to this about-face.

Long after that course has ended, I was left slightly reeling, like I had blinked up at the sun for far too long. I couldn’t have known that a self-portrait assignment for an art class I almost didn’t take would have led me to this about-face, no pun intended. I haven’t drawn a self-portrait since, but the aftereffects of the experience haven’t worn off yet, probably never will. It wasn’t immediately therapeutic: in fact, in the short term, it was quite the opposite. I didn’t like looking at my body any more than I had to, and it triggered me more than once: but I did it nonetheless (subtracting my initial attempts at cheating the assignment).

In the long term, however, I found something close to catharsis. That potent, toxic mix of ego, need, love and loathing had transformed me, because that’s what art does. I still hate it, but I never truly lost the habit: 

I look at myself now. 

I look at myself, in passing, in stolen glances, or boldly, halting everything to return my own stare. I look at myself in the reflection of a spoon, in the darkened screen of my laptop. I look at myself from the corner of my eye, or in double, triple takes. I look at myself in sequence, first my nose, then my upper lip, then my eyelashes, or else in full, taking in the imprints that my father and my mother left on me. Sometimes I pretend I’m a stranger, so that I may gaze more liberally at what makes this face so special: because truly, it is. Sometimes I look for the long-lost child in my features, any reminder of the friendship I used to entertain with myself. 

But truly, the how or the why are so trivial, in the grand scope of things.

I look at myself now.