M2M Day 55: A critique of my self-portrait

This post is part of Month to Master, a 12-month accelerated learning project. For December, my goal is to draw a realistic self-portrait with only pencil and paper.

Yesterday, I declared this month’s challenge a success, noting the differences between my before and after self-portraits.

And while my most recent self-portrait is a major improvement, and does look very much like me, I still do have some quick critical thoughts on it, which I’ve broken down into two parts: 1. Likeness and 2. Artistry.

1. Likeness

  • Overall, the likeness is strong. The portrait unequivocally looks like me. Although, it isn’t perfect.
  • My expression/emotion in the portrait is plausibly mine, particularly in the eyes.
  • The shape of hair near the ear and back of the head is very accurate. However, the hair line doesn’t seem completely right, and it’s probably the second biggest reason why the portrait doesn’t look perfectly like me. The hair line should probably come down on the forehead and should be less rounded. When I snapped a photo of myself (on which I based this portrait), I had just gotten a shorter-than-normal haircut, which is probably why I’m not used to the haircut I drew.
  • On paper, I feel I captured the nose perfectly, but, as a result of the shadow, it may seem slightly too small/short. To address this, I could have accentuated the tonal difference between the cheek and the shadowed part of the nose, but I wanted to remain as tonally accurate as possible and chose not to.
  • I’m very happy with how the neck turned out. Its weight and main features (the Adam’s apple and the notch at my collar line) seem accurate.
  • There is something odd about the ear. It seems a bit out of place.
  • The eyebrows may be the slightest bit thin, but they are very close to reality.
  • The biggest potential miss is my cheek. While I do have prominent cheeks when I smile (which I’m not doing here), I also have a fairly slender face and a reasonably defined jaw. Depending on how I look at the cheek, it sometimes appears too round and too full. Other times, when I look at the portrait, my eye renders this area properly. If anything, I probably could have made the bottom of the face (in the rolling shadow) a bit more angular.

Nevertheless, even with these critiques in isolation, the portrait as a whole comes together nicely and captures a strong likeness. Thus, I’ve left it as is, since I care more about an overall likeness (versus a non-cohesive collection of individually accurate features).

2. Artistry

Before I drew my self-portrait, I drew a portrait of Derren Brown.

This portrait has two big advantages over my self-portrait: 1. The tonal range over the face is much greater, and 2. The midtone of the face matches the tone of the paper.

With my self-portrait, I strayed from both of these advantages. For one, on purpose. For the other, less so.

1. Narrow tonal range

Purposefully, I chose to base my self-portrait on a photo with a tighter tonal range, since I wanted to challenge and push my abilities (Drawing a portrait with heavy contrast requires less subtly and is, in my opinion, easier).

Arguably, the contrast of the Derren Brown portrait makes it a more visually compelling portrait, but this is another topic completely (first, I wanted to master accurate portraiture before tackling well-composed portraiture).

Even with the narrow tonal range, my self-portrait still maintains a believable roundness and depth.

2. Dark midtones

Less purposefully, I chose a photo where the midtone of my face was darker than the paper.

This was a bit of a mistake, but a good learning opportunity. As a result of this decision, unlike with my Derren portrait, I had to pencil-shade the mid-tones on my face, leading to a slightly dirtier portrait. (In the case with Derren, where there were midtones, I left the blank paper untouched and clean).

Especially before I smoothed out my face, it looked as if I had just been cleaning chimneys.

While the Derren Brown portrait (with its ultra-contrasty tonal range) may be a more dynamic portrait, my self portrait seems closer to photorealism, which is the main improvement I was aiming for.

Overall, I’m very happy with the result.

Read the next post. Read the previous post.

Max Deutsch is an obsessive learner, product builder, guinea pig for Month to Master, and founder at Openmind.

If you want to follow along with Max’s year-long accelerated learning project, make sure to follow this Medium account.