Dear Artist,

I’m laptopping you from an airplane somewhere over the Atlantic, where I’ve been reading 29-year-old filmmaker Lena Dunham’s 2014 memoir, Not That Kind of Girl. Risking an evening of unsavoury navel gazing or too much of the wrong information, I find the book has instead revealed the tale of a human being unloading a poker-faced truth. “She simply tells her story as if it might be interesting,” wrote artist Miranda July of Lena’s work. I thought of painting.


oil on canvas 1971
by Francis Bacon (1909-1992)
“I loathe my own face, and I’ve done self-portraits because I’ve had nobody else to do.” (Francis Bacon)

Long ago at art school, we were given the assignment of doing a self-portrait. At the time, a couple of my classmates were using photographic reference for all kinds of paintings, reproducing the croppy two-dimensionality of 3 x 5 inch colour prints, soft-edged and personal, with a narrative quality I admired. But for this job, the professor banned the use of photos and told us to use a mirror instead.

I stretched an over-sized canvas and propped a full-length hardware store mirror on the floor, thinking I could get to the meat of my twenty year-old face by focusing on lights, darks and experimental passages of fleshy colour. I stared into the dimensions of the mirror like it was a crystal ball, quietly passing through the imaginary person I thought I wanted to paint and into the possibility of a clearer truth.

Here’s an exercise: Without setting up a pose and without props, describe in paint your face as you really see it. Temper realism with poetry — a richer painting exists just beyond the values. Use the depth in the mirror — a photo is a flat illusion. Bump up the size if you feel it. Work with an uncomfortably big brush. Pay attention to lighting, inner and outer. Cast off your own prejudice and associations and avoid fashion, iconography, reference and homage. You’re an original. Tell your story as if it might be interesting.


“Self-portrait with hummingbird”
pencil drawing
Frida Kahlo (1907–1954)
“I paint self-portraits because I am so often alone, because I am the person I know best.” (Frida Kahlo)



PS: To be yourself in a world that is constantly trying to make you something else is the greatest accomplishment. (Ralph Waldo Emerson)

“All has not been said and never will be.” (Samuel Beckett)

Esoterica: It takes courage to trust that your stories may be recognizable to others and therefore be valuable. Lena Dunham is the daughter of a father-painter and mother-photographer and is herself the writer, director and producer of two independent films and the HBO comedy series “Girls.” She also acts in her own productions. “Respect isn’t something you command through intimidation and intellectual bullying,” Lena says her mother taught her. “It’s something you build through a long life of treating people how you want to be treated and focusing on your mission.” “How quickly you transform the energy, life throws you into folded bows of art,” Lena’s father told her. “Every time I start feeling sexy, I trip.” (Lena Dunham)



  1. David Hanson on

    Interesting thoughts on self portraits. I will try it. But where is yours? I think you should post it
    Thanks for your work and for keeping your Dad alive as you have done

  2. OK I too have done a number of self portraits. One was done in a session with a teacher who demanded we not look at the paper but just the mirror and draw. Looks wild but captures certain features.
    Now my question: Is the fact that one does a self motivated self portrait a sign of narcissism? I enjoy doing it but wonder what others think when they see a 1/2 dozen.. Then of course Rembrandt did over 30. I usually work in soft graphite and water color.
    Best. Ben

    • David Leffel is a portrait artist who appears to have dozens of self portraits without self-aggrandizement. As near as I can tell all it has done is make him a better artist.

    • At first, I thought doing so many self portraits was narcisstic, but then I realized I was the only person I could experiment with who wouldn’t mind if I botched it. I am also always available.

  3. This sounds like a really good exercise. I did a couple of self portraits about 15 years ago–I liked them and I enjoyed the process of seeing ‘beyond’ my features. Time to do this exercise again. Thanks for the inspiration!

  4. The last time I did a self portrait was over forty years ago. The intervening time has been taken up by family, work and a passion for keeping and competing horses. Times have changed (as I knew they would) and I’m here again with a paint brush in my hand. I’m new to your ‘letters’ but your latest has provided just the inspiration I needed. Thanks!

    • Welcome back to art world. I too painted as time allowed till retirement. Now I’m painting full time and discovered I hate painting in a job-like fashion. Day to day is okay as long as you keep it fun and don’t get hung up on conscientious self improvement. That happened to me and nearly killed the love. –the love is back now that I cut sessions short and quit striving, thinking too much. The work got better, freer, more original, the more I followed my Intuition and didn’t look at what others were doing. Just a heads up on protecting your originality. Happy painting. (First painting I did was a self portrait. I think that one may have been narcistic). :-))

  5. The first and last self portrait I painted was many years ago after my mother passed away. It was a combination of her and myself. I had just become a mother myself, and I remember crying as I painted it. How I wish I knew what happened to that painting. I may try again, after reading your letter. As David Hanson said, “Thank you for keeping your Dad alive in these always interesting letters!”

  6. Someone said all portraits are self portraits. I’m an abstract painter and feel that each one of my paintings is a self portrait even though there may be no likeness visible. This can be troubling for instance I once was feeling blocked so I took a 40×30″ canvas and a 4 inch spatula with a glob of red paint on it and plunged into swift and sweeping strokes. I usually paint in multiple layers so this would have been just the beginning. Buyt when a stood back and looked it over I was shocked. It look like a demon or devil. I felt like guessing it over. But I shared it with one of my art teachers from long ago and she said don’t do that! Get into it, remember it’s just another aspect of yourself. So I stuck with it and did some reading too. C.G. Young (sp?) wrote that the more creative you are the more likely the “shadow side” will manifest in your work. I don’t remember if he or I came up with the idea, but I realized that there is no shadow without light. I would add that there are no portraits without the artist in them.

  7. I have never done a self-portrait. I guess I’ve always been intimidated by the idea, and brushed it off as being narcissistic. I love the instructions you’ve included – to go beyond just the features of one’s face. I am inspired to try this!
    I agree with David Hanson in the comments above – I’d love to see yours!

  8. I take great delight in looking at everything in this wonderful world and going back to the studio to interpret what I’ve seen and felt. I look at myself in the mirror at least once a day, to brush my hair, apply makeup, brush my teeth, etc. But it’s almost painful to think about painting the image with which I am most familiar. I’m not sure I can get past the old trite judgments of wrinkles and discolourations. Will it be seen as narcissistic, as Ben says? I feel like my face is an open book and people will see too much or might feel they can comment. Freda made it her passion….her journey was to understand her life through her self-portraits as though she had no hand in her choices. But I think it’s a great challenge, since it’s been at least thirty years since I’ve done one.

  9. If life was so simple if our tasks be so easy if knowing our road that leads to where and our image is not who we are but a second in time that falls away like petals in the wind.

  10. I once tried to do a self portrait about 30 yrs ago. After 20 mintes I began to cry, I mean sobbing and sobbing! I’m afraid to do it again. After 30 yrs, if I try again, I’ll have something to cry about!

    • I collect painters self portraits on Pinterest. You may enjoy looking at them. I once bought a dollar store mirror and smashed it, then painted the fractured reflections of my face.

      Lisa Greenstein

    • I was in group therapy once for depression, years ago. We began with a self portrait in graphite and at the end did another. There was a huge difference. The improvement in my outlook on life showed in my self portrait.
      Don’t be afraid. It’s your life, embrace it.

  11. I can really identify with a need to portray the human, be it figure or portrait, in oil. So, it’s convenient to have someone who is willing, free and able to work exactly the same ( sometimes unusual) hours as I do and who shares my great enthusiasms and inevitable deflations. Importantly too, one who appreciates the fact that at times, so much more than just a likeness needs to be extracted … one who (perhaps, unlike the subject of a commissioned piece) sees no real need to be flattered either! This surely, is the reason why so many painters make so many self portraits. There is a joyous freedom involved.

  12. Paulette Worrall on

    I’ve only done one self portrait and it was while I was battling ..c.. , I was grieving the loss of all my hair. I had taken to
    wearing beautiful scarves…so sat in front of the mirror and sketched me in my beautiful silk headdress. What stands out to me now about that portrait… seven glorious years later… is the whole journey and so many emotions are all in the eyes of the portrait…sadness, fear, loneliness, and yet faith and it was the faith that pulled me through.

  13. Disa Marie Hale on

    How timely. Eleven of us meet every three weeks, sharing artists that are important to us, and working together sharing our ups and downs. We just talked about each of us doing a self-portrait, give us three months or so, and see what we come up with. I will take this to the next meeting as it sounds like great info for a scary and complicated subject. Nothing like risking. Enjoy your keys. Disa M

  14. About three years ago I decided it would be a good plan to paint myself on all the birthdays I have left. I may watch myself age (which I confess fascinates me some), but I should also be a much better painter come that last one :)

  15. I remember your painting, Sara. It was leaning up against your bedroom wall in your freezing fucking cold house in Kingston. In it, you looked younger than your age, like you painted somebody you remembered. I thought it was very beautiful, and I hope you still have it.
    Love, your cousin. XO

  16. I’ve often thought of doing a self portrait. But I picture it looking like a collage of what I mostly think about on an average day rather than looking like an image of my face or my body. Or maybe it could have a front and a back? The collage on the front and the more realistic image on the back.

  17. I may be putting off a self portrait because I feel like I mis-see what’s in the mirror — you know, oh, my nose isn’t that big! etc. Maybe by using a mirror image reflected in a mirror would help see without personal prejudice… A bit like using a mirror to double one half of your face.

  18. I don’t think self-portraits are about narcissism. We are our own cheapest, most cooperative, most available models. Perfect for painting and drawing practice!

  19. Anne Bradley on

    Hi Sara:

    The new format really makes me want to cease and desist from receiving your newsletters.

    The “Painter’s Keys” is much to start for early morning reading. Bold black and what just gives me the creep! I loved seeing the photo of your father on the cover of his book.

    Can’t you and your advisers come up with something, anything to improve this newsletter?

    Otherwise, just take my name off of your list.

    Thank you,

    Anne Bradley

    • Hi agree Ann, I have this problem too. The way I have overcome my issue is to read the letter in the afternoon. Problem solved.

  20. Ellen McCord on

    I’ve done this several times and love the exercise, especially as I look back at the results. Great suggestion. Time to do another one.

  21. People think a photograph is an exact replica of what we see, but it isn’t. It is an illusion, just as a painting is an illusion. They are not real. If you are ever told photos tell the truth, don’t believe it!
    Sara, you are correct – photography gives us a flattened perspective. No sense of space between objects. It removes all sense of perspective and depth. The shadows are also always too dark, and the darks too dark. In real life there are always more colors and light, reflected lights, on objects, light and atmosphere in space, even on a facial portrait, etc. If you copy the photo exactly with shapes values and colors, it will look dead. Without life. If you are working with photos, they are not showing all the subtleties we see with our own eyes.
    I enjoyed this Newsletter issue.

  22. I have done two self portraits, both of which I see very clearly in my mind, even though both are buried somewhere
    in plan-file drawers. The first is, as I recall, a little scary, and I need to dig it out and reflect on whatever prompted such an undertaking… it was at a point in time when I was pushing to find “me” in my work. The second is one that I did after the loss of my son, and (weirdly) I have absolutely no recollection of the experience or process of painting it, but it exists. I do remember looking at it and having no sense of how it came to be.

  23. I recall my instructor in a drawing class suggesting as we worked on our final piece, a self-portrait, that doing a self portrait every once in a while is a valuable exercise. I agree at least for me it allows me be more observant and take less for granted. I particularly love this comment; Lena’s father told her. “Every time I start feeling sexy, I trip.” (Lena Dunham)

  24. Dear Sara,

    Self-portrait is a meaning of your life , your qualities and your experience. As an artist, doing a self-portrait is looking at yourself in the mirror . It helps me to relieve my anxiety . On the other hand, I just came back from Cuba and on the plane, I was doing sketches , portraits, etc. And passengers were happy to look at.


  25. As always , today’s inspiration is So good –

    I happen to be doing portraits of all sorts right now and WILL do the selp-portrait ASAP – and send in a photo of it………..can mine look like Greer Grson? She is the one I see in the mirror when it mustt be the bet of me. :-)

    Your fan,


    P.S. Here is anotherf idea for a “Painters keys” newletter.
    Fascinated by “Tim’s Vermeer” – trying the small mirror tehnique and light box things, too.

  26. Sara, thank you for this inspiration. I’ve done self portrait realism in oil on canvas, but I like contour drawing portraits best (keeping my eyes on the image in the mirror at all times) because it’s spontaneous, quick and fun. Next time I’ll add paint and light as you suggested. Thank You,

  27. I have done a self portrait for years on or around my birthday, I am the most inexpensive model out there. It has always been with a mirror and some years it look pretty scary. This years was one of those, it reminds me of one of Frida’s I like it, but kind of dark. In each painting you learn something.

  28. I do a selfie every few years. I love portraiture and of course I am always available as Francis Bacon so aptly put it. Each time I do one I can’t help thinking of Vincent VanGogh. Like him, I always look so serious, maybe even wounded.

  29. In an effort to draw more faces I have begun by using myself as the model. It’s a hard thing to do – especially when you are 65 and want to be somewhat realistic. Inside I still feel like 30 – and although I haven’t aged horribly – I definitely have aged. I love your suggestions and will definitely try them. I love that although you are using your own voice – you are keeping up what your dad started.

    • o yes seeing oneself at 65 or 68 which i am is somewhat shocking. But I’m into considering those lines, wrinkles and bags under the eyes as enriching experiences. You’ve got to see there is still beauty there

  30. I have been looking at myself a lot in the mirror. I made a commitment to create 52 Divas, a visual chronicle and affirmations of my life until the series is complete.
    “A soul never speaks without an image.” ~Aristotle

  31. Its 5:59 here in New Mexico and Ican’t sleep so I am browsing recent comment.
    Self portraits is a topic near and dear to my heart.
    Every artist should paint at least one self-portrait. That’s my opinion.
    I do one a year…or there abouts.
    In the beginning I did it because one of my mentors did it. Rembrandt.
    At first, they were just images. Not seemingly significant since my skill level was still developing. Some canvases I have even “re-purposed” over time. Which in retrospect was not a wise idea.
    Don’t get me wrong. I don’t consider my self a Rembrandt but I saw the process on several levels.
    One, it was a record of your ability to do portraits, which I aspired to. You could practice you skills and the model would sit as long as you would like. and for free. I didn’t have to pay myself.
    Two, it was a record of who are you- over time. I suppose I wanted to see my maturity; as a painter and as a person. I was always brutal, or I should say honest with every attempt. More so than with client portraits.
    Three, there was this “Dorian Gray” aspect to it. For those unfamiliar with Dorian Gray, there is the Internet. Check it out.
    Nowadays, everyone is into “selfies”. This is the ultimate original selfie.
    I still do them but now I am more creative. Maybe even more brutal. Or maybe I’m just getting so old looking they seem brutal and much too honest. The last one was me looking into a mirror, looking into a mirror. Sounds weird but it gives you a truthful image, not a reflection of your image.
    Looking back at them today is enlightening. You will learn a heck of a lot. about yourself and your honesty in your work.

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