Selfie Culture and Contemporary Portraiture

Selfie Culture

The word “selfie” was named The Oxford Dictionary’s word of the year in 2013. The popularity of selfie culture highlights a compelling human desire to create a visual likeness of ourselves. Our easy access to cheap camera phones and fast internet has created a frenzied culture of taking and sharing selfies on social media. This article will consider the positioning of the contemporary artist in relation to selfie culture.

Main image: Darren Butcher, oils, 23” x 23”

Arguably the first selfie was ‘Self Portrait in a Convex Mirror’ (1524) by Italian Mannerist painter Parmigianino. Art critic Jerry Saltz writes of this prototype selfie painting that “all the attributes of the selfie are here: the subject’s face from a bizarre angle, the elongated arm, foreshortening, compositional distortion, the close-in intimacy”. If the selfie manifested first as a painting its current evolution is as digital photographic form, suggesting that selfies are identifiable through a particular attitude which is distinct from self-portraiture. Parmagianino’s painting has this particular attitude, described by poet John Ashberry, who writes of this painting: “the right hand / Bigger than the head, thrust at the viewer / And swerving easily away, as though to protect what it advertises.”

Self Portrait in a Convex Mirror by Parmigianino, Oil on board, 1524

It makes sense therefore that early selfies were made by realist painters of themselves. In a brute simplification - the camera phone lens replaces the realist painter and the method of reproduction has simply become automatic. Before photography, portraiture was a rare luxury, the preserve of the wealthy who were able to commission painters to render their likeness. To go full circle the realist painter can now also paint from digital selfies, creating a hot mess of metaphysical entanglements.

The selfie phenomenon is compelling, our collective engagement with selfie culture is a rhetorical celebration of self, serving as the ultimate ‘I woz ‘ere’. Selfies hold us under a strange spell, offering an affirmation of shared human values and existential reassurance in an otherwise unsettling digital expanse. I take a selfie therefore I am. The act of taking a selfie offers a power and currency in which we can each shape our own aesthetic digital presence.

All selfies are by nature transient and disposable, continually replaced by each new and present moment. Each selfie is mundane and non spectacular through their over-saturated collective existence. They also offer individual insights into our being-in-the-world in which we are central to the composition. The viewer can glimpse insights into our private lives; perhaps a messy bedroom, cluttered art studio, or office bathroom.

Digital sketch by Milo Hartnoll of a selfie by @Johanneswelwich

Selfies can be carefully curated, controlled and choreographed. They allow us to look our best through digital filters; more youthful, with bigger eyes and a narrower nose, smoother skin in a softer cooler light. They can also manifest in more candid and less flattering ways, rejecting conventional beauty standards and re-defining them.

For visual artists, selfie photographs are an immediate and readily available source of reference. The varied facial ages, shapes, angles, and lighting scenarios lend themselves to drawing and painting. Online communities of artists such as Cane.Yoshare selfies as well as other photo references. Since many artists respond to the same image, this plurality offers insights into process and ways of approaching image making, combining individual and collective practice. Creating artwork from selfies has been embraced by artists as a way to connect with each other online. A physical artwork on paper or canvas becomes a singular unique art piece, it reproduces and postulates the digital selfie. The artist is not necessarily the original creator, they have responded to the selfie and added a second narrative and visual truth. Artwork from selfies denotes value in and through the act of creation.

Oil painting by Milo Hartnoll from a selfie by Janine

Contemporary artists who create work from selfies and digital portraits:

Nicolás Uribe

Nic Uribe is a prolific and celebrated painter who sometimes works from photo reference shared through the ‘Cane-Yo’ online artist community. He writes of this experience that it is about “what you do with it…[the photo reference] only becomes activated once a lot of people start painting the same subject. The end result is not a best to worst spreadsheet, but a cumulative effort where the fascinating thing is celebrating persona; interpretations while also identifying visual cues that are shared. A truly wonderful thing”.

Josie” by Nicolas Uribe, Oil on cardboard mounted on wood.

Darren Butcher 

Darren is a skilled oil painter and friend of Draw. His painting is composed of many selfies which were submitted separately on instagram. This recent piece is of NHS workers all wearing their PPE during the pandemic.

 Darren Butcher, NHS Workers, Oils.

Liesel Thomas 

Liesel’s painting “Self Portrait” was included in the BP Portrait Award in 2018. Liesel creates considered and intricate work from digital portraits and selfies. I’ll be interviewing her about her approaches to working from photo reference on Saturday 20th March 2pm UK time on instagram live for Draw Brighton.

Liesel Thomas, Self Portrait, Oil on panel 30 x 40cm

Exercise: Make your own artwork from a selfie

Take your own selfie as your photo reference, or work from a selfie taken by somebody else. In this example I’ve used an instagram selfie taken by Jazelle who has the instagram handle @uglyworldwide.

 Selfie by @uglyworldwide

You’ll need:

  • A sharp HB or mechanical pencil
  • Eraser/Sharpener
  • Heavy weight cartridge paper 220gms
  • A selection of Fine liners and brush pens. I used the Sakura Pigma Brush pens alongside Uni Pin fineliners.

(Useful but not essential):

  • A scanner
  • A printer
  • A light box
  • Ipad/Tablet and/or Procreate/Photoshop
  • Coloured media such as crayons, felt pens, watercolour, pastels.

Create a line drawing first in pencil (a HB or Mechanical is best) and then draw over these marks using a range of fine liner and/or brush pens. The pencil drawing should be detailed and accurate so that you can use a range of differently weighted fine liners and brush pens to confidently go over the top. Aim to create a lively and energetic line drawing which uses directional marks to describe the form and contours of the face. I gathered images of other artworks with line drawing styles that I wanted to explore or emulate and drew in response to these alongside the primary photo reference.

Brush pen drawing by Laura Ryan

When working from a photo reference I recommend printing the image out in black and white the same size as you plan to make the artwork. You can place it alongside the canvas/paper and use it as a reference for the size and proportion of shapes. Alongside this, keep your digital reference on screen and within view, so that you can have all the visual information you’ll need. Since your screen is likely to be smaller than your canvas, a print-out allows you to gain a sense of the overall more clearly. You can learn more about how to translate photo imagery here.

Colour your line drawing using watercolour, crayon, felt pens, pastels or digital methods. I’ve scanned in my drawing and used the programme Procreate to add colour using an ipad and apple pencil. The benefit of digital colouring is that it is easy to create multiple versions and go back on mistakes easily. Working on canvas or paper leaves you with a tangible physical product.

Digital artwork by Laura Ryan

If you’re working straight onto paper instead of digitally I recommend doing some media experimentations first which combine wet media, pen lines and your chosen paper. Ink pens which are water resistant are preferable to water soluble to avoid the line work running and smudging. It’s good to test this on separate paper to make sure your drawing doesn’t run and smudge. If you have access, scan and print your drawing onto cartridge paper to try out multiple colour palette iterations. 

Achieving a likeness is an elusive skill. It comes mostly through lots of practice of working from the head. Check important relationships between the features against your print out. To understand more about portraiture I recommend Jake Spicer's You Will be Able To Draw Faces By The End of This Book and Lance Richardson's excellent Draw Patreon tutorials.

You can share your selfie drawings and paintings with us using #drawbrighton

Finally to conclude…

Selfie culture can evoke initial knee-jerk reactions including a sense of despair at humanity's collective vanity and perceived narcissism. This modern phenomenon is here to stay - forcing a dialectic of profound inanity and vital relevance.

A selfie photo put through the app “Glazed”, using artificial intelligence to create a painted effect


This article was written by Laura Ryan and is a one-off published in advance of Lancelot's tutorials exploring the head, next week. You can look through past blogs using the Patreon Navigator HERE and watch some of Laura's recent interviews with artists who work from photo reference HERE

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