#365LoveNotesToSelf is a self-portrait project about giving the person in the mirror two self-loving gifts: time and looking deeply, because…
“If you can’t love yourself, how in the HELL you gonna love somebody else?”
The First 100 Days – 14 February to 24 March 2017
Among the reasons I started making self-portraits is because I had been struggling for some time with low mood and the negative self-talk kept creeping in. I had the idea that the only thing to make it all better, if you will forgive the artist pun, would be to take matters into my own hands.
It was Valentine’s Day, the perfect day of love and kindness. And on that day, I decided to give myself presence – that is, time to really look at myself, if only 20 minutes, in the hopes that the gift returned to me will be a moment or two in which to see something worth loving.
#365LoveNotes starts with looking, an act at once simple and profound. I mean, we find ourselves in a mirror once or several times a day at a minimum – brushing teeth, styling hair, applying make-up, checking our style. It occurred to me that with all that looking over the years of my life, that if my current mood was anything to go by, that perhaps I had missed something, I had not really seen. So here I began, with several minutes of looking at myself, before anything else.
Then with materials I had to hand, be that ink, charcoal, paper and glue, or whatever that chanced to be at the ends of my fingertips, I tried to express what was looking back at me. This first quirky Valentine, snipped and assembled from women’s lifestyle mags, with its mis-matched pieces and flowers for eyes, urges a gentle admonition, Love Yourself.
Taking a step back, I worried that a year of these might become somewhat of a narcissistic exercise, so it was from the 2nd day that each image would be accompanied by a positive thought about self-love and affirmation.
It was also at this beginning that I was met with the powerful inclination to share these little kindnesses, to let them out of my studio, to give them freedom from the binding of my sketchbook, opening up the possibility that by sharing the grace I give to the person in the mirror, just maybe someone else might find a little moment of love for themselves.
What was the result? Was it what I expected?
I suppose I may never know if any of my creative efforts meant anything to anybody else, but now that I’ve done a stack, I definitely feel I’ve achieved something, if only for me. At the very least, I’ve had these three months of days to focus on specific creative skills that are so essential to artists like myself: looking, mark-making, experimentation – all the while, tending to the garden of my inner well-being.
Of course, just as I’d anticipated, I now have 100 self-portraits, each different to the next. I’ve experienced the joy of learning and discovery that comes from experimenting with different mediums, methods, tools, or concepts. And after the initial week or two, I started thinking in terms of a weekly “theme”, such as “black and white” or “digital” or “playtime” as a way to fire up the next starting point – and the ideas just kept ardently coming, quelling any anxieties I might have had about The Blank White Page.
Most weeks included a #ThrowbackThursday, that is, some self-portrait from the past that I’d done prior to this project – the perfect opportunity to glance back and see how far I’d come!
What have I learnt so far? What has surprised me the most?
I must admit, doing any something-a-day kind of project very quickly and easily becomes a habit, one that I enjoy and one that is most definitely not a chore. Not only that, but I am convinced my drawing/creative skills have improved, and this experience has fostered new ways of expression and making through daily investigation.
More than anything else, though, my original hypothesis is confirmed; deliberate looking at my own face 20 minutes a day really worked – especially on the days I struggle with depression or anxiety, doing a self-portrait definitely made me feel better – and gave me something to look forward to tomorrow. It’s hard to place a value on that; it’s so true, as one of my favourite Swedish proverbs goes,
“The best place to find a helping hand is at the end of your own arm”
There have been surprises, too. Here I was, trucking along with my little project, thinking not even my partner had noticed I’d started a new one, and out of nowhere, he was adorably curious, getting involved, talking through some ideas for a future week’s theme, and sharing encouragement on Facebook (when he’s not much of a Facebook guy). Other days, a friend or follower would respond to a portrait, with a retweet, smilies, a thumbs up, or a comment such as, “I really needed that today”. Humbled, I realised that my efforts were touching others.
The biggest ah-hah! moment came when I realised that even “ugly” pictures are still “good”. I might not hold in my hands the most amazingly skilful drawing, but whether or not another person responded positively to what I put out there, I have at the very least enjoyed doing it! In other words, through this project I have gained creative confidence to be assured that what I make is always “good enough”, every day, and not a single of these self-portraits was “bad”. Somehow, a drawing became “good enough”, its intrinsic value realised simply by sharing it, and including it in the context of this project.
And guess what, I have found I do have the audacity to share myself, to show my vulnerability, and I was not in any way harmed by doing so; in fact, I might even be stronger for it.
What were the struggles? What are the best bits so far?
This project has not been without its struggles; some days, it is a tussle to squeeze out 15-20 minutes for myself! And as if confronting the girlfriend in the looking-glass was not hard enough, I wanted to hatch a fresh idea for the next self-portrait, to make it different to ones that came before.
So here I am, almost a third of the way in, 265 days to go, and if I had to pick three of the best bits, they are:
- the pronounced satisfaction of having completed a portfolio of 100 sketches, which could exist as that, or they could be a century of seeds for new projects to grow
- markedly improved overall mental health/well-being, while at the same time providing the means to see my way clear of the not-so-good days
- heightened creative confidence – there will be days that my artwork won’t be “great” or even “good” but for those other days, I know it will always be “good enough”, and that’s enough to keep going forward.
See the first 100 self-portraits:
The next 50 days – 25 May to September/October 2017
For Part 2 of #365LoveNotes (from 25 May 2017 until I make up my mind to change my mind again), I plan to switch gears a bit. I’ll still be looking at myself (cuz what’s not to love there, right?), but this time, the gaze is through the lens of a bit of art history. What I want to try and do is to emulate the self-portraits of other artists, from long-dead medieval craftsman that I’ve dug up from down the back of the Internet, to some of my living peers. The exciting thing is, I don’t know what to expect or what I will find by looking through another artist’s eyes; but I’m excited by the prospects. At the very least, this approach may suggest new avenues for my own artwork by as I toy with ways of making that maybe I haven’t used or considered already.
What was the result? Was it what I expected?
- For a lot of reasons (including travel, exhibitions, and other commitments away from my studio) this phase of the project took 5 months, not 100 days as I’d planned, and I only have 50 portraits.
- each portrait took much longer to do because I found I wanted to the time to really study the reference work as well as something about the artist, in part because I wanted to understand the artist but also determine how I would approach my response, considering everything from medium or technique (would I use the same/similar? or some other different medium) to size, or composition/pose, palette, etc.
- As a result, I wasn’t able to complete a single portrait per day, so allowed myself a few days to a week to complete one. I expected this phase to take a bit longer, maybe 1 every 2 days, but over the 5 months, I managed 1 self-portrait every 3-5 days, sometimes with weeks in between.
What have I learnt so far? What has surprised me the most?
- Because time turned out to be the biggest factor here I quickly found out that I couldn’t complete a single portrait a day. As this project is really about giving myself the gift of time AND looking, this phase turned out to be about time (where as part 1 was more about looking)
- Surprises: pushing myself out of my comfort zone to aid growth and learning led to greater development and greater enjoyment than the original “safe” plan, which was to e.g., paint myself in the style of another artist, or draw like another artist drew. This quickly turned out to be a bit defeating, so I instead turned to choosing the most important element of the SP I was looking at (palette? medium? composition? technique?, and go from there). E.g., several of my works were emulating oil painters but I did mine in a quick-drying medium such as ink, or pencil, or were much smaller, to save time.
- I found I loved the challenge, the problem-solving element of researching not only the reference painting itself but also the artist… and biggest surprise: I was able to find common ground with EACH artist I studied…
What were the struggles?
- Struggles: had to accept that I couldn’t realistically complete one portrait per day as before, nor could I complete a portrait like-for-like as I’d planned. The challenge was to then figure out how to complete a self-portrait that stayed true (enough) to the artist I was emulating while at the same time articulating my own vision of myself in some way.
- Struggled to find 100 women artists, especially those who did self-portraits… which I was forced to think differently about Google search parameters. Also talking with other artists revealed more references, many times artists I’d never heard of before or had long forgotten, which was really rewarding.
- Felt like 100 emulated self-portraits was going to take far too long, so put that on hold (I may come back to it time to time) and turned to something I felt I could accomplish on a daily basis.
Top three Best Bits so far
- Learning more deeply about other artists, some I’d never heard of before – particularly interested in women artists; also, though I’d planned to only emulate women artists, it was hard to find 100 that did self-portraits. So I was unafraid to include male artists in my research, depicting myself through the “eyes” of a male artist and was really rewarding. Maybe even stripped these men of the power of their “gaze”? Which was empowering to me.
- Through the challenge of resolving how to approach a self-portrait while under limited time constraints encouraged or maybe even forced me to explore new ways of making, or to develop or push the boundaries of practiced ways of making (example: Arcimboldo’s “Flora” using Photoshop collage when I’d first planned to draw it or ink it, or e.g., the several SP’s I did in ink instead of painting with oil as in the original)
- I learnt even when I’m “copying” or emulating another artist, there is still strength and value in the artwork I produce because it came from my own hand, it came from me. And, I always learnt something from each piece, whether a new approach to a (now) familiar subject, experimenting with a new material, or simple opening a new way to look at myself.
See the next 50 self-portraits:
Part 3 – Love What’s Already Inside You
After 50 days of Part 2: “Finding love in another’s eyes” (in which I emulated other artists’ self-portraits), I’ve decided to turn inwards for Part 3, an exercise in “Loving what’s already inside you“… here I will look at my “inner landscape” so to speak, which I imagine will be around emotional response, abstract, the symbolic, or something entirely unexpected could be the result.
- For this I again ended up posting 50 drawings as in Part 2 (though I had more than this number to choose from) but in any case, by that number, I felt that the road had run its course and I was eager to change directions again.
- Some days, I tried an exercise in which I combined blind contour with memory drawing (by attempting to draw my face from memory with my eyes closed) which gave me some intriguing new drawings very different to the others (and often quite amusing!)
What have I learnt? Surprises?
- In this phase of the project, I was able to exercise drawing from memory, something I’ve not had much confidence in before and was surprised at the success of many of the drawings.
- Along those same lines, interestingly, it was not that the drawings themselves were accurate depictions of an observed subject, but rather, the success was found in accurately capturing something of my personality or emotional landscape at the time of the drawing. Which come to think of it, is a key element of a successful portrait that is more than just a likeness.
- Despite the best intentions, I have not yet convinced myself that an “inner landscape” (a.k.a. automatic drawing or subconscious/free-flow drawing) can serve as a self-portrait. But I persisted and ended up with some lovely abstract drawings and ink studies none the less.
- Throughout this phase, I fell further and further behind in posting a drawing a day (mainly due to several other commitments in the summer and autumn months) so after 200 drawings I took a little time away from the project to devise a new plan, still hoping to end up at 14th February 2018 for the big finish.
The best bits?
- The quirky blind contour memory drawings are definitely a favourite bunch in the whole series! As are the dreamy abstract ink pieces, both are lines of enquiry I feel I could develop further.
- I’ve had a look back at the drawings early in the year and see a definite improvement in both skill and confidence – the lines are more sure, the experiments bolder, and even the quicker drawings feel more resolved.
See the next 50 self-portraits:
Part 4 – the last chapter