Looking at myself in reverse – Self Portraiture

by Alden Cole on May 28, 2016 · 0 comments

“Self-portraiture is something one should never get involved in, since it is wrong to lie even though one endeavours to tell the truth.”– Ingmar Bergman (14 Jul 1919 – 30 Jul 2007)

1986AC@42:18x14WP1986: Self @ 42 • oil on canvas-board 20″ x 16″ • collection of the artist

Perhaps I should have come across Bergman’s advice earlier and followed it; however I didn’t, so it’s moot. Regardless, I’ve spent a good amount of time in front of the mirror, occasionally drawing or even painting what looks back at me reversed, as mirrors do. My commentary on the experience of self-portraiture is complex, a dance of attraction/repulsion that is difficult to explain to anyone who has not taken that long, hard look at themselves that self-portraiture demands. I’ll recoin an old phrase about growing old: “Painting your own portrait is not for sissies” As Julian Bell has commented: “Self-portraiture is a singular in-turned art. Something eerie lurks in its fingering of the edge between seer and seen.” Perhaps that eerieness is why I haven’t drawn or painted a self-portrait in several years. It’s always a bit daunting to face a blank canvas, but particularly so when it’s just me, myself and I staring at the reflection that looks back at me from the mirror, and my intent is to ‘see’ then portray that character that looks back at me, as objectively as possible – a tough, if not impossible, task. Self-portraiture when sitting for ones own camera is a beast of a totally different color, that doesn’t compare to the intensity experienced while staring yourself down in a mirror, then making those marks that define what you think you see there, on the surface in front of you. The painting above is one of the few self-portraits in color that I’ve done, painted just before leaving Portsmouth NH to move to Philly in 1986. Prior to that, there was only one other in color, pictured below, an early experiment in micschtechnik dating back a decade to when I first started painting in the mid-70s. In the interim period however I had drawm a number of pencil-on-paper self-portraits that have never seen the light of day, until now. So hold onto your hats, folks, it’s all about the many faces of a young Alden!

1984ac@40-20x15WPSelf @ 40 • ebony pencil on watercolor paper 20″ x 15″ • collection of the artist

Dating these drawings from thirty-plus years ago in my past has proven to be an interesting trip down memory lane with its numerous side alleys and miscellaneous attractions. This drawing, as well as the painting above, when compared to the drawings that follow going back into the 70s, are a perfect example of the difference between drawing at an easel with the surface vertical, and working at a drawing board with your surface relatively horizontal. It’s all told in the eyes – they are either looking at you levelly or they’re looking up at you from below, even slightly. An interesting difference which I did not really notice, let alone register it’s psychological impact, until writing this life-and-work review. You can be the judge of how the following pieces were drawn: at an easel or a drawing board?

1983AC@39-20x15WP1983: Self @ 39 • ebony pencil on watercolor paper 20″ x 15″ • collection of the artist. Both this drawing and the one above were done while living in Portsmouth NH, working for Samuel Weiser Inc full time, drawing and painting from the model, including myself on occasion, in the evenings when I could make the time from my other pursuits. There’s a confidence developing in these more thoughtfully rendered drawings that is not evident in the earlier sketches from my time in New York City below, when maintaining emotional equilibrium was challenging.

1978AC@34:20x14.WP1978: Self @ 34 • ebony pencil on watercolor paper 20″ x 14″ • collection of the artist. This drawing from my last full year in NYC, a time fraught with drama and a confrontation with my more dangerous life-sabotaging habits, pretty accurately reveals the depths to which my psyche had descended during this tumultuous period in my life. Almost down and out, but not enough to keep me from making art, including these occasional glimpses of Gemini, my darker internal twin, which are humbling experiences. “Seeing likeness in a portrait is to recognize the craftsman in the artist. Finding soul is to discover the artist in the craftsman.” – Bernard Poulin (4 Jan 1945)

SelfPortrait@33WP1977: Self @ 33 • oil on panel 24″ x 18″ • collection of the artist. Painted in NYC, after learning mischtechnik from Linda Gardner. This is the first self-portrait in color, and one which scared the daylights out of me, because I finally understood that I was a talented painter, and with effort I could possibly become a great painter; a challenge I’m still rising to. I was so daunted by the realization at the time that I couldn’t finish the painting. I’ve yet to turn those brown eyes blue… but it will happen eventually.

1975: Self @ 31 • pencil on watercolor paper 8″ x 14″ • collection of the artist. Drawn in the spring of my 31st year, proportionately the smallest of all the self-portraits. This is one of the sketches where it’s obvious that I was working at a drawing table, not an easel. You can almost sense the motion of looking up at the mirror, then looking down at the paper, a process
1975AC@31-8x14WPrepeated incessantly until a drawing is completed. I can also sense the tentativeness I was feeling at the time, being back in NYC, after my first attempt “to go home again” which had failed, driving me back to NYC after only four months.

1975: Self @ 31 • pencil on
1975AC@31-14x10WPwatercolor paper 14″ x 10 • collection of the artist. Another drawing from the time post my return to NYC after living in Maine for a four-month period – the summer of ’74. Obviously a time when I was listening to music on headphones, even while I drew. Most likely it was Wagner, which I listened to a lot during this youthful period of vibrant self-discovery.

1974: Self @ 30 • pencil on watercolor paper 14″ x 10 • collection of the artist. The earliest and sketchiest of the self-portrait drawings, done in my 30th year, shortly after taking up painting as my new chosen vocation,
1974AC@30-14z10WPalthough it continued to be avocational in reality, since I was not making a living at it, only aspiring to…

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