Assignment 3 – A Figurative Painting

This assignment will consolidate my learnings of portrait and self-portrait painting.

Elements that need to come through: handling paint, interpreting my subject, exploration of possibilities in portrait painting, and consideration of background.

Initial thoughts:

After my last exercise and the concept of modern slavery and human trafficking in context of cultural history I found that I need to take a break from it and return back to my self portraits. I embarked at the beginning of this figurative part on my parallel and personal project and I do feel that this would be an appropriate subject for this assignment – a kind of visual reflection in itself. I came across different techniques, expressions, approaches and obstacles in painting a self-portrait. I do feel there could be more behind my ‘Self‘, and ‘Me‘. Especially my painting with my body as a kind of gestural approach to self-portraits led me to new opportunities.

Another aspect of self-portraits is the question: Who looks at it? Me as an artist painting my mirrored image? Am I not already the viewer, observer? Working on self-portraits without a mirror would mean I will look at my presented self, not as a representation.

From my own various self-portraits I do find those most appealing that work with additive and subtractive, expressive strokes. I discovered use of color especially beneficial to create specific  moods and atmospheres at times unsettling or uncanny but also relaxing and calm. Concerning the background and surrounding space I still need to think harder how I can embed or merge this more convincingly with the figure itself.

Selection of self-portraits and portraits with rather expressive and fresh approach with additive and subtractive marks (from daily self-portrait project, exercises and sketchbooks  – made either in oil, acrylic, gouache, dry pastels, or in ink):

Stefan513593 - Assignment 3 - pre paintings

Stefan513593 – Assignment 3 – pre paintings

What I do find most successful are the more exploratory and investigative approach to my subject, medium and support alongside a rather selective use of colour. The harder touch on the painting support supports for me more the discovery of a bodily perception and disclosure of underlying emotions. By that the painting becomes a more gestural articulation through paint. A more uncommon pose or a cropped view can support a more canning and uncomfortable appeal. A monochrome background can support the expression of the figure and avoids distraction by other objects.

Final Painting:

Acrylic on primed cold press watercolour paper 300g/sqm (94 x 93 cm)

Stefan513593 - Assignment 3 - final painting

Stefan513593 – Assignment 3 – final painting

Contextual Research:

Gestural painting:

Gestural technique is one aspect that was emphasised by the Art informal movement. This French term describes a group of approaches to abstract painting in the 1940s and 1950s which had in common an improvisatory methodology and highly gestural technique. (See at Tate: ) Gestural painting was also part of the American Abstract Expressionism around Jackson Pollock’s (1912 – 1956) action painting with gestural movement of hands and arms. Later during Neo-Expressionism artists as Frank Auerbach (b. 1931) or Anselm Kiefer (b. 1945) applied to some extend gestural expressionistic approaches in their paintings.

Maria Lassnig
Body awareness painting (Körperbilder). Lassnig restricted herself to paint only those body parts of herself that she could physically feel. Otherwise she would not paint those, leaving the final image at times quite distorted. Her work are one approach try to translate bodily sensation into a visual language (Hughes, 2016). I do believe that some her self-portraits are quite an demonstration of her self-enactment, a performing act like on stage for the observer to reflect upon. Again the question is whether Lassnig sees herself rather as the presenting artist or more a representational figure that wants to get a message out to the world?
The most intriguing aspect of her self-portraits are for me the visualisation of inner states into a pictorial image. It questions us as an observer how we feel and how we do present ourselves. In our world there is an eruption of visual images, tools and guides available to anyone helps to present ourself as/in a Selfie. So what

And this would lead me to other artists who live in a world of enactments and masquerade: Cindy Sherman (b. 1954) or Gillian Wearing (b. 1963).

The Irish artist Michael Craig-Martin (b. 1941) wrote: “To be an artist, you have to make yourself vulnerable in exactly the ways most people spend their lives trying to avoid.” For most of us, embarrassment is an undesirable presentation of the self.

Carolee Schneemann (b. 1939)

Schneemann is an american visual artist mostly known for her discourses on body and gender and sexuality. I was looking more on some of her works related to portrait, self-portrait and gestural painting/drawing.

[online images] Available from: [accessed 28 Sep 2016]
– ‘Portrait Partials’,
Self-shot photgraphic grid. 4′ x 4′.
=> 35 shots of close up views of eyes, mouth, nose, nipples
– ‘Up to and Including Her Limits’, 1973-76
Performance. live video relay. Crayon on paper, rope and harness suspended from ceiling. The Kitchen. NYC.
=> Schneemann says: “My entire body becomes the agency of visual traces, vestige of the body’s energy in motion”. This seems to me rather a drawing and less of a painting because of emphasis of mark making and less on color and planes.

Another artist who works with his own body as a model is John Coplan (1920-2003) a British visual artist and Photographer. He looks with close up views at imperfections of the body. And by that he took a distant to nude and naked bodies as sexual objects in the view of the observer.
– ‘Frieze, No. 4, Three Panels‘, 1994 Gelatine Silver prints (198 x 260 cm), in: Heartney (2013), p. 225-227

Painting approaches:

I was looking further on contemporary artists who apply a bold approach to (self-) portrait painting. One of them is

Yan Pei-Ming (b. 1960) a chinese artist living and working in France.
– ‘Black Self-portrait‘, 2007
Oil on canvas (350 x 350 cm)
[online image] Available from: [accessed 30 Sep 2016]
– ‘Cadmium Red Self Portrait‘, 2016
Oil on canvas (50 x 50 cm) [online image] Available from: [accessed 30 Sep 2016]
– ‘Self Portrait in Black and Red 1′, 2009
Watercolour on paper (170.5 × 215.5 × 6 cm)
[online image] Available from: [accessed 30 Sep 2016]

=> Yan works mostly at very large scale (2m and above) with rapid and bold brushstrokes for his monochromatic portrait painting, mostly in black, grey or red. His watercolour portraits do show a random pattern of diluted colour blots that spread across the pictorial space.

Li Songsong (b. 1973), Chinese painter living in Beijing.

Songsong applies mosaic patterns across his figurative paintings. At times with holes punched inside the surface like bullet holes. I find his painting appealing for his fuzzy and pattern style of painting, at times resemble rather a fragmentation.  He paints on very large scale (Ambrozy, 2011).
– ‘Craving and Flaws‘, 2011
Oil on canvas (200 x 260 cm)
Available from: [accessed 27 Sep 2016]
=> This might be something that could work for me as a background pattern.

Ronald Ophuis (b. 1968), Dutch painter living in Amsterdam and who is painting  mostly people from the war region of Rwanda or Sierra Leone.
– ‘War Story Teller‘, 2011
Oilpastel on paper, (65 x 50 cm) Private Collection.
– ‘Gacaca, 2 women witnessing during a Gacaca trial, Rwanda 2004′, 2011
oil on linen (210 x 160 cm)

both [online images] available from: [accessed 12 Aug 2016]

His painted scenes at very large scale do depict the story of human life in all its tragedy. His broad paint application suits the terror and roughness of the people lives.  I find his portraits appealing due to the bodily and engaging modulation of the figure, quite like modelling in clay, an honest approach. Rather monochrome palette and mostly with a nearly white background supporting the blackness of the depicted people.

Lynette Yiadom-Boakye (b. 1977), a British painter living in London.

I find her large and smaller scale paintings appealing due to her expressive brushstrokes with simple figure expression in an expressionistic approach
Available from: [accessed 23 Aug 2016]

Also Yiadom-Boakye paints on smaller and very large scale (often around 160 x 200 cm)

My research is covering a wider range from gestural artworks (e.g. Schneemann) to expressive brushstrokes (e.g. Ophuis, Pei-Ming), application of subtractive marks (e.g. Denzler, Songsong) to pure painterly portraits (e.g. Yiadom-Boakye). Lassnig brings me closer to a more bodily awareness and the meaning of painting our inner world outside. I like therefore the title of Andy Denzler‘s painting ‘Our Insides Turned Inside Out‘, 2013 (Available from: accessed 23 Aug 2016)

Overall I found that most artist do apply a rather monochrome background without any additional objects supporting the portrait. Only in scenes like those by Ophuis or Yiadom-Boakye more items are depicted to convey a sense of environment and to add to the narrative. Lassnig adds more items to her narratives. I am wondering about scale and which scale I should use for this assignment. Most contemporary painters do use a very large scale (2m and above) and by that the figures and portraits become so dominant in space. Another aspect for large scale might be that exhibition spaces are rather large nowadays.

One artist who works fast and with very loose and wide strokes is

Laura Lancaster (b. 1979) a British artist who works as so many other artist from found visual images she bought at eBay and on markets. Her approach is the transformation of those images into materiality through paint. The original figures become more and more distorted and disguised by paint, like a costume. The former selves are turning by her manipulation of paint into an uncanny approximation.

  • Untitled‘, 2014. Oil on acrylic on linen (150 x 120 cm) (in: Mullins (2015), p. 44-45)

Besides those artists I do find the different approaches by Lucian Freud (using the materiality of the paint to express underlying emotional states, example ‘Self Portrait‘, 1963 – click here, and ‘Reflection‘, 2002 – click here) and Francis Bacon (transforming facial features into distinctive and distortive shapes) quite fascinating and I have to see how much I will lend from them. Further I do refer to my favorite artist Jenny Saville (example ‘Reverse‘, 2002-3 – click here)

One aspect that I came across already as part of my personal project is the self-portrait as a narrative made from several paintings (Schaffeld, 29 Sep 2016). While considering how to assemble those as a visual narrative I came across:

Juliette Blightman (b. 1980)

Blightman approaches her narrative with clusters made of single drawings/paintings – together as a portfolio. The walking through the exhibition space uncovers the artist’s life as a narrative. See my exhibition visit (click here) Blightman takes a different approach as Schneemann or Coplan as she looks from her sight, not on herself/her body as a presentation of her self.

I am wondering whether this would be another area for my assignment self-portrait but I think I leave it for the moment aside and focus on one self-portrait painting: perhaps a more traditional approach, but for me also to demonstrate my previous learnings in handling paint and color in a convincing manner. The visual narrative has to wait – or I can just pull later paintings together as a portfolio presentation of part3. Would this be a valid assignment work by itself?

Preparatory work

Self-portrait and the Me in a visual language using oil paint as the material to work and to modulate on myself.

I will use a videocamera and a projector to take the image of me projected on the wall. By that I avoid using mirrors and can adjust myself in a more comfortable position and with slightly different poses than staring directly at me.

Current emotional state of mind: a combination of being exhausted and excited to move on, reflective

Color: to express my current emotional state of mind

Painting approach: loose and exploratory to discover the movements on and under my skin, translation inner state into external blots, patches

Paint: acrylic (for imprimatura and perhaps underpainting) and/or oil

Scale: tbd

Visual images of me as a painter – with humour:

Stefan513593 - Assignment 3 - collection of self images

Stefan513593 – Assignment 3 – collection of self images

From my research and my personal ambition I do think now about two directions:

a) Acrylic paint on larger scale (around 100cm) in context of Maria Lassnig and Lucian Freud or Jenny Saville in a more conceptual approach

b) Oil paint on smaller scale (around 60x50cm) with a more interactive and exploratory approach in the context of Yan Pei-Ming or Laura Lancaster

I will investigate simple tonal values of my self-portrait and investigate in different color use. Also different grounds and how they interact with oil paint sketch.

Sketchbook works

Stefan513593 - Assignment 3 - sketchbook 1

Stefan513593 – Assignment 3 – sketchbook 1

Stefan513593 - Assignment 3 - sketchbook 2

Stefan513593 – Assignment 3 – sketchbook 2

Exploration of various grounds – small paintings:

Stefan513593 - Assignment 3 - sketchbook 4

Stefan513593 – Assignment 3 – sketchbook 4

=> I randomly applied with decalcomania acrylic paint (red and white) onto my sketchbook pages. After drying I added the figure with fast strokes. The figure and the background to merge together. Quite mystic. Something I have to keep in mind.

Stefan513593 - Assignment 3 - support study #1

Stefan513593 – Assignment 3 – support study #1

=> Oil sketch rather traditionally, and as comparison, on sized linen glued to a paper. The linen texture does come through. The collage effect of the glued linen on paper brings another effect to the final image – reminds me of ancient paintings or fresco.

Stefan513593 - Assignment 3 - support study #2

Stefan513593 – Assignment 3 – support study #2

=>  Quite spooky. The smoother acrylic, gesso support lets the oil paint move freely, much easier than on sized linen.. A rather flattened approach with color planes. I added with liquid oil paint (with turp) more atmospheric patches, dripping down in the background. It was fun – but I do think I overdid it.

Stefan513593 - Assignment 3 - support study #3

Stefan513593 – Assignment 3 – support study #3

=> The multiple color patches with rougher structure makes the figure overall quite rough and it looks like both are merging together.

Stefan513593 - Assignment 3 - support study #4

Stefan513593 – Assignment 3 – support study #4

=> The grid of the support can be perceived as an overlay. The figure looks like behind a window.

My learnings from those support studies is that a dedicated preparation of a ground does impact not only my painting approach and response but also the overall visual perception of the painting.

At the end I decided to work on the larger scale painting in acrylic first. In case I would have  time I will work on the oil painting.

Work in progress

Painting Self Portrait: Acrylic on primed cold press watercolour paper (94x93cm)

I prepared a large sheet of cold press Fabriano watercolour paper from roll, taped it to a wall and primed it three times with gesso. Not the optimal but it worked, at least till I sprayed th water. (More about this see later)


  • Outline main shapes in charcoal
  • Blocking in local colors (mix of red, yellow, white, violet) and background shapes (green, white, violet)


=> My thinking at the beginning stage: A bit too dull and not enough contrast, integration with background needed, Idea: portrait popping out of a frame (another picture)=double image/portrait (see Maria LassnigSelf Portrait with Stick’, 1971 –  click here)



Stefan513593 - Assignment 3 - work in progress 1

Stefan513593 – Assignment 3 – work in progress 1


  • Adding color spots with considering a blue-green light source (shadows warmer, lights cooler)
  • Adding interesting shapes in face, thinking about landscape marks and the color distorted photographs

=> At this stage I am reflecting on how I could continue. How can I build on the idea of frame, picture plane, reflection, mirror? I tried a few versions in my sketchbook and it reminded me of Alberto Giacometti‘s portrait paintings with multiple frames inside the picture plane.  Working on the idea of mirror and picture plane I looked up the painting ‘Four Fairies‘, 2003 by Michael Borremans (click here).  From here I got reminded that  painting is an illusion. This was nicely explained by Pliny (AD23 – AD79) in his ‘Natural History‘ describing the discourse between the two painters Parrhasios and Zeuxis  on the idea of theatre stage (Schaffeld, weblog post 12 May 2016).

Stefan513593 - Assignment 3 - sketchbook 3

Stefan513593 – Assignment 3 – sketchbook 3

Looking at a more contemporary approach to illusion and stage in the film industry I remembered the methodology of the Green-Screen, a method of Chrome-Key to overlay e.g. a person filmed in a studio in front of a green screen (of blue) with another scene e.g. outdoor in the background. The green color of the screen is getting excluded from both scene and the illusion is complete. I also reflected on adding a mirror as an additional object as it is one key object for self-portrait. On the other hand it is also an object for illusion, rather a vanitas theme.

Stefan513593 - Assignment 3 - work in progress 2

Stefan513593 – Assignment 3 – work in progress 2


I sprayed water onto the surface and the fresh paint to let the green paint from the screen and the reflection in the mirror drip down (those reflections are actually reflections from outside, through the window as a kind of link from my inner to the external world). The idea behind this is the emotional response of one faces reality with illusionary world around us. On the other hand I do think that this drippings brings the various objects visually more together.

The water spraying had unfortunately the effect that although I used a 300 g/sqm paper with a solid gesso ground, the paper started to warp. I have to see how it looks like after it is completely dry.

I looked at the desatured (monochrome) done with Photoshop to check tonal values. I can see that the total values are quite accurately representing my projected image.

Stefan513593 - Assignment 3 - tonal values

Stefan513593 – Assignment 3 – tonal values

Overall I am satisfied with the final painting, though I am not so convinced of the mirror and its representation. I kept the paint rather thick there, perhaps quite thin like a glass surface would be more successful? On the other hand I can envision that the thick paint dripping ‘out of’ the mirror into reality i.e. the reality of my painting. This may be a question to raise to others and my tutor. Further I do believe that I could have been bolder on chosen various colours with more differentiating hues and similar tonal values.


  • Starting with some ideas and conceptual thoughts I began sketching in paint. Once more I noticed that making the visual investigation and the process of painting actually brings up new ideas. A constant interrogation between me and the painting, what occurs there and what sense I can make out of it. I felt quite pleased with this kind of practice-led research.
  • My previous daily self portraits helped me to get a certain routing in depicting shapes and forms and to work on the expression.
  • The dripping of the paint has besides the conceptual aspects also the visual effect of bringing the various objects in the paintings closer together.
  • Exploring in parallel with different prepared grounds helped me to obtain new visual effects and ideas related to materiality. Although I did not use that in my assignment painting I would like to continue and incorporate those in a meaningful way in my future works.

Next time

  • I could have made the eyes bigger.
  • Painting the mirror reflection rather thin and with a more convincing perception of a glass surface.
  • I could have been bolder in applying more different hues with similar tonal values.
  • Work in my oil painting


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