Thinking about portraiture
Self portraits require reflection on at least two different levels. The obvious one is that you need a mirror to look at (unless you have a really good memory of what you look like), the other reflection that takes place is in thinking about how you've seen yourself up to this point.
I find that a major obstacle to drawing a portrait that bears semblance to me is overcoming how I think I look, or how I want to look. How you see something is trained by what you look at and your vantage point upon viewing.
If I look at myself straight on in a mirror, I am trained to associate that frontal image with "what I look like." Turning to the side in the 3/4 pose however is not my usual way of viewing my face. There is more novelty here, more chance for discovery and enrichment of my visual conception of my body.
If I want to look a certain way, I will almost certainly direct the development of the drawing in that direction (often subconsciously). It takes real effort to represent myself as I am, or to look in the mirror with an openness to or expectation of being surprised by what I see. Drawing is a mode of story telling and to the extent that I tell myself the same story over and over, to that extent I am confined by it, imposing restrictions on what or how I can see. It isn't unusual to be closed to how we see ourselves or let others see us. We want others to draw certain "permitted" conclusions about us. We are selectively permeable persons.
Technique & Materials: using Pencil, understanding Graphite
The portrait above was drawn using graphite pencil. Pencils find themselves in possession of material qualities in inverse tension. What I mean is that as a pencil's "lead" (a misnomer, pencils never contained elemental Lead, Chemical Symbol Pb, rather graphite has the appearance of Lead, and was thought to contain it early on before advances in Chemical science) has an associated hardness, which dictates the darkness of the line. The inverse relationship inheres in that as a pencil's hardness decreases, the intensity or rich darkness of its line increases. This is due to the fact that harder lighter pencil lead contains more clay and less carbon. The increased carbon content of darker softer pencils means they require more frequent sharpening. Harder/lighter pencils are easier to erase but leave deeper indentations in the paper. Darker pencils leave a dry stain of carbon on the paper without crushing the paper fibers to such a degree.
The advantage in using a range of pencils is that one need only be concerned with constant application of pressure, changing the pencil to achieve a darker line without having to press more intensely.
Graphite is an allotrope of Carbon, another being Diamond. Allotropes are simply different arrangements of the same element, resulting in different properties, such as Diamond's hardness. Graphite is an arrangement of Carbon in a Hexagonal Lattice, which lattice is then accumulated in sheets which readily slide past each other. This results in Carbon's possession of dry-lubricant properties, which is advantageous for locksmiths, who favor this over wet lubricants that can attract other particulates. And in contrast to Diamond, graphite is very soft and crumbles easily. As far as drawing is concerned, this reduction in friction and softness enable the paper to abrade particles of graphite, resulting in marks. The working properties of graphite also enable the artist to capitalize on "smudging," moving graphite around once on the page. This can be done with the fingers or very effectively with a plastic eraser, resulting in interesting levels of depth and atmosphere. Smudging can create ambiguity between foreground and background resulting in a visual bridging of the space.
A dearth of friction between the paper and pencil tip allows for smooth movement around the page and gestural marks. Pencil is a medium that doesn't have to be fought or resisted, one need only become familiar through practice. Pencil is also a democratic medium in that it is accessible to almost anyone. A full range of quality pencils can be obtained for less than 40 dollars.
J0hn Hunter Speier
Recent work, and explorations of techniques, aesthetics and poetics.