My art is mainly inspired by nature or by places I’ve traveled to or read about. It doesn’t tend to emphasize detail and, when humans are included in the composition, they are usually faceless, depicted as chunky, cubist blocks of colour. People are rarely the main subject of my paintings. And, unlike Frida Kahlo, one of my painting idols, I have never entered the world of portrait painting, much less self-portrait painting.
When painting the facial features of other people, one must pay obsessive attention to detail. This is a skill I don’t have when it comes to painting. It’s almost as if, through painting, I can leave the burden of fussing over details behind to pursue a sense of therapeutic self-pleasing aesthetic that focuses on colour and shape, rather than the fine lines and subtleties. I tend to spend far too much time obsessing over details in real life and so I view painting as an escape from that. When painting life-like portraits, however, such an escape is impossible.
But, like Picasso, I want to become an artist-of-all-trades or, at the very least, claim experience with different subject matter. So, besides feeling that the experience would be tedious and slightly narcissistic, I decided to attempt a self-portrait.
The thing about self-portraits is that we know our own faces very well. From my teenage years through young adulthood I remember countless hours spent obsessing over my reflection: squeezing zits, plucking eyebrows, willing my nose to shrink and wondering what made my face less poetic than that of a famous actress or singer, almost like there was a secret beauty ingredient I might have been born lacking. Painting a self-portrait demands an attention to detail unlike any other mirror flirtation ever performed. From the exact shape of the mouth, to the way the cheeks are outlined, I found myself staring at parts of my reflection that I had never experienced before.
Because I’m not experienced in portrait-painting, the painting started out rough. My oil-painted face was taking on a deformed, misshapen quality, it didn’t look like me, and I found myself criticizing the painting, judging it, and then my own abilities. I then realized, painfully, that this was akin to the way I would criticize my real-life reflection. After a while, though, I found myself comforted by my outline’s familiarity and that comfort turned into a sort of visual satisfaction. This was my face: the window to the person I am who lies beneath and the signature that accompanies everything I say or do in this life. I began to make peace.
Creating art allows us lots of space for reflection. Perhaps that’s why it’s so therapeutic. As I mix colours and apply paint to canvas my mind relaxes and wanders, uninhibited, into new terrain. I find that while painting it helps to have a notebook handy because one artistic pursuit nurtures another and I find myself inspired to not only paint, but write as well. On this portrait-painting day in particular, I felt a relaxing space open up for reflection on who I am now, at 26 years of age. My reflection may have changed some, but behind the wide gaze, I could still see the smirk of that 9-year old, in the Universal Studios sweatshirt, who was imaginative, idealistic and shit-disturbing, all at once. I wonder if this 9-year-old knew that in a few years’ time she would be studying something called naturopathic medicine.
This summer has been dedicated to reviewing basic medical sciences for NPLEX and working as an English as a Second Language (ESL) teacher in Toronto. I haven’t made much time for long contemplative walks, reading literature, laying on the grass, socializing or, most of all, painting or drawing. The way I structure my day is a reflection of my disbalance, not my actual interests and priorities and, as I paint, my evolving painted self stares back at me from it’s canvas home and asks me, “is this what you wanted?”
I’m not sure. But portrait painting shows me that there is a link between borderline narcissism and self-contemplation. Maybe that’s why it’s called self-reflection.