Reflections on Portrait Making

This essay is an excerpt from the book Self-Portrait with a Crab
As I view the collection of portraits gathered for this book, I find that the many faces of me reveal various aspects of my personality. The text also adds a lot. There are things that could not be conveyed in images and vice versa. As I worked on this book, I took great delight in interweaving text and images and I believe that the combined force of the parts is much more powerful than any particular work. Perhaps the obsessive drive that propelled me to make this book is more revealing of my nature than any particular portrait. One expects patients to sit back and be passive, however I am not sure that my response to this illness was all that unusual. When one feels threatened there is a strong urge to hang on to what is important and let the world know, "Hey this is me, I am not dead yet, I'm alive."
A casual reader of this book might mistakenly classify me as a specialist in self-portraiture and perhaps a narcissist as well. I am not a newcomer to the genre, but up until this project it was not the main thrust of my work. The images on the next few pages are a sampling of self-portraits I have done over the years prior to this project. In them you will see seeds of some of the same themes explored in the works created during my chemotherapy.

I have found that self-portraiture is an opportunity to look long and deeply at oneself. Since there is no risk of offending the sitter and a self-portrait is not very marketable, the artist can take chances and explore new territory. When I look at my work I realize that I am willing to take more chances artistically with images of myself than with any other subject.

With a client there is always the concern about how they will react to their painted image. Everyone views themselves through a distorted lens, so the task of a portrait artist can be nearly impossible. Often what a client wants is not simply a likeness, but an image of themselves that looks like what they imagine themselves to be, perhaps 20 pounds lighter and ten years younger.

For the works done in this series, a likeness was usually not my primary goal. I was looking for new ways to use color or explore problems in composition. Many of the works focus on how I am connected to the particular setting. Most of the images depict not only my features, but also put me in an environment. I have recorded how I am connected to the people, spaces and things around me. Each day I sought to make that day's portrait something different from the next. Yet I never had to work too hard to do that. There always seemed to be something close at hand which expressed the mood of the day or my feelings about the chemo.

The portrait done on July 3rd seems to be very influenced by my mood at the moment. I was anticipating my upcoming treatment and the way I have depicted myself behind the railing makes it look as if I am in prison.

On July 4th we spent the evening at my parents' home in Mount Horeb, so when I woke up on the fifth, the mirror at my parents' home had my grandfather's portrait sitting in front of it. It seemed natural to include him since many people say I resemble him and he took up painting when he retired. (His work can be seen at ).

At first glance the portrait done on July 6th would not look like a portrait at all. One sees a panoramic view of an empty studio, but for me the studio is my working space, a place that manifests my thought processes. That morning I was preparing to go to the doctor for my second treatment of chemo and so it seemed very appropriate to photograph all the portraits that were gathered from the first half of this series.

The artistic processes and goals which are seen in the portrait series are things that I have wrestled with in the past and will continue to pursue in the future. My interest in panorama and photo collage are not new to this series, nor is my interest in light and reflection.

images 1 to 4 of 4
images 1 to 4 of 4