The Power of the Self-Portrait

Why everyone, artist or not, should make one

“Self-Portrait with Bonito” by Frida Kahlo — Flickr

My art tends to go through phases.

I’ve been through a pencil stage, a watercolor stage, an I-only-draw-dogs stage, and most notably, a Frida Kahlo stage. Ever since I discovered her work at sixteen, I’ve been a fan.

Frida isn’t the first artist I’ve been enamored with, but she’s the first one I’ve ever felt a personal connection with. Our life stories, while wildly different, share one thing in common: chronic pain.

Not only was Frida diagnosed with polio as a child, but a terrible bus accident at the age of nineteen left her with a myriad of serious injuries and lifetime pain. I’ve personally dealt with chronic pain since the age of twelve as the result of a birth defect and eight different surgeries.

Not only was Frida’s situation more traumatic, but she also had the courage to do the one thing I couldn’t: channel her pain into art. While she painted her agony in shades of yellow, blue, and red, I spent several years walking a tightrope between depression and acceptance.

Once I discovered Frida’s own portfolio of self-portraits, I felt inspired to do the same. Although I’d drawn portraits of other people before, I’d never drawn myself. I didn’t know what to expect from the process — but I couldn’t have predicted the discoveries I’d make along the way.

Now, with three different drawings of myself completed, I’m finally beginning to understand the power of the self-portrait — and why everyone, artist or not, should make one.

Self-portraits help you understand what you’re feeling

At the time of my first self-portrait, I was sad. High school had just ended, and a bleak summer loomed ahead. The portrait, shown below, was based off a picture I took of myself and done in colored pencil.

The entire time I was drawing, I thought I was sketching a carefree, happy-go-lucky girl. Instead, the underlying sadness and helplessness I had felt for several months seemed to bleed through the page:

Image by author

I couldn’t sketch a happy girl because I wasn’t a happy girl. Unintentionally, I’d chosen colors that made me blend into the background instead of pop. I even looked away from the camera, trying to avoid its candid lens — much like I was doing in real life.

I hadn’t meant to, but my choices revealed a truth I’d been subconsciously denying. Once I saw the finished product, everything seemed to become clear. I finally understood my emotions in a way I hadn’t been able to before.

Months later, after I’d begun a new pain management regimen and began college, I drew another self-portrait:

Image by author

It’s the same girl, the same medium, but the emotions inside this portrait are vastly different. Instead of trying to hide between shades of muted greys and green, I chose to make myself pop. I didn’t just shade my skin or my hair with pale peach and pink — I blended blues, purples, yellows, and reds.

Here, I am alive.

These portraits have helped me realize that, even if you lie to yourself, art will always speak the truth. You don’t need to even need to have artistic to express emotion through a self-portrait, either. A colored-in stick figure might reveal more than you think.

What matters is that, once you begin making a self-portrait, you won’t be able to hide anymore.

Self-portraits are all about you (literally)

For most of my life, my art has centered around other people or things. I’ve sketched out landscapes, painted bowls of fruit, and drawn pictures I found on Google Images. Although this has yielded some great work, none of it has been about me.

A self-portrait, on the other hand, is me — not only can I make it any way I’d like, but I can also pour every negative emotion I’m feeling onto the paper. With enough effort, the canvas will swallow any anger, sadness or pain that I feel.

In another self-portrait, my third one, I decided to do something different. Instead of relying on colored pencils to express my emotions, I decided to use markers instead. The cartoon style was simple enough, but the portrait was a direct homage to Frida Kahlo:

Image by author

From a distance, it looks a girl enjoying a cup of coffee. Look closer and you’ll find that every aspect of this picture — from the teal tank top to the book titles — has something to do with me. Drawing this felt like tapping a vein and bleeding every part of my life onto the page.

Even if it’s not necessarily about expressing emotion, I’ve learned that self-portraits can be a way to redirect the focus back to yourself. Instead of trying to capture what’s around you, you can try capturing what’s within. There aren’t a lot of things in life that are solely about us, but your self-portrait can be.

Frida Kahlo chose to do something that few artists do — illustrate her self. If you look at her paintings, you’ll find that they aren’t always pretty — they express her pain, her sadness, and her loneliness.

Although there’s nothing wrong with painting a bowl of fruit or sketching your favorite anime character, there’s something to be said for self-portraits. You can’t hide in a self-portrait, and they’re a surprisingly effective way to express and understand what you’re feeling.

And, self-portraits get to be all about us. We get to control the narrative. Many people — especially those who claim they don’t have artistic talent — tend to shy away from depicting themselves. However, you don’t need to be the next Frida Kahlo in order to reap the benefits of this activity. Really, the important thing is that you try.

You may just be surprised at what you uncover.

When I’m not writing, you can usually find me hanging out with my cats.

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