Stories of Old Work: Neither Than

I was visiting with my mother today when she told me that recently, she had had guests over. These guests had immediately asked about the sheer amount of artwork covering her walls, leading to a “gallery tour” where she showed off all of my college work. She mentioned that the piece one of them had gravitated towards the most was “the self portrait where you painted your back”. While I was glad to hear it wasn’t my normal self portrait (I really wish my mother didn’t insist on keeping it), I was surprised to hear it was the other one.

This is the piece in question:

See a better quality version here. Sorry for my paranoid use of a watermark.

Looking at this one again is a real blast from the past for me. My hair is nearly three times that length now and the only piece I still have from this outfit is the skirt. I’m also still impressed with how brilliantly I managed to circumvent having to paint my face again. It even played beautifully into the theme of the particular assignment.

Our assignment was to paint ourselves as either less than or greater than our real selves. This is important because it leads directly to the title, Neither Than. I played around with some possibilities, but ultimately turned myself to the goal of avoiding painting my face, because I’m really bad at that. I initially set out to paint my back using the large (and dirty) mirror seen in the background. I placed a smaller mirror on an easel and sat on the floor (I’m not sure if this painting was the beginning of my doing paintings while seated on the floor or not, but it is likely), working to position it and myself so I could use the large mirror. That’s when I noticed that I was seeing my shoulder and arm in the small mirror. I realized that I had accidentally hit upon a very interesting composition and settled on the set up that you see. I didn’t set up an artificial light source, instead opting for the more muted natural light streaming in the window. I don’t remember how I decided on this particular outfit, but I do remember trying to disguise the fact I was wearing the same clothes to my classes four days in a row. I didn’t want to have to change into my clothes when I got to the studio.

I tried cleaning the base of the big mirror to no avail, but did eventually decide to include the griminess in the final painting to emphasize the difference between the two reflections. It added to the many layers of meaning I would end up ascribing to the two reflections. My teacher had to encourage me primarily in one way, the boldly colored shadows on my foremost shoulder. Naturally one wants to paint things the color we expect them to be, rather than the color they actually are. Being encouraged to be bold there lead it to be one of the strongest parts of the painting.

I had to work backwards to get this to work with the theme, but in many ways it worked out better that way. I ended up with a painting with a lot more meaning than if I had tried to intentionally communicate something. At the very base it can be explained with math. The painting shows me as more than I am, because it shows two of me, but at the same time it shows me as less than I am because it does not show one whole version of me. My face, the most humanizing factor, is left out entirely as well, making it less than a standard portrait. Of course, the dirty mirror and my relationship to it can be interpreted various ways. Perhaps I am struggling with low self esteem, the dirty mirror symbolizing my view of myself. Or, alternatively, perhaps I am moving beyond that, symbolized by my turned back and the seemingly more resolute posture of the foremost reflection.

It is an interesting piece to say the least. It’s also the only painting that I never would have done if not for being in a life painting class, that I am glad I ended up painting. I did also paint my complicated, origami crane masterpiece in the same class, but it being a life painting class was hardly necessary. It’s the only figure painting I’m actually glad I did. I will give my terrible self portrait credit for, uh, encouraging me to get creative and end up painting this one. I still wish my mother would let me paint over that thing though.

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