Do I look like me? —The magic question I kept asking my visual thinking professor (Professor Nell Ruby), my classmates, my close friends (who don’t mind being brutally honest), and myself during our final project: The Self Portrait. The Self Portrait truly brought out the best of me as an artist. It was a long and tedious process that put all of the skills I have learned inside the classroom and the skills I never even knew I had to the test. This project taught me about lighting, gray scales, the magic of erasing, the importance of preciseness, attention to detail, effectively using the string measurement technique, the importance of proportions, and most importantly, simply DRAWING WHAT I SEE.
In this project, the tools I was literally given were homemade paper, black charcoal, an elastic eraser, yarn, and toilet tissue. The essential tools were guidance from my instructor, critique from peers, my eyes, and trust in judgment and myself. Without the combination of both sets of tools, I would have never successfully completed this project.
After blackening and evening out my paper with charcoal and tissue, I was instructed to start my portrait by creating the lightest light which happens to be on the tip of my nose (this should fall true for everyone) and from that, expand outward. As I examined my face in the mirror for about a good five minutes, I finally found the courage to erase the first mark on my blackened paper. I then just started erasing, not afraid to make a “mistake.” I was determining proportions with the string technique that keeps “me” looking like “me.” This was the ongoing process for most of the project. I would erase, blacken, erase, look into the mirror, blacken, step back, continue to erase, blacken, erase, get frustrated, blacken, then take a break, walk around and observe my classmates and ask about their techniques, reflect, look in the mirror, use string, then blacken, erase, blacken, erase and so on until I was “finished” (an artist is never completely finished, but rather just comes to a stopping point).
When I found this stopping point of my self-portrait, I looked in the mirror, and then back at my portrait, then the mirror, and then the portrait—Do I look like me? I was proud to say yes. At this point, I felt like my piece was worthy enough to be called a self-portrait. I looked at my picture and saw how perfect my imperfections were. Those imperfections are what made “me,” me. It was what made my portrait believable because what I saw was not perfect—nothing in our world is perfect! When I was drawing my nose and lips (for about one and a half weeks) it looked believable and it had dimension and texture, and most importantly they were my nose and lips. Then when I approached my surrounding skin on my face, I thought, “This should be easy because I will just blend it all smoothly like how skin is suppose to be.” Wrong! I needed to continue what Professor Ruby taught me—DRAW WHAT I SAW—my skin, my mouth, my nose, my nostrils my eyes, my eyebrows, my glasses. I went again and DREW WHAT I SAW. I saw different places where light hit my face and I drew light, not shapes not universal thoughts of what a face is suppose to look like, but I drew the light which eventually created my face. This technique made my skin as distinct as my lips, which were as distinct as my nose, which were as distinct as my eyes and glasses. My face had become one unit—one imperfectly distinct unit that I saw, and with what I saw, I was able to transfer onto paper and make me…me—Chinenyenwa Okoye—nobody else!
Overall, I have learned a lot in the visual thinking classroom since “The Chair” to “The Self Portrait,” it’s been quite an artistic journey. The tools that I now have in my toolbox are as follows:
- Drawing what I see
- It’s all about lighting
- Boo to perfectionism
- Abandon Comfort zones
- Explore your mind beyond the literal
- Have no boundaries
- Know your materials
- Know your message
- Take risks
- Know your audience
- Be you—because you are always reflected in your work (not just in a self portrait!)
With these tools now in my toolbox, I feel like I have a solid foundation to go onward in the art world, and I am excited for the future now that I got the basics and the essential. I give all my thanks to Professor Nell Ruby:)