Self Portraits over the Years

Every year on my birthday I paint a self portrait. Many I’ve abandoned and destroyed, some years I skipped it, and I lost a hard disk a few years back with the only images of some of them. These are the ones that survived. It’s interesting for me to look back over the years to see the change in my understanding of drawing and painting.

My early attempts were pretty bad. The first two are from my three years at the University of California at Santa Cruz. The art department there wasn’t very didactic, and students were left to their own devices for the most part. All my technical knowledge at this stage was from books. Notice the poor compositions, the poor handling, the poor understanding of form…etc.

Self Portraits from my UCSC days. 1989-1992

Self Portraits from my UCSC days. 1989-1992

The second two are from my first years at Charles H. Cecil studios. Notice in the painting the over-modelling of the hair as well as the poor design and annoying fuzziness in the clothes,

Early Cecilian Self Portraits. 1993-4

Early Cecilian Self Portraits. 1993-4

The portrait on the left was from 2002 (I think), and it starts to show a more mature style. Better design overall, better handling of the paint, and a more successful rendering of atmosphere. On the right is a sketch of Saint Mark’s Church in Venice as I was there on a plein air trip for my birthday one year.

Self Portrait from 2002(?) and Saint Marc's Church.

Self Portrait from 2002(?) and Saint Marc’s Church .

The next three portraits are recent and are more ambitious in scope, being 3/4 and full length with backgrounds. One thing about self portraits is that they can be a great way to experiment with new materials and techniques. The first one was one of the more complicated portraits I had ever set up, and the objects in the background were selected to describe aspects of my life. The second painting was painted on a much heavier weave of canvas than I am used to, and the last one was my first attempt at an outdoor portrait.

Self Potrait, 2007

Self Portrait, 2005.

Self Portrait, 2006

Self Portrait, 2007

Outdoor Self Portrait, 2008

Outdoor Self Portrait, 2008.

Here is a quick video (2 minutes) showing a time-lapse of this year’s self portrait. My experiment this year was to do the reverse of a grisaille, so I did the underpainting with a high chroma and glazed and scumbled the grays, greens, and browns over it.

(Update: Here is the final image.)

Self Portrait, 2010.

Improvement in oil painting is not a linear progression in my opinion. The ability to see improves before technical skill, and we often have difficulty assessing honestly exactly how our work looks. Below is my attempt at graphing the progression.

(Being my first attempt at visually interpreting quantitative information, it probably looks similar to the self portraits at the top of the post.)


  1. thanks for having such an awesome blog marc. I really enjoy your work, and your updates are a great inspiration.

    That graph of improvement is ace! I was trying to describe this to a friend of mine, and you really hit the nail on the head…haha đŸ™‚

  2. Ha, very funny graph. Its great to see these together Marc. The time lapse is amazing, The light is the same each day, that hardly ever happens to me. Or at least, thats just the way it seems.


  3. Hi Marc.

    I was rummaging around the web this morning in a frustrated mood. Painting has been difficult lately as it sometimes is. I’m not sure why always, but the thought I’m usually left with is that things don’t “look right”… I don’t know what’s wrong with me… what happened… am I forgetting some important lesson…Is it time for a martini? Then something happens, etc….

    Luckily I decided to check out your blog and happened on this post and your chart…

    Thanks for this. It reminds me (and for some reason I always forget this lesson) that I’m going to go through these periods and I’d better get used to it. In fact, I’m wondering if I shouldn’t question what I’m doing if they stop.

    Thanks again.

    Best wishes,

  4. Haha! Brilliant graph! I love it. I found your blog through Art Studio Secrets today, and it’s brilliant to see people’s progress and improvements. I love the ‘perceived’ and ‘actual’ technical skill and the periods of frustation. I am currently studying art at college, with my university interview coming up, and I can see how much I’ve improved over the course of the past 9 months (that’s how long I’ve been drawing and painting). If I get into uni, I can’t wait to see how much I’ll improve over the 4 years, and beyond! Thank you for sharing this.

  5. Marc,

    Thanks for the post. I’ve been wanting to do an annual painting tradition for a long time. Maybe I’ll start the birthday self-portrait this year.
    It was great to see that even established, or mature artists still have those periods of frustration.
    It was great to see the growth in your work. Keep it up, brother artist.


  6. Hi Marc,

    Thanks for a great progression – very encouraging to see that it takes time for everyone!! ANd teh graph is spot on – exactly how it feels!

    Thanks again,

  7. Hello Marc,
    Your graph shows great hope for the future! Alas, I wish it were so. Any artist may expect the unexpected hiccup along the line now and then. Then there’s the reality of a flattening out of one’s ability to continue honing one’s acuity of vision, and also of becoming so facile in technical skills that we think the orange line is rising while the blue line actually dips. And then, as age creeps up on us the graph may well show as a mirror image of your graph.
    I’ve seen it often in the work ol elderly artists (and fear it may one day happen to me without being aware of this loss of sensitivity…). Sorry to be such a party-pooper but, to end on a brighter note, it doesn’t happen to all of us! Some artists continue to grow. I guess that’s the beauty of the artist’s life: not all lies within our grasp. There’s magic in it all, too, despite the graphs.
    Enjoyable and thought-provoking blog, I must say!

  8. I just dropped by via ItalyTutto. Like everyone else, I love the graph! But also the paintings. The most recent ones seem to me to be light years away from the first – but of course that’s to be expected after so many years of work. I’m not an expert, but it seems to me you have to go a long way these days to find a portrait painter as accomplished as you!

  9. I LOVE your graph. That is exactly how I have felt my progress was- that relationship of elements. However-I never knew it was a normal progression. It should help those down days-knowing I am not alone in this course. Thanks !!
    Also- your paintings rock!

  10. A friend pointed me to your site and self-portraits, and I am glad for that. I have returned several times to view them and your video again and again.

    What I keep remembering, however, is the brilliance of your graph. The gold “Perceived Technical Skill” however ‘general’ in shape, is an element that can be applied to just about any area of life, whether skills, relationships, religion or politics. The high points of the curve coincide with the very self-admiration that prevents us from improving, while the low points represent an emotional over-correction that prepares us to move forward into new ability.

    Simply stated graphically, and deep in meaning.

  11. Very interesting…love the progression of portraits thru the years, got a little vertiginous during the set-up stretch in the video! Edward Tufte would find your graph amusing, have you sent it to him? Love his work!

  12. Marc,
    Since this is the first time commenting on your blog I would like to say how much I love it. The blog that is. If I had to choose between coffee and your blog I would pick the latter any day of the week.

    I was going to comment on the graph, which is the single most energy boosting image I’ve seen this week. We have all said and thought about progression in that way. Your graph is to these talks and thoughts what The unforgiven was to western movies. You killed it.

    But since everyone has given you praise for that graph, I would instead like to say that as a funny bonus to the time lapse it was great to see Ben(?) and Leo hang out on the couch while you are working. That´s the way it is in your studio đŸ™‚

  13. I’ve watched this video a few times in the past months, and for some reason today is the first time I noticed you’re wearing a reddit shirt. Nice!

    This is a great post. As someone struggling to bring my painting up to anywhere near the level of my drawings, I’m encouraged to see your progression over time. Thank you for sharing this.

  14. Ha Marc!

    It’s so nice to read all of this! And to see the photo’s of your paintings. It’s a great idea to make a Self Portrait once a year. I especially love the one on the right, from 1993-4. Intense and sensitive! The latest one, from 2010 has that strength as well. Complimenti! Good luck with your show! Ciao, Lotta

  15. Hi Marc,

    your website is brilliant and for me very inspiring.
    Especially your self-portrait from 2010 is really wonderful,
    it has an touching expression. Thank you for sharing all this.
    Greentings from Hamburg.

  16. It’s nice to see your progression over the years. I’m kind of at your 1989-1992 stage right now at CSULB so it’s just fun to see that there probably is some kind of progression going on. In my experience I feel like your graph works in the music realm too. Just change ability to see to ability to listen and maybe the perceived skill drops a little more during the self-doubt-torture-I-want-to-give-up phase since there’s less of a concrete product happening. I’m bookmarking this site.

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