What can I learn from making a self-portrait?

Minimum Grade Level: 7th grade
National Core Arts Standards:
VA:Cr1.2.7a Develop criteria to guide making a work of art or design to meet an identified goal.
VA:Cr3.1.7a Reflect on and explain important information about personal artwork in an artist statement or another format.

LeftLeft: Frida Kahlo, <em>Self-Portrait with Cropped Hair</em>, 1940, oil on canvas, 40 x 27.9 cm (Banco de México Diego Rivera Frida Kahlo Museums Trust, Mexico City); Right: Rembrandt van Rijn, <em>Self-Portrait, Age 23</em>, 1629, oil on oak panel, 89.7 x 73.5 cm (<a href="https://www.gardnermuseum.org/experience/collection/10955#">Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum</a>)

Left: Frida Kahlo, Self-Portrait with Cropped Hair, 1940, oil on canvas, 40 x 27.9 cm (Banco de México Diego Rivera Frida Kahlo Museums Trust, Mexico City); Right: Rembrandt van Rijn, Self-Portrait, Age 23, 1629, oil on oak panel, 89.7 x 73.5 cm (Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum)

Artists Frida Kahlo and Rembrandt van Rijn both produced a large number of self-portraits throughout their careers, and their fascination with self-portrayal is a topic that has fascinated scholars as well as other artists. Kahlo famously said that, “I paint self-portraits because I am so often alone, because I am the person I know best.” And, it’s commonly believed that, among other reasons, Rembrandt painted himself because he was the most readily available model for practicing how to depict different types of facial expressions. For both artists, they turned to themselves as their subject as part of a career-long learning process about personal identity, self-expression, and the practice and profession of painting.

In this activity, explore the value of self-portraiture and experiment with making your own self-portrait. 

1. Learn more about Frida Kahlo and Rembrandt van Rijn’s self-portraits.

Watch the Masterpiece Moment videos on Kahlo’s Self-Portrait with Monkey and Rembrandt’s Self-Portrait, Age 23. And, explore other videos and essays on the Smarthistory site about each artist’s distinctive practice of making self-portraits. Identify the various motivations Kahlo and Rembrandt had for making their portraits and what you think they might have learned from the process.

2. Consider what you want to learn by making your own self-portrait.

Ask yourself these questions to prepare for making your image:

  • Have you made a self-portrait before, either with the camera on a phone or by drawing, painting, collage, or some other technique?
  • What new things did you learn about yourself and image-making when you made that self-portrait?
  • What do you want to learn about now? Do you want to explore an aspect of your identity? Do you want to practice close observation of facial expression or features? Or, are you interested in learning more about how portraits can communicate ideas about a person through compositional choices? It’s okay if you want to do more than one of these things, but it will be helpful to pick one as your main focus. 

3. Decide on your approach.

Based on your replies to the questions above, plan out your composition and technique. Consider these aspects of your self-portrait and how they help you achieve your learning goals:

  • How much of your body will be in the portrait? Your full body, just from the waist or shoulders up, or just your face? 
  • Will you be doing anything or holding anything? 
  • What will you be wearing? 
  • Will you look directly at the viewer or not? 
  • Will you be in the foreground or further back in the space? Or, will the space be flat?
  • Will you be in a specific setting? And, what else besides you will be included in the composition?
  • How will you observe yourself and gather details to include in your portrait? Will you look in a mirror or in a photograph? Another way? What other senses besides sight can help you gather insight to inform your portrait? 
  • Do you want to make a photograph, drawing, painting, collage, or another type of image? What materials and techniques will help you best convey what you want to show about yourself in this portrait? 
  • How big or small will your portrait be and how do you want to share it with others?
  • What other ideas do you have about how to make your self-portrait? 

4. Create your self-portrait.

And, create an artist’s statement, describing how what you learned about Frida Kahlo and Rembrandt’s self-portraits informed the choices you made about your portrait. When you are done, be sure to share and discuss your portrait with others. Together, reflect on your original goals and what you learned in the process of making your self-portrait.