On Face as Mask and Self-Portraits

Since mid-March 2020, I’ve been seeing a lot more of my own face than normal. Yes, you’ve guessed it, like many other people, I’ve found myself on a merry go-round of video calls as a result of Covid-19. I’ve used video chat to keep in touch with friends and family, to keep working on art projects across borders and most recently to complete an 8-week online art course. And it’s exhausting. I’m no fan of screen-time at the best of times – yes, I’m one of those strange refuseniks who still doesn’t use Netflix! But beyond the eye-strain and tense undertone of blue screen light, I realised there was something particularly emotionally exhausting about the new prevalence of videochat. And mostly that was my face …

I’m just not used to seeing it that often, or for continuous lengths of time, or even moving. I’m used to looking at it, mostly in the bathroom, as a fairly static reflection, while brushing my teeth/washing my face first thing and last thing in the day. Perhaps a quick glance in the mirror, when I use the bathroom during the day, or maybe I might catch my reflection walking past a shop window in exactly the right light and that’s about it. I wouldn’t describe myself as excessively narcissistic or image obsessed, but it seems in the presence of a webcam I cannot take my eyes off my own moving image. I am like a toddler discovering their own reflection for the first time. I had no idea how unfamiliar I was with my own face – what it looks like when I talk, my facial expressions, my profile. And of course on a smartphone, what it looks like at some weird oblique angle, from under my chin and up my nostrils!

Conducting my social interactions in this new medium, with its continuous visual feedback of my own appearance made me far more self-conscious than normal. I took to wearing more lipstick – bright red – to avoid what I call, a-face-like-a-bowl-of-yoghurt, ie. pale, bland and lacking in distinguishing features! In the background I could feel my brain constantly comparing what I actually looked like on screen – as I spoke, or laughed, or tilted my head – with the idea I have in my head, of what I think I look like. I was still following the conversation, but my brain was also semi-sub-consciously processing this new information. A kind of new, added vigilance and monitoring of self, which I think for me was at the root of my video-call fatigue. That and the never being able to make eye-contact. I suspect there’s some deep-rooted part of the brain which classes, extended visual interaction without eye-contact, as ‘untrustworthy’ and triggers some extra ‘vigilance’ or stress hormone.

I had been thinking about some of these things during the early part of lockdown and had just about made my peace with the world of video calls – I suspect my inner toddler had got a bit bored of seeing my own face and it was no longer such a novelty. Then I reached the point in my online art course, of making self-portraits. For several weeks in a row, several days a week, drawing my own face was the thing, and as the days went on, it became harder and harder. Initially I was quite excited to try out some of my newly acquired anatomy knowledge on myself – to discern the 6 turning points of the orbits around my own eye, to look for the angle of the hefty sternocleidomastoid muscle rising up my neck to support my head and such like. But soon this faded and the challenge of spending extended periods of time looking at my own head remained.

And this time it lasted longer than your average video chat. One one day I drew myself for two hours continuously in the morning, a further three in the afternoon, pressing myself as the tutor suggested, to stay with the same drawing throughout and somehow I carried on for another 2 or 3 hours after the class ended, working on the same drawing. Later that week in anatomy class, we made a series of short sketches of our facial expressions. Mine still felt as familiar as the planet Mars, despite all those video calls. I was however really coming to know the soft curves below my cheekbones, I hadn’t realised how much they’d hollowed in recent years! But somehow I was coming to appreciate and understand them.

In class I picked up more of this deep scathing artists often feel for portraits, as surface things, made to superficially please. I became more aware of the deep divide between a portrait and ‘the head’. How small my face is relative to my head – I can cover it with just my hands, but not so, my head. The understanding of our facial features as these shallow, surface things and the more respected and meaningful subject for investigation being the head. The brain box and eating box, the skull as 22 bones that fuse and form, and grow and change, as we age. As the structure that houses the sentient life within. The self. Yet our facial features are often both how we are identified – in passports and all manner of ID cards and also how we communicate with others. The selfies we share, the photos we use to build our online networks and worlds – with Facebook, it’s even in the name.

I’ve come to think of the facial features as the changeable weather on the surface – a storm that blows in, a smile that breaks out. They don’t necessarily tell you much about the underlying self or, to continue the analogy, about the overall climate of one’s self, or season of life. When it comes to drawing my own head – my self-portrait – I find it far harder to sense the overall climate. I find my ‘drawing eye’ and thoughts, getting pulled into ‘the weather’ of my facial features. It seems to be a storm, or some kind of Bermuda triangle that I’m inevitably sucked into, like a vortex. And I think I’m starting to understand why I find it so hard, and it has lot to do with my own personal relationship with my face. The relationship that I had started to realise was quite limited and shallow, as the world of video chat surprised me at the start of lockdown.

In one particular class it became clear. We had a new tutor that day and the focus of the class was using colour in our self-portraits. My heart leapt – I love colour, for the previous 5 weeks we hadn’t strayed from pencil or charcoal. I feel instinctively drawn to colour, in many ways I think it is life. We looked at examples of other artists’ work with colour. I particularly loved a self-portrait by Marlene Dumas drenched in burning orange and enveloped in brooding cool teal. I’d enjoyed listening to the tutor talk of using colour instinctively, it resonated with me. She asked us to pick just two colours to work with, on instincts, without overthinking it. And somehow from there I proceeded to draw a series of truly dire self-portraits, by far the worst drawings I have made all term. They carried no semblance to me either physically or in essence or spirit. They looked like reasonably anatomically believable heads, yet I felt they meant nothing. They were confections, with no connection or root in this world.

After lunch, I endeavoured to set the morning’s mishaps to one side and just concentrate, anew, on looking. The drawing did seem to be going a bit better, but it still felt like a really hard slog. I could feel this resistance somewhere. As if there was a thick-glutinous, semi-opaque membrane that I was trying to break through. I was caught in a tangle of thoughts. Sometimes conscious thoughts, but mostly I think, the deep undertow of sub-conscious thought dragging me away from my objective. I think it was my eye, actively taking in all this fresh new visual information about myself and my brain unable to stay away from interrogating it. From examining how this compared to what it ‘knows’ of my appearance, and in particular what it knows of my appearance from photographs. I felt like I was trapped in some loop or battle with my photographic self.

Like many people, I’m not a fan of having my photo taken. I can trace this feeling back to the awkwardness of teenage years. As cameras have become somewhat omnipresent in life and I’ve long since passed the age of being able to throw a strop and storm out of the room, I’ve evolved a coping mechanism – my photographic self. My photographic self is quite a certain thing – essentially it involves smiling warmly in the relevant direction, mouth closed, no teeth and concentrating really hard on not blinking. This generally results in an appearance that I recognise and like of myself. It is literally the world-view I know and have accepted of myself. It’s fairly consistent – my outfit or environment may change, but my face doesn’t.

Somehow this self-image has become quite strongly embedded in my psyche. Getting beyond it, when drawing is hard. It is a narrow, static, ‘known’ version of myself that I have cultivated over many years. Yet self-portraiture isn’t interested in this, it demands an investigation of myself, as I am, in that moment in time. It is mentally exhausting. I am both the subject and the viewer, trying not to get caught up in the shallow storm of my facial features, and trying to let go of my ‘known’ world view and photographic self. At one point I got so exhausted of looking at myself, that I substituted rocks and shells for my features. I felt a deep connection between the calcified curve of the oyster shell and my own cheekbone. In one drawing I let my entire head float away and disappear, just leaving the shells on the page.

As I’ve been making these self-portraits – probably 30+ in the last month or so, and seen myself on countless hours of video-calls, it has prompted me to consider to what extent I really know my own face and head – how, and through what means? And whether the dominant presence of photography in life has led me to think of my face in some respects as a mask? As a medium I consciously arrange to communicate my preferred way of appearing to the world. With some kind of divide between the public and the private; between social expectations and the self. I wonder perhaps if the more our faces are demanded by social media, facial identification systems and the such-like the more mask-like they become.

It is interesting to think of recent trends, magnified in the online world, such as exaggerated make-up with dramatic contours, enormous fake eyelashes and fillers to plump lips. And at the opposite end of the spectrum,’minimal’ make-up and moisturisers, with their photo-ready promises and particle, ready to refract light and make surfaces appear literally less dimensional. We play with filters and stickers and dog-ears to virtually embellish our images. Are our faces becoming more mask-like as we more often have an audience to play for? Our lives more on stage, or permanently in the wings, with the recording devices that are smartphones all about. And in a Covid-19 era world, our online social identities and avatars rising in importance, as our port of connection with the wider world.

One grey Sunday in June, I spent several hours making a series of 10+ self portraits, trying to get somewhere new with them. Trying not to get hung up in individual drawings and appearances and working with more fluid media – ink, charcoal and chalk. All media that with other subjects I know I have felt a natural lightness and affinity for. As I got towards the end of my energy, I forced myself to keep going, to make ‘just one more’ drawing, faster and faster. Shaking off my conscious thoughts and reflexes as hard as I could. My very last drawing, a 30 second scrawl, revealing something that looks a lot like a mask.

Self Portrait: Face as Mask. June 2020
Earlier in the series.
In progress …
Self Portrait with Shells, Rocks and Leaf. June 2020
Self Portrait with Soul Shells. June 2020
Self Portrait with Colour in the Afternoon.