Eye to I

“Self-Portrait” by Mary Stevenson Cassatt (1844 – 1926); c. 1880; gouache and watercolor over graphite on paper; 13 1/16 x 9 11/16 in.; National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution

Thanks to the extraordinarily good cameras built into most smartphones, almost anyone can take a decent photograph of themselves. Most of the resulting images are not great art, so what makes the self-portrait of a professional artist that much better?

See for yourself in the work of these masters (both historical and contemporary).

“Self-Portrait” by Paul Cézanne (1839-1906); circa 1895, watercolor on paper, 10 x 8 2/3 in.; Feilchenfeldt Collection

In Paul Cézanne’s quest to explore the possibilities of color, watercolors played a major role. They were studies for his oil paintings and were often key to understanding those works, yet they offered him an aesthetic that oil painting simply couldn’t achieve.


“The Silver Goblet” by Lucy May Stanton (1875 – 1931); 1912, watercolor on ivory, 3 3/4 x 5 2/5 in.; National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution; gift of Mrs. Edward C. Loughlin

In the portrait above, Lucy May Stanton presents herself in a forthright, no-nonsense pose, displaying her virtuosity in handling watercolor. She followed the traditional technique of roughening the surface of the ivory so that pigment would adhere to it, but then tilted her work board to move the flow of the washes. In “puddling,” an innovative wet-on-wet technique, she allowed broad pools of color to shift over the surface and then dry, leaving a rich texture.

Gerald J. Fritzler (b. 1953), Fritz, 2012, watercolor on board, 19 x 14 in., collection of the artist
Matthew Bird (b. 1977), A Work in Progress, 2018, watercolor on paper on aluminum panel, 20 x 16 in., available through the artist

Fine-tune your watercolor portrait painting skills in Stan Miller: Watercolor Portraits.

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Kelly Kane
PleinAir Magazine and American Watercolor Weekly Editor-in-Chief With more than 20 years experience in art publishing, Kelly Kane has served previously as Editor-in-Chief of Watercolor Artist magazine and Content Director for The Artist’s Magazine, Drawing, Acrylic Artist, and Pastel Journal. She has interviewed many of the preeminent artists of our time and written numerous articles about painting, drawing, art education and art history. She is now the Editor-in-Chief of PleinAir Magazine and the American Watercolor Weekly newsletter. Click here to send her an email.


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