Art Confessional: Self Portraits

I never finished this painting, because while the background was kickass, the less said about the foreground, the better.

I come before you today, O best beloved, to confess one of my great artistic failings.

Actually, two.

No, not that I’m basically lazy and have more or less decided that I have proved my ability to paint an extremely complex background and thus no longer feel the need to prove it, not the fact that I have, on a half dozen occasions in Digger, copied and pasted previously drawn panels of Ganesh so that I don’t have to keep redrawing a statue that, after all, doesn’t change at all, not even, speaking of Ganesh, the fact that I occasionally screw up what side his broken tusk is on and then don’t go back and fix it. Nor is it the related fact that I am not a perfectionist, which is somewhat shocking in artists, but to which I credit rather a lot of my success.

It’s not even that I have, on at least one occasion, drawn species together that I know were separated by vast stretches of geologic time (Ambulocetus and Dodo, I’m lookin’ at you!) although I admit, I do feel a certain degree of guilt over that.

No, this is a much more basic failing.

I’ve never done a self-portrait I was even remotely happy with.

Artists do self-portraits all the time, it’s part of the schtick, half the webcomics people I know do quirky little comics of themselves, and I am eaten alive with envy of this, because I keep doing self-portraits and they keep sucking.

This is intimately tied to the second failing, which is that I have never yet worked out a stylization of humans that I was happy with.

With a larger nose and ears, I would be a hamster in a trenchcoat.

Seriously. It’s not just me. If I just couldn’t draw myself, we could have a long talk about my self-image and I could nod politely and agree that I have issues and then just draw myself with a bag over my head or something and call it good.

But it’s not just me. I can draw hamsters and wombats all damn day, but cartoon humans break me. I can do little kids, to a certain extent–they look sort of like hamsters, right?–but not adults, and even the kids are awfully limited. This is why the humans in Digger are so visually weak compared to all the other characters, and why I make most of them wear veils.

Now, semi-realistic, detailed portraits? Not a problem. I don’t do them often, but I can do them. My gallery is littered with examples. There’s a vaguely anime-esque style that I come back to now and again, and I’m pretty happy with it. But a quick little silliness? A five minute doodle to illustrate, for example, The Time The Cicada Flew Down My Pants? No. I try, and it’s awful, and eventually I default to hamsters. My con badge is a wombat, and believe me, it’s not because I have an active inner wombat persona.  When I did a semi-autobiographical comic, I drew myself as a chupacabra.

The end result of all of this was that, based on all the drawings that kinda represented me, fellow artist shatterstripes once said that her mental image of me was a vague impression of something short and chunky that never wore pants.

The only thing about this that works for me is the little Hello Kitty-esque demon heads on the boots.

This was, of course, inaccurate. I am not at all short.

It is a rather embarrassing thing to admit, when you’ve been a working artist for over a decade, that you can’t doodle humans worth a damn, even though most of the artists reading this probably already KNOW this, and have been politely not mentioning it, because we generally don’t bring up one another’s failings in public.

But I keep trying.  I try character design after character design, I beat my head against it, I try styles not even remotely my own, in hopes one will click, that I will finally find SOMETHING that work, something that feels natural and that I can dash off when I don’t want to sit and do a full painting, I just want to immortalize yet another time I was running naked through the house with binoculars.

There is precedent for this. I took ceramics for two years in college because I was really bad at it, and it infuriated me, since that was the first time in life I found myself being painfully bad at something I really wanted to be good at. (Life being what it is, this has happened to me plenty of times now, but I have not gotten significantly more graceful about accepting it.)


Maybe it’s the nose.  So many styles of cartooning humans seem to involve the nose being minimized or vanishing completely, but I have the impressive nose of a Roman senator, and if you remove it, I no longer look as if I’m plotting to stab the emperor on the steps of Pompey’s theatre, and thus no longer look quite like myself.



These honestly weren't bad, and led to a couple of paintings, but they also took a long time to draw, and various kind parties pointed out that I was making myself a lot fatter and with much worse hair than is actually the case.

I did those three vaguely autobiographical pieces in pink based on the above designs, and those were fun, and came out relatively well, but they were also not all that accurate, and they took at least as long to draw as anything else, so my hope for a graceful stylization that I could whip off as easily as a hamster did not materialize, despite rather a lot of attempted doodling.

Cute style, might work for someone else, but she looks like she might pal around with Holly Hobby. This is not a girl who has ever given a blowjob or accidentally flushed a sock down a toilet.
Marginally better, but I started to get a weird Family Circus In Fetish Gear vibe, and it still just didn't FEEL right.

While preparing this blog post, I went through my fairly vast archive of old abandoned sketches, and found exactly ONE quick doodle of a human that appealed to me.

There! Like that! Only without the bunny ears!

The only problem I have here is that my attempts to duplicate this look only seem to work if the character looks disgruntled and ready to punch someone. My life being what it is, I really don’t spend that much time disgruntled, so the kinks haven’t worked themselves out yet, but I do have hope.

This has no bearing on anything, but I found the sketch while I was digging up self-portraits, and really need to do a painting of it, damnit.

21 thoughts on “Art Confessional: Self Portraits

  1. Tarliman says:

    The fifth piece, the set of four with the totally shocked and embarrassed face in the upper right, has a Gelfling thing going. Maybe it’s the ears.

  2. Lurkerlynne says:

    I once flushed a box knife down the toilet. 🙂 You’d be surprised what winds up in the lap of the Porcelain God.

  3. thornius2 says:

    I loved every one of these. It shows so many aspects of the artist. I liked the hamstery one, like those hamsters on the Kia commercial.

  4. ArchangelBeth says:

    Well, if you want *noses*, there’s always Dork Tower… With the exception of Gilly the Perkygoth, most of the main characters are… well, their heads are almost entirely nose. O:>

    So maybe start with a workable nose and stylize the rest of the face around it?

    (Or do the manga thing — even in totally non-furry-esque books, the artists seem to draw themselves as catgirls, bunnygirls, strange little gingerbread men with slightly scary faces, or cows. The cow was, if I recall correctly, a guy, so it may’ve been a bull with cow-patterns. (One assumes that bulls have spotted patterns, anyway — they may not show up in the bull-riding rings, but surely they exist and spotted cows are not all parthenogenically produced… Right??)

  5. Beth says:

    I suspect noses are the key. I can do decent cartoon/anime-style humans, although it has taken me forever to draw faces that were not simply round blobs, which means I have real trouble drawing anyone over the age of about 20. And their noses are still terrible whenever I try to do more than the anime-style triangle. But realistic faces? If I am not drawing directly from a photo, I just can’t do it. Somehow my mind does not register that the face actually has planes and is not just a ball.

    Personally, I like your humans, even if most of them have hoods or things over their faces. 😉 The only thing that strikes me is that they are all so very short, like tiny potato people. Perhaps you should try stretching some of them out a bit and make them taller.

  6. Cynthia says:

    I like your humans too. The wizard of tea is a personal favorite. As for your self portraits, I like them too, they have a “real” vibe about them that makes them more appealing to me than any of the “more” perfect drawings.

  7. zer0 says:

    To be honest, the “Cute” style ones have the advantage of making you look something other than short, and they don’t look that innocent to me. Oh no. Mind you I’ve known a few girls who do the cute butter-wouldn’t-melt-in-my-mouth kind of thing on the surface, or at least the fluttery / distracted but rather endearing thing too.

    They’re all far better than I can manage. Humans, and mammals in general, cause me problems.

  8. Stasia says:

    I think, honestly, that it’s the nose, but also the ears. Your ears appear to all be “critter” ears.

    I like the self-portraits, but I think I understand what you’re saying. I can’t get images of myself to look right either.


  9. Ayshela says:

    I agree with Stasia about the ears – yeah most human ears are rounded top but less protruding from the head than yours show here.

    though I love the cute style. the expression on the coloured one does, in fact, look like a girl who’s given a blow job or accidentally flushed a sock down a toilet, and many other things that drift across just under the surface level where most people don’t look. =)

    And I know several landscape artists who couldn’t draw a person if their lives depended on it, so it’s not like you’re the only one out there with problems in that vein. Good thing no one’s life hinges on this?

  10. munkymu says:

    Try keeping the nose large but moving it and the mouth up the face.

    This guy wrote a neat thing about why former anime artists tend to make Western-style noses too long. Your big-nose style might be more related to animal proportions (after all, hamsters and rats have noses that dominate the face and mouths way down there) than anime, but the examples are still worth looking at:

  11. Smoke-z says:

    Well, I went hunting around the internet. I noticed how Jenny Breeden’s caricatures of you aren’t very identifiable, but couldn’t find any to look at today. However, I did find some photos, and there is something there that would be hard to caricature. (Don’t know what it is.)

    Maybe start speed-painting from magazine ads and doing gesture drawings on the street? That, or maybe doodle less-squishy anthros when you have time for such a project? (Greyhounds and giraffes, maybe.)

  12. M Ulissi says:

    Couple of things:

    Completely understand the frustration. I’ve two story ideas that I can’t flesh out because nearly every time I try to do concept art to work on the setting, I hate it.

    Second, the older pic at the end that you like is reminiscent of Maurice Sendak’s art.

    Third and last, given your strength for animals relative to your strength for people, have you considered starting the figures based on animals and going from there? Like, if someone is relatively pear-shaped with stocky legs, start with a polar bear body, and then human-ize it. Or for the average person, start with a vaguely monkey-ish or ape-ish shape. Perhaps your frustration is creating a block that needs to be creatively circumvented?

  13. Graydon says:

    Do profiles until you like the noses?

    Draw moving people? You seem to have a much better grasp of dynamics when your brain doesn’t think they’re people, which is odd in the extreme, since the Digger hyenas are built like people except for their heads.

  14. Jessica says:

    As far as the body, you’d look a lot less hamster-esque with longer legs. Your legs are not that short! Haha.
    I think your portraits do portray a lot more of your personality that a lot of self portraits.

  15. atma says:

    (copypasta from tvtropes:)
    Most Artists Are Humans, but unfortunately humans are fairly hard to draw. This has a lot to do with the principles behind the Uncanny Valley theory. We know what people look like. We see them every day. If an artist’s human characters look too weird, those characters won’t be appealing.
    But, oddly, there doesn’t seem to be an Uncanny Valley equivalent for animals or extremely stylized characters. After all, there aren’t any Furries running around in the real world (at least not to our knowledge). This means that there isn’t any right or wrong way to draw cartoon animals, so it’s impossible to be close but not quite there.
    (end copy)

    I know you know this already, but it does bear repeating. Along with that old saw that, so to speak, we can’t know if you wrote it out of order.

    At least to my plebian eye, all of the sketches you included with this post look quite good. Especially first and the fifth (“led to a lot of paintings”).

  16. Aubrey says:

    I feel like this post is maybe asking for some constructive comments, so I hope you’re not offended by any of the following! 🙂 I agree with a previous comment about the protruding ears; those, plus the 90%-nose face, plus the thin-wide-thin face shape contribute to the hamsterosity of it all. 🙂 That being said, I think they’re pretty cute. If you want to take the hamster out of it, tone down the protrusion of the ears, move the nose up and define it, and go with a more humanoid face shape (oval, circle, slightly squarish circle…). Oh, and the eyes are a bit too far apart for a human, giving them more of a “prey” look (humans have forward-facing eyes, like owls and cats, meaning they’re predators. woo!). That said, they’re super cute! My favorite is the one with the Hello Kitty boots.

  17. James Hays says:

    You know, aside from that painting your Mom did of you, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a picture of you.

    Well, other than these, of course. 🙂

  18. Korbl says:

    Chalk up another artist who has never done a drawing of themself they’re happy with. I blame it on body image issues, at least partially, though.

    …actually, come to think of it… a template for a costume design a while ago wasn’t *too* horrible…

  19. Nina says:

    I don’t know if this would be at all helpful, but I’ve found that the artist of Platinum Grit ( is probably the only one I’ve seen who does really excellent cartoon noses. As a female artist with a Romanesque nose myself, I find it’s the hardest part of the face to “translate” into a comic/cartoon, and when it goes awry it tends to take the rest of the facial proportions with it.

Leave a Reply