That which we cannot see

“That which we cannot see”. Multiple self portrait. Oil on gessoed linen. © Simon Goss MA 2019

I recently painted a self portrait for my wife’s birthday. While considering the composition and clumsily trying to set up a pair of mirrors in my studio, it occurred to me that I am more than a little unfamiliar with the back of my head. I adjusted the mirrors so that I would have a view from directly behind. I found that I have an interesting head. Who’d have guessed?

I have a 55 year old’s lived-in face, I would describe my looks as unusual. I lost my hair as a young man and grew a beard as compensation in my mid twenties. I’ve broken my nose twice and my cheekbone once which has skewed my features somewhat. In addition I have a large pair of ears which stick out determinedly to ruin my otherwise streamlined appearance (it does allow me excellent hearing, however).

My eyes are deep set, and an odd colour too. My wife says they change with the weather from green to blue to grey. I catch a flash of mustard in them sometimes, in the right light.

I should explain, I am a serial portraitist, this wasn’t a one off whim. I trained as an artist, illustrator and designer in the early eighties and have been drawing (mostly nudes) ever since. A few years ago I decided to try my hand at portraiture in oils and, after several attempts at guinea pig friends and a couple of courses with an established artist, I feel like I might be starting to get somewhere.

Everyone is familiar with their own reflection and the way they look in photographs, but the weird thing about making a self portrait is the level of objectivity you have to apply to make a reasonable likeness. You have to ignore the familiarity.

Every facet of colour and form that in combination make up the structure of a face must be analytically observed in comparison to their nearest neighbour. You compare the length of your nose to the width of your eyes, the height of your forehead to the depth of your chin, and so on. You end up feeling like you are looking at someone (or something) who/which is not you. It’s quite unsettling.

The height of most faces can be roughly divided into thirds. The top third for the forehead, the next third down to below the nose and the last third from there down to under the chin. The widths of all the features vary on the canvas depending on the angle of view. Eyes, noses, mouths vary enormously from person to person but the process is the same - comparison. Start with one feature and work from there. Get the proportion of one eye right and then the gap between the eyes and you’ll know the nose comes roughly in the middle. Compare the length of the nose to the width of the mouth… etc, etc.

By this process the features are assembled and, depending on how accurately it’s done, a likeness that other people will recognise is formed. But care is needed, subtle adjustments can change an entire face. A heavy handed highlight on a cheekbone or a too dark shadow under a chin can adjust the prominence of the features and turn the sitter into a stranger.

But there is also that undefinable factor — the glint in an eye, the flare of a nostril, the way a shadow defines the mouth — a little something that brings a portrait to life.

The back of the head is another story. I guess for people less tonsorially challenged than myself, and with less obvious ears, this angle might not be much to write home about. I am fortunate however, my hairline forms a low “U” shape, the scalp above bears scars and sun weathering and my short-cropped hair shows skin colouring through in parts and interesting shading in others. My ears glow a deep red with the light behind them making for a nice contrast. I was surprised by the thickness of my neck and kept checking I had the proportion correctly drawn.

What struck me most though was the sheer vulnerability of painting this view of myself. The back of one’s head presents no challenge to the looker. There are no eyes to return the gaze, no mouth to form a response. It is expressionless and impotent, but still vital, still of yourself. But exposed, as if to an executioner’s raised axe.

I found myself feeling sorry for the back of my head.

I have a thing about sitting in restaurants that has gotten worse over the years. I like to sit with my back against a wall. I have no idea how it began but at some point I realised that I was not as comfortable if my chair was in the middle of the room, or with its back to an open doorway.

Once my sons noticed this they would leap to the chair against the wall looking defiantly at me until I asked them nicely to move. I don’t know if it’s a primal fear of attack, or just that it’s the best place to see everything from, but, like a lot of idiosyncracies, once noted it becomes a bigger issue.

The painting is partly a response to this little quirk of mine. By putting the back of my head out there I am exorcising a demon, albeit a benign, rather innocuous one.

“That which we cannot see”. Multiple self portrait. Oil on gessoed linen. © Simon Goss MA 2019

The image fell into place once I had the mirrors set up correctly. The back of my head fills the right half of the painting. I couldn’t resist including my foreground ear and shoulder sticking in from the extreme right as a beacon from the outside.

My face appears in full on the extreme left, and is on a diagonal through the tops of the right ears. I closed the blinds on the window behind me to save having to paint the desperately ugly brick wall outside the studio. This also gave me the gift of a vertical dividing line of the blind cord which fell exactly in the middle of the picture. Where the blinds stop is the top of the back mirror, beyond that are my sketch books on a shelf. The painting of my head itself appears mirrored between my shoulder in the foreground and the back of my head.

By making this portrait and examining the back of my head in this kind of detail I have established the following:

I am very recognisable from behind;
I should wear a hat more often in the sun;
There is no hope for my ears, they are only going to get bigger, so I may as well enjoy them before they demand their own postcode.

But then, I look on the bright side — at least you can’t see my nose from back there.


All this, and Welsh too.

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