Epilogue: Behind the Shot - The Painted Self Portrait with Stephanie Ruff
Every year around my birthday I plan a self-portrait photo project. The goal is to document something
about myself that represents the year that has passed, as well as what I would like to improve on or
accomplish in the year to come. This “Birthday Photoshoot” provides the motivation to do a creative
project for myself each year, because often it’s the only one I actually complete from the planning stage all the way through the execution.
Over the past year I have done much reflecting on my growth as a photographer as well as a human being, rediscovering my creative self, and feeling comfortable with who that is. It’s no secret that I love color, and I felt that was a key characteristic that needed to be represented in this project if it was to be about defining me as an artist. Color is what gave me my artistic identity and allowed me to feel like I had a style of my own; not just one “borrowed” from another artist I wanted to be like.
The goal was also to represent that as a person/mother/friend/wife, I am still a work in progress; never perfect and always changing. That each trip around the sun is 365 more days to grow and learn. That
even though I am 37, I am still unfinished and there is always room for improvement throughout these
next 365 days.
So…..I painted myself. Literally, I went to the basement and collected all of our acrylic paints (because I thought I was a painter in a former trip around the sun) and I sat on the bathroom counter and painted myself, while my 4 year old stared at me with wide eyes and asked plenty of questions. But I must admit, I was a little nervous about using the acrylic on my skin as I had not done so on such a large area before. However, I was more afraid that tracking down the quality and quantity of face paints to allow the full range of color freedom necessary would be exhausting and expensive.
The goal for applying the paint was to make myself look as much like an actual oil painting as possible, so I used a variety of different brush sizes and tried to be very deliberate about creating brush strokes with each color. I also attempted to use the same general guidelines that one would use to contour make-up. I used more of the darker colors in the shadows of my face and more of the brighter colors to highlight. I finished by continuing the color pattern into my hairline and adding chunky silver glitter to the most highlighted regions, such as my collar bones and check bones, to give it a little more dimension by reflecting the available light.
The area around my eyes was definitely the trickiest, and I quickly found that actual eye make-up was
not going to be vibrant enough to match the surrounding colors of paint. I ended up using a very small
eye shadow brush in the acrylic paint to carefully apply it directly around my eyes, then finished with
liquid eyeliner and mascara. I did use actual lipstick on my lips, since I had just purchased a nice bright shade of red. This whole process took a little over an hour.
My set-up for the photo shoot was very simple because I wanted to make sure I didn’t have to go to my actual studio to shoot once I was painted. I used a black, twin sized sheet and hung it over our wall
mounted tv in the living room, adjacent to the large picture window in the front of the room. I use the
phone app Cascable to remotely control my camera once it was on the tripod, since the app takes over
the live view and allows you to see what you are focusing on before pressing the shutter. The most
important objective in shooting the images was to make them look very portrait like, but also represent
that I was unfinished. To get the best portrait quality image, I used my Nikkor 85mm 1.4 lens and made sure the stool on which I was sitting was spaced a foot or two from the backdrop to blur out any
wrinkles or imperfections in the sheet. Then, I used the nice, even overcast light streaming through the
window to tell the story. Because of the black backdrop and great light, the edits for this image were
minimal. They included creatively cropping, adding some contrast and vibrance, then sharpening.
When I saw the images uploaded on my computer screen, I felt alive. And for the first time in my life, I was proud to unleash the WHOLE project, not just a toned-down version so that I wouldn’t have to fear judgment or feel ashamed that I wandered off the beaten path yet again. This year I embraced what makes me different, because it’s what makes me feel most like an artist.