Self-portrait challenge

Sit down with a piece of paper, a pencil, and draw yourself. First without a reference (no photos, mirrors) then with one. Are they different? Did you try it or did you say "I don't have a creative bone in my body. I can't do that." Like I've heard so many times?

I came across artist Amy Stein's Healing Through Self-Portraits workshop in an article she wrote describing the course that she offers to health professionals. This workshop attempts to open a creative outlet for the everyday stresses of the profession through portraiture. Why self-portraits? She uses the anecdote of when "someone told the famous portrait artist Rembrandt van Rijn that he had captured the soul of the sitter, he is reputed to have replied, 'Madam, I beg to differ with you, I have captured my own soul.'"

Although it sounds dramatic, that process of capturing your own soul is actually a neglected source of what Stein calls emotional nourishment that we all need.

Psychologist Tara Well writes about the role of mirrors in the development of our sense of self in infancy, how our reflection early on helps us establish our independent existence. How would it do this? A mirror, while reflecting your actions, does not feel your actions. Realizing this, you are aware of sight, and feeling. The mirror cannot speak like you can. If you touch a mirror, it is cold. You are warm. Consider how studying your reflection, without criticism, can help you discover a physical sense of self, and thereafter an emotional. Some may feel stuck at the "without criticism" condition. This is where the portrait comes in.

Have you ever had to learn to use a machine that was complex and difficult, but upon reading the manual and a little trial and error you found that it worked wonderfully and actually wasn't so bad after all? Think now of sitting down, with a mirror and a piece of paper. Maybe upon first look the mirror shows you something undesirable. But then you draw an oval, with two lines intersecting its horizontal and vertical center. As you look at your face you realize that the corners of your eyes line up with the edges of your nose, even the side that sits higher than the other. You see that your ears are level with your eyebrows, your mouth fitting into an invisible channel descending from the middle of your eyes. Your face is it's own unique interpretation of a template that everyone follows. That doesn't sound so bad! Some times we do better to approach ourselves objectively.

So how does any of this give us emotional nourishment? Amy Stein's article shares lots of individuals experiences of the workshop that are worth a read, but I think there are also practical benefits that strengthen us emotionally.

The first is a temporary release from multitasking. Phyllis Korkki of the New York Times quotes neuroscientist Earl K Miller in her article on productivity saying:

Trying to multitask...impedes creativity, he said. Truly innovative thinking arises when we allow our brains to follow a logical path of associated thoughts and ideas, and this is more likely when we can focus on a single mental pathway for an extended period.

The brain is like a muscle: It becomes stronger with use, Dr. Miller said. As with physical exercise, the more we strengthen our mental connections by focusing on one task to the exclusion of all others, the better we can perform.

Sitting down and focusing all of your efforts on figuring out your face sparks creativity and strengthens the brain. It relieves you from the pressure of doing multiple things at once and revives a sense of purpose. When we sit down to a task and see it through to the end, we are emotionally strengthened. It would be worthwhile to invest more time (separately of course) in more of these activities. I was lucky enough to spend my whole college career carving wood. In essence, my schooling trained me to monotask. I'm still really good at doing one thing for hours at a time. Hurray for education! 

Neurogenesis. Know what it is? Growing your brain! When you engage in new activities your brain is building new pathways to accommodate the action (neuroscientists out there, please feel free to call me out if I ever speak lies. I think I understand more than I do.) Something like drawing from a mirror also helps improve hand-eye coordination, which at least in young kids helps with learning capacity, so what could the harm be for adults?

As always, having studied art I am sworn to defend its utility to the end of my days. Give the portrait challenge a chance (see first paragraph) and revel in the results.