Engaging with art inevitably sheds light on who we are—what we’re feeling, what we’re attracted to, what enlivens us. The act of looking deeply at art generates such reflection, and the act of making it engenders a more primal type of self-observation, as the artwork itself produces a tangible, visible documentation. When young children gaze upon an artwork they just created, their self-esteem skyrockets as they realize that they made something—that something now exists in the world that wasn’t there before. What a feeling!
As children partake in the creative process, they are developing skills in critical thinking and problem solving. They’re thinking about what colors complement each other, how to rearrange shapes and forms to achieve harmony, and how to alter something that doesn’t quite work. They are becoming more inventive and open to change as things begin to look different than they had imagined. Preschool-age children aren’t worried about whether or not the bird they just painted is a mimetic representation of the bird sitting outside their window. They aren’t bothered by the fact that their sky may appear purple instead of blue. Children seem to grasp the tenets of abstraction profoundly, understanding on some intrinsic level that art can be about what we feel instead of what we see. But as soon as we allow social norms and ideals to rule our decisions and determine our worth, we lose touch with those innate instincts that once drove us to explore and create without boundary. There are so many activities that foster our relationship with and knowledge of ourselves (from yoga to writing to meditation to dancing to art), and it’s time we re-familiarize ourselves with our ability to simply be without judgment, to tap into our power to create and forget (if only momentarily) shackling conventions and decorum.
Any art project, no matter how simple, is enriching. But perhaps the best art form to cultivate self-awareness is a self-portrait. In a self-portrait, the artist is also the subject. The completion of a self-portrait demands that people look inward and describe themselves visually. But not all self-portraits are realistic. You don’t have to record what you see on the outside, and can use abstraction to portray your inner qualities.
- See yourself. Locate a photograph of yourself wherein your face is clear and you’re looking straight ahead. Take a selfie if you don’t have such a photo handy! Blow up the image; enlarge it so that your face is roughly as big as a blank sheet of paper and, if possible, print the image. Obscure one half of the photograph with a blank sheet of paper, so you see exactly one-half of your face—half of your lips, only one of your eyes, half of your nose, etc.
- Draw yourself. Using whatever drawing tool you desire (a pen, pencil, crayons, paint, etc.) complete the other half of your face. For now, try your hand at realism so that you try to match your face to how it looks in the photograph. Spend as much time and be as specific and detailed as you wish. When you’re done, flip the sheet of paper so you no longer see your drawing and are again looking at a blank page.
- Abstract yourself. Place your folded, blank paper on the other half of your photograph, so you’re now looking at the other side of your face. This time, you’ll be depicting yourself abstractly. Instead of copying the features you see in the photograph, be creative and think of other ways you can portray yourself. It might be fun to bring some color into your drawing, since color in and of itself can effectively express emotion. Think about what you like (you could draw attributes that reflect you, like a type of food, a soccer ball, running shoes, the beach, your favorite animal, etc.), or simply what forms and colors and shapes describe you. When you’re done, unfold your paper. You now have a self-portrait that combines your objective and subjective selves.