One piece of advice from me to you: always listen to your intuition when it comes to your art (and anything in life, actually).
For years, I’ve been practising conceptual self-portrait photography as one would expect the genre to be practised – quite straightforward: concept, shoot, edit, print.
Then last year, during an annoyingly frustrating period of lull in my work (I talk more about it in my post A Discussion Between Two Conceptual Self-Portrait Photographers), I began to hear whispers of creativity.
No, not voices in my head – that would be potentially alarming – but figurative voices. Aka: my intuition telling me that something was missing from my work.
It took nearly a year for the initial whispers to grow into something solid.
I realised that I wanted to tap into my love of painting. And not only learn about it, but apply it to my existing work. After all, I worked too hard to learn how to do self-portrait photography; I didn’t want to abandon it.
What followed was a lot of experimentation. I took classes, visited galleries, immersed myself in the world of YouTube, and learnt a lot in the process.
Mixed media in self-portrait photography isn’t anything new, of course. The art form can be traced back to the early 20th century, when artists began incorporating additional elements into their works.
They used techniques like collage, photo-montage and double exposure, challenging the traditions of their time.
Over several sessions of lessons with specialist art teachers, I enthusiastically applied dirt and grass à la Kieffer and melted wax à la Setch to my existing self-portraits, to not a lot of success.
However I tried, I couldn’t marry those elements in harmony.
But, like I’ve in past articles, these times are just as important as those when everything seems to work out well. I now knew I wouldn’t be the next Kieffer or Setch. Oh well. Moving on.
Why Mix It Up?
We know that conceptual self-portrait photography conveys ideas, emotions and narratives, going beyond documentation of appearances.
By introducing mixed media into the genre, you can amplify your creative expression even further.
You can create a tangible connection between your art and the viewer.
Additional physical elements to your photograph will engage your audience’s senses on a different kind of level, where you could evoke a stronger emotional response.
Think intriguing textures, depth, physical layers within the image… You’re basically inviting viewers to explore your artwork more closely and interact with it on a visceral level.
Or, you might have other, more personal reasons, like I do, to differentiate your work.
I have always adored paintings, but I’ve been very much intimidated by the greatness that’s already out there and not knowing where to start with it myself.
When that moment finally came and I was brave enough to take the plunge, it actually felt natural!
Not my experiments with trying to imitate other artists’ styles. That felt very much unnatural. (Funnily enough, I never ever had success with any art form where I wasn’t completely true to myself and instead fixated on others’ work.)
What felt and feels completely me is having gone back to my roots and explored what makes me tick personally.
I had travelled back to my past and what I liked playing with as a child.
I used to have this paper doll I loved dressing up in her little paper dresses. It was my favourite thing! (Lucky for my parents…. I was happy with cheap toys!)
So, I thought, ok, how about if I take new images, rather than use existing ones, print out my posed body and paint the clothes on, as if I myself was a paper doll?
I did just that, and you know what? Suddenly, the different mediums are happily married.
There’s nothing like a bit of self-exploration to find your own thing. Don’t forget to look up 11 Tips for Capturing Authenticity in Self-Portrait Photography to help you find your authenticity too.
I won’t pretend I know all there is to know about mixed media or painting. I don’t.
I don’t think any artist knows everything about their chosen field. That’s a good thing, though. It’s a driving force to want to learn more and constantly expand your horizon.
Techniques for incorporating mixed media into your self-portraits are really diverse.
Your imagination is the limit, and the only thing to keep in mind is to find that balance between whatever mediums you choose. You need to enhance rather than overpower your self-portraits.
The below list will give you an idea of what you can play with. If any whets your appetite, take to Google, YouTube, your local library, charity shops for books and materials, galleries, workshops and/or mentorship and jump right in!
Print out multiple copies of your self-portrait photograph and cut them into various shapes and sizes.
Combine them with other materials such as magazine clippings, fabric, old photographs, newspaper articles, or even dried flowers and sketches.
If you can glue it, you can use it!
Arrange and fix these elements onto a canvas or board to create your composition.
As I mentioned above about how I approach this technique: print your self-portrait and use your chosen paint to enhance your image (acrylic, oil, water colour, goache, encaustic, etc.).
I’ve seen some fantastic pieces of art that have been embroidered on and it’s something I may try in the future myself.
After printing your photograph onto paper (this might be tricky not to tear with your needle), fabric or canvas, add your stitches to highlight details, create patterns, or even extend the image beyond the boundaries of your frame.
Print multiple copies of your self-portrait and cut them into different shapes and sizes.
Layer and glue them onto a three-dimensional object. Anything goes: something you sculpt from scratch, a mannequin, a mask, or even a metronome à la Man Ray!
Experiment with transferring your image onto alternative surfaces like wood, metal, or fabric.
You can use transfer gel, transfer paper or try DIY transfer techniques using solvent.
Have a read of this extensive list on the V&A’s website of other photographic processes.
Text and calligraphy
How about trying to incorporate text directly onto the image, or around it?
Write meaningful phrases, quotes, poetry, or personal reflections using different fonts, styles and colours to create visual interest and add a deeper meaning.
These are just a few ideas to get you started.
Listen to that inner creative whisper and it will guide you as you explore the possibilities.
Mixed media in self-portrait photography is like building a visual puzzle in a way, inviting the viewer to interpret its language and engage on multiple levels.
You can create further interest and explore complex visual stories by incorporating symbolic elements or surrealistic touches to create metaphors, although there’s no rule to say you have to have deep meaning behind your creation.
You can make what you like, simply because you like it and want to make it. End of story.
If you want to elevate your work, however, you can of course inject layers into the piece, which will make for a more interesting conversation with the viewers and more opportunities for connection.
When deciding which mediums or techniques to incorporate, let your initial concept guide you.
Brainstorm how different mediums could potentially enhance your narrative or evoke the desired emotions.
- What resonates with your personal style and history?
- What medium have you always wanted to try out?
- What emotions do you want to convey?
- What kind of physical or tactile experience do you enjoy?
- What resource materials are available to you?
- Are you drawn to contemporary or traditional approaches?
To blend different elements seamlessly, it helps to have a vision of the final result. Even then, it might not work out, and that’s ok.
Take the time to experiment. Be open to failure.
Filter out and refine the combination of mediums you fancied trying out.
And above all, enjoy exploring new avenues!
Veronika Lavey is a multi-cultural artist specialising in conceptual self-portraiture. She is recognised for her dark, thought-provoking fine art photography.
When Veronika doesn’t have a camera or a paint brush in her hands, she’s most likely walking her giant fluffy dog, Sonic in the woods, or hanging out with her family.