#97 Portrait of a Year

A unique record of the last year

It was a Saturday night in late March when Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced the stay-at-home order and Britain’s long and arduous brand of lockdown began.

One year later, we’re still in it.

By coincidence, it was also around that time that I started drawing myself in my sketchbook. I had recently started therapy and drawing a self-portrait immediately after the session felt like a good way to sit with my feelings and process my thoughts.

It became a habit, and then a ritual: close the laptop, open the sketchbook, take a picture of myself, and draw.

Now, one year on, I find I have a unique visual record of myself in this year-of-all-years; images that tell their own kind of story.

The Van Gogh days

When I look back at some of the very first self-portraits, from March and April 2020 I see a wildness staring back at me.

It’s partly my lack of confidence making marks with this kind of pencil: it seems to move cautiously, almost awkwardly around the page. The frames of my glasses sag like melting ice cream.

But these sketches reflect my mental state at the time too: a man cast adrift, with the world seeming to tumble around him (#64). I can’t help look at the chap in red, with those wild, sad eyes — and think of Vincent in Arles.

The summer days

As that strangely warm spring turned into summer, the weekly habit became a comforting routine.

I must have already been bored of staring at my face and I notice that I looked for ways of switching it up. I captured my poses from higher or lower angles and widened my colour palette.

I love the drawing in the middle where a dark blue and shocking pink counter balance each other. It was around this time that my love of the Polychromos pencil by Faber Castell was born.

It was easy to start new habits back then, wasn’t it?

The respite days

By the autumn months of 2020, life in the UK was fleetingly normal. I was no longer living alone, the pubs were open, I could swim again; we dared to imagine this might one day be over.

My months of work, both in session and in the sketchbook immediately afterwards, were beginning to bear fruit, with greater clarity and confidence.

There it is on the page in those clean elegant lines, and small mindful details.

I taught myself to draw in volumetric forms, and there’s a clear shift in these portraits which represent the 3D form of my face. I’m not just drawing what I see, but what is beneath it too.

As sure as the law of gravity, practice plus time inescapably equals improvement.

The dark days

The respite was short-lived. On Christmas week, we were all ordered back indoors and we’ve been there ever since. You can see the drudging monotony of these winter days etched on my faces.

Also, the hair is really starting to get out of control now.

By now, my technical skills were getting to a stage where my drawings really start to resemble, well me. You get a sense of not just my features but of my mood in that moment.

But what really fascinates me is how other versions of me were beginning to show themselves, as if deep unexplored parts of me grabbed the pencil from my hand. The last year of therapy has taught me that there’s a richness in me that I hadn’t seen before.

As my self image changes, so does the person who looks back at me on the page.

A year, reflected

In January I remember being scared that despite this monumental year, one with such potential for transformation, I had ended up the same person.

Outwardly, I look the same to everyone as I did a year ago; there has been no epiphany, no grand schism. What if I hadn’t changed?

I needn’t have been worried. I am transformed.

But some change you need a pencil to see.

Until another Sunday soon,