How to Draw Your Selfie-Portrait

Are selfies this generation’s bread and butter? We talk contemporary selfie-portraiture with 'Garden of Emoji Delights' artist, Carla Gannis.

It hasn’t been a good few months for the millennial generation. Forbes proclaimed us “Desperate and in Debt”, republicans were targeting us with their political campaigns, and apparently we don’t even like to look ourselves in the mirror. New media artist Carla Gannis, however, is taking this negative energy and flipping it on its head.

We’ve previously seen Gannis’ work in her interpretation of Hieronymous Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights reimagined with the iconography of emojis. Now, she’s taken another aspect of the culture and interpreting it for her own. Gannis’ drawings of her own selfies recently caught our attention, so we talked to the artist about what makes the art of the selfie so irresistible.

The Creators Project: What's the inspiration was behind your drawings?

Carla Gannis: The selfie drawings began as a search, turning my gaze upon myself (and my electronic devices) to see what I might find there. In January of this year, soon after something major happened in my personal life, I felt an intense urge to begin working on a new body of work, one that in fact, incorporated my body. I felt vulnerable at first, speaking more directly through my own voice, and using myself as a character in the digital narratives that seem to be my most natural form of expression. I’ve been taking selfies for years, but similar to how I’d used emoji in day to day communication before incorporating them into my art, I needed to find an element of selfie vernacular to recontextualize. Drawing, usually the first phase of any series I begin, became the vehicle for me to embark on a nine month selfie art project, (one still in progress).

Are the selfies all of you?

I am the original photographic source for all of the selfies, so in that sense they are all me, and each “pose” arises from a personal reflection of my position within culture. However, as I work on them, they become less “me” and more about a human actor or avatar set within numerous contexts: imagine, cope, and finding virtual escape in the 21st century.

What does the medium of drawing selfies mean to you?

I’m not really sure what the medium means to me. I’m more interested in the meaning making, and what I can say about the situation of identity when “authentic” photographic representations are re-authored through digital drawing and collage.

What is your process like?

I photograph myself with my iPhone, iPad, or my laptop camera, then, instead of posting the image immediately; I begin to digitally draw over it, in a graphic novel-like illustration style. As I work, I add elements to the image to build an “out of the ordinary” narrative from a photo taken in a very ordinary place, my bedroom, or studio, or office. Through this process, I’m resisting the impulse to share a representation of myself, simply as myself, before I’ve had the chance to clarify what that iteration of “me” could suggest in a broader social context. I work sometimes for days on one piece, to draw out content that addresses things like branded identity, age and body estimation, surveillance culture, and agency online. After I finish a drawing, to complete the cycle of contemporary selfie-portraiture as identity performance, I upload it to several social media platforms, Facebook, Instagram, Ello, Twitter, and Google Plus. In slowing down the process of taking and making a selfie, I’m hybridizing selfies with self-portraiture.

Nude Descending A Staircase

How do you think selfie culture has influenced today's society?

Critics claim that this new culture of constant and instantaneous “self image” sharing indicates that we, especially our youths, are becoming more narcissistic and vacuous, but I don’t agree. We’re spending more time in front of screens, and our methods of communicating and expressing ourselves are expanding outside of text-based and verbal communication. We use emoticons and images more and more to express our feelings, and to perform our identities.

Humans have always performed their identities within constructed narratives, whether it was through hoop skirts and powdered wigs at fancy balls, or through smartphones and Instagram filters over a network. I’m not sure if selfie culture is influencing society, or if it is influenced by society, or really influenced by current events; influenced by the threats of climate change that could eradicate our “collective human face” from the planet; influenced by artificial intelligence and machine development that could eventually replace us as the most intelligent life forms on the planet; influenced by an ever increasing global population that makes it more difficult to concentrate on the affect of a single human life.

I’m not saying that a girl at a club taking a selfie is consciously thinking about any of this, more likely she’s wanting to share her life, controlled by her own recording device, and she’s having fun. But I do think these underlying threats to human existence permeate through culture and affect how we, as humans, lay claim to our lives, our identities, and desire to imprint something of ourselves on the walls and pages of communication networks. 40,000 years ago we felt a necessity to imprint our hands on cave walls with the technologies afforded to us via nature, and now we want to assert our individuality via the digital technologies that have been built, consciously or not, for that purpose.

Magic Carpet Ride

What is the difference between a selfie and a self-portrait to you?

There is a long lineage of self-portraiture, but beginning in 2004, when the notion of a selfy (later selfie) emerged, smartphones, and apps like Instagram became technological tools and platforms for representing millions of “selves” as willingly mediated subjects. A self-portrait, whether a painting or a photograph, has traditionally been associated with art, coming out of a creative impulse to explore the self through an aesthetic visual language. Selfies are more situated in networked communication. They are a kind of online performance, where we act out our lives through a device and are in control of framing how we want to be perceived. They also are produced at a much faster frequency and shared more instantaneously than self-portraits, which begs the question, is it a selfie if it is not uploaded to a network? With selfies entering the domain of art, where a scarcity model still persists, new questions arise regarding selfie aesthetics and the nature of their ubiquity.

Skulls Flowers And Polka Dots

Why do you think people take selfies?

In your question above about selfie culture influencing society, I touched on one (speculative) idea I have about why people are taking selfies with a sort of unconscious urgency right now, however I think on a conscious level people take selfies as a way of having agency over how they are personified online. Wherever we go now we know that we are being recorded, whether at a bank by a surveillance camera, or at an event by a hundred different people wielding smartphones. Selfies allow us control over how our identity is expressed in the public sphere, when generally we don’t have a lot of control over when and where our images are being taken. Sometimes people might not make the best choices about how and what they share virtually, but at least they are the authors of their own narratives. I also think many people take selfies in response to celebrity culture. Warhol predicted that in the future everyone would be world-famous for 15 minutes, and many individuals are establishing a kind of micro-fame for themselves via the selfies they disseminate across their networks.

Babel in Wonderland

Carla Gannis’ works span from tongue-in-cheek to deeply thought-provoking. You can check out more of her work on her website here.


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