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The Imperfect Portrait Experiment

I’m all too familiar with Imposter Syndrome. The feeling that I am doing something that I really am not qualified to do and that it is only a matter of time until somebody finds me out!  However, whilst I have to a certain extent made friends with this nagging self-doubt in most areas of my life, it still catches me out once in a while.

“Are some lines self conscious?” My main exhibit at the Finding Lines exhibition

In the summer of 2017 I was delighted to be invited to exhibit some of my artwork at the fabulous “Finding Lines” exhibition at Derby Museum and gallery.  The exhibition was to be a celebration of making marks and featured pieces from the likes of Henry Moore, Pablo Picasso and one of my art heroes David Shrigley. As well as displaying some of my doodles I had been commissioned to draw a 6 foot piece directly onto the wall of the gallery.  On the 10th July, 5 days before the exhibition opened, I found myself with pen in hand, staring at a blank wall as a photographer took photos of me self-consciously fumbling my way through creating my piece.  As I worked, museum staff and talented fellow exhibiters wandered through to take a look at my work.  As I made marks on the wall with my permanent acrylic pens, all I could think was that finally they were going to realise that there had been a mistake and that I wasn’t really an artist who should be exhibiting here!

Whilst I’ve always loved drawing, I never really felt I was any good at it. However, as I have got older and recovered from art lessons at school, I’ve started to realise that the purpose of drawing is simply to indulge in the experience of making a mark, rather than creating something to be judged or rated by others.   Ironically, through the practice of creating art for nobody but myself my drawing has improved and others have liked it more.  It seems that self consciousness is allowed to fall away when there is not a self imposed standard to be met.  I still, however, find the idea of drawing portraits of people incredibly cringe-worthy and a practice that feels laden with risk, embarrassment and shame, both for me and for the poor person who I am attempting to draw.

I decided the only way to investigate this further was to go into the belly of the beast.  So, on the 31st July 2017, I headed to London’s Trafalgar Square ready to draw portraits for anyone who was brave enough to request one.  What would happen if I intentionally put myself in an experience of intense imposter syndrome? What would happen if I simply tried to enjoy making marks on paper to represent my experience of the other, rather than trying to draw them accurately?  What would happen if I publicly celebrated my imperfect attempts to draw others, rather than hide them away in the shadows?

My good friend JP Flintoff (who previously helped me with the Busking Book Launch Experiment back in 2014) came along with a camera to help film and direct proceedings.

Here’s what happened:


Derby Museum’s Finding Lines exhibition is on until the 3rd September 2017.  Entry is free and there are some other fantastic exhibits and collections to explore.
I would like to acknowledge Willy the @antigram who I met at Cannes Lions.  It was his wonderful portraits that inspired the idea for this experiment.
  1. Matthew Taylor says:

    Love your approach of putting yourself in these uncomfortable situations..”Do something scary” !!

    1. Steve Chapman says:

      Thanks Matthew. It consistently seems to be the case that the anticipated experience is always worse than the actual one.

  2. Leanne says:

    Loved it Steve! It made me smile. A lot. As someone who still exists as a silhouette on Facebook I know what tricky things portraits can be.

  3. Simon White says:

    I find myself wanting to be able to draw as well as you Steve. Drawing strangers’ portraits in public strikes me as being up there in the league table with fears of public speaking. #ActionLearningHero! Loved the video and shared learning, thanks!

    1. Steve Chapman says:

      Thanks Simon – was more nerve wracking than public speaking to be honest! My next stretch is to do the same thing but in a corporate environment – lunchtime portraits or something!

  4. I find myself sitting here reading the comments after seeing the video and smiling. I really do wish I could draw as well as you. It’s the consistency of your style that I enjoy. I’m also pretty much in awe of your daring. Think of a terrifying thing to do in public then go and do it. Erk! Don’t think I would have allowed you to draw me for fear of the portrait revealing something I hadn’t realised about how I come across to others.

    1. Steve Chapman says:

      Thanks buzzbuzzbuzzbuzz. In my experience the key is to draw as well as yourself if that makes any sense. As soon as I gave up on trying to draw to a certain standard or like a certain artist my own style emerged over time.

      You are right in the two-way element of this. I was as concerned as to what my portraits may reveal about others as to whether they were any good or not!

  5. Oxy says:

    Really enjoyed seeing people’s expressions once you showed them their portraits. And how appreciative they were of their “alter ego” on paper. Refreshing and inspiring to see how you painted them and the courage to do it. I am now thinking what can I do to push myself into uncomfortable situations so I can explore and learn more.

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