Small Self-Portrait, distinctively depicted through thick and encrusted layers of pigment, reveals Kossoff's exploration of his subject, in this case the artist himself. Painted in 1981, this work demonstrates the powerful effect of Kossoff's almost three-dimensional painted surface upon his subject, lending it a sense of immediacy and intimacy. Kossoff looks directly out at the viewer, instilling a closeness between the artist and his audience. When painting his friends and members of his family, the tension in Kossoff's paintings lies between the artist and his sitter; in his self-portraits, however, the relationship between the artist and audience has superseded this.
Although not painted on a grand scale, Small Self-Portrait emanates a strong physicality due to its textured and heavy paint surface, granting it a weighty and commanding presence. Discussing Kossoff's work, Klaus Kertess writes, 'The muted earthen tones, monumental scale, and visceral layering of loaded brushstrokes all congeal into precarious likenesses in Kossoff's heads. There is a sense that both painter and painted seem to struggle together for identity. The modest format (seldom more than 30 inches in height) of the portrait paintings is nevertheless densely packed with drawing incidents; every millimetre of the surface is pulled into action. The heavier the impasto of the face filling the space, the more modulations of light suffuse and transform the face in the portrait' (see exhibition catalogue, Leon Kossoff, London, Annely Juda, 2000, p. 10).
A regular visitor to the National Gallery, Kossoff's painterly method was rooted in his many drawing studies, each the product of intimate observation, and the work of the Old Masters such as Rembrandt had a profound effect on his work. Drawing was a crucial activity for Kossoff's teacher David Bomberg, and from him Kossoff also learned to repeatedly make preparatory studies for his oils, through them maintaining a sense of spontaneity. Kossoff said, 'Drawing is not a mysterious activity. Drawing is making an image which expresses commitment and involvement. And, whether by scrapping off or rubbing down, it is always beginning again, making new images, destroying images that lie, discarding images that are dead'.