From Portraits to PFPs

Jeremiah Palecek
7 min readNov 26, 2021
Cryptopunk #1973 and a Van Gogh Self Portrait

As the dust continues to settle from the rapid rise in the popularity of NFTs and more particularly, PFPs (Profile Pictures), the contemporary art world has begun to acknowledge the existence of the crypto community, and the inverse as well. For the purposes of this article I won’t be focusing on how crypto and NFTs will influence the artworld via their innovative nature, but rather try to dissect what it is that we’re looking at, and how it fits into an art historical framework.

The first NFT to be minted was Kevin McCoy’s Quantum, which looked like something straight out of the 70s Op Art movement. It was simple, contemplative and abstract yet geometric. With Vaserely, it was the hand that made the image, where the computer became evident in the creation of Quantum. Regardless of how the images were made, they evoke a similar reaction in the viewer, and connect with them in a similar fashion. This relation is often unconscious, and I have no idea if McCoy was aware or inspired by Vaserely’s work. One could make the argument that Op Artists and minimalism paved the way for the acceptance simple shapes and colors being recognizable and readable as “art”, but I’m not sure that matters or if Art makes any sort of logical progression from one thing to another any longer. In an age of Post Post Modernism we get everything at once and the viewer decides what niche they’re interested in.

Vaserely’s Tri Vega 1975 vs McCoy’s Quantum 2014

Within painting, hierarchy has been built into the creation of certain works and genres. History painting was often seen as the Apex of what a painter could achieve. These would be grand paintings of Epic scenes from history or religious texts. Landscapes, and still lifes, and genre painting (a name for paintings of “normal” people doing “normal” things) have also been prevalent throughout the years. One of the most common jobs for any painter after the Renaissance, was to make portraits. These were generally done of royalty, or wealthy people who would commission them. A portrait was a way for a family to remember a loved one for generations to come, or a declaration of someone’s value. If you had a portrait made of you, that generally meant you were important.

King Henry VIII by Hans Holbein the younger

The oldest known portrait dates back 27,000 years, and is thought to be a funeral portrait, something which would’ve been done in remembrance of someone who, most likely, died too young. The portraits would often be put on their coffins, and their mummified bodies would rest inside.

I won’t spend too much time on all the twists and turns portraiture has had throughout the centuries, but needless to say that during the 20th century, portraits of common people became something affordable that a wider swath of the general public would have access to. The rise of the camera was often employed for similar purposes, and one of the first most common uses it had, was to take death portraits of families with their loved ones which had passed.

But this new fascination wasn’t only for those who were no longer with us, portraits also became a way for people to freeze their own image in time. With the rise of print media occurring at the same time, the average person could also get a portrait made of themselves.

For this, they would generally have to seek out a photographer. Whether it was in brick and mortar building on main street, or a mall. The role of the photographer became more and more important to capture someone’s likeness in the best possible light. The rise of social media, and the ease with which one could take a picture of themselves via digital photography lead to millions of the profile pictures flooding the internet. The rise of the profile picture, which was (generally) the depiction of the person who made the profile was actually a bit of a revelation. Gone were the days of typing to an anonymous person named TigerBiteMom69420 who claimed to be a 24 f from Ft Lauderdale. The profile pictures of those on social media were intended to make a real person look the best they possibly could. The photos taken shouldn’t look too staged, but rather should be casual representations of the subject. In Tom’s famous Myspace Profile Pic, he’s looking over his shoulder directly at the viewer, he’s relaxed and it appears that he’s laughing at a joke or something done in an office environment. Who wouldn’t want to work with Tom, who wouldn’t want to date him?

Tom from MySpace 2003

But adjacent to Tom’s casual portrait in front of a whiteboard full of ideas, there were also a lot of people on the internet who didn’t want to represent themselves as they are. They choose to seek out avatars to represent themselves. These avatars could be drastically different from their own physical characteristics and could also serve to be the embodiment of they wanted to be. Robbie Cooper’s piece “People and their Avatars” for NYT Magazine showed the real humans and their avatars. Often these were from video games and other virtual environments such as Second Life.

I recently got into a discussion with an NFT skeptic we’ll call EaglesClaw84 about Profile Pictures, and in his view “ThIs iS sO CRaZy!” that people would spend so much money on them . Those of us within the NFT Community have undoubtedly had these discussions thousands of times, and it’s debatable how much energy we should even expend trying to convert the masses, because we all know that they’ll deny their positions as soon as there’s widespread adoption. Regardless, during my conversation I learned that EaglesClaw84 also played a lot of Fortnite. I asked him if he knew where Fortnite got most of their profits from, and he did, it’s through the sale of digital property. The game is free to play otherwise, but it’s one of the most profitable games of all time, because people can buy stuff. It quickly became apparent, that EaglesClaw84 not only played a lot of Fortnite, but he also had paid real money to outfit his digital avatar. “But that’s different because I can use it!” he retorted when confronted with the sillyness of his double think, so I simply replied that “Don’t you think the people who buy profile pictures for Twitter also “”use”” them? Just because they’re not in a game, that doesn’t mean they don’t enjoy owning these images”. At this point EaglesClaw84 just decided to “Agree to disagree”. Funny how people often do that when confronted with information which might contradict the view which they’ve constructed.

The role of these online avatars could serve a variety of purposes. They can make you bigger, or prettier, or they can make you something else altogether. While it’s common to think that this sort of role playing is something that came about after everyone got Ataris for Christmas in 1983, it’s also much older. Even before we moved pixels across a screen using a joystick, we also played being other creatures, and entities. These masks were used in a variety of different situations and for a multitude of reasons. But foremost, they took our bodies, and by obscuring our face, we could become something else. They were anonymous by their very nature

With the rise of various PFPs we’re seeing a hybrid of all of these disparate elements. They’re like wearing a mask, or playing a video game. They are something that we choose for various reasons and they can do more than ever before. A PFP may now be how a brand chooses to represent themselves, it can be solely an investment, it can denote how much money we have, or how we see ourselves. The PFP may look like us, or nothing at all, and that says something too, about how we want to represent ourselves online. My work has centered around making traditional paintings of these digital avatars for years now. They’re constructed from a cacophony of all of these elements jumbled together via the magic of generative collage, a technique which I’m pioneering along with the SOLOS team. It was with great pleasure, that they also found an audience who not only bought them, but set them as their own profile pictures as well. It’s the highest honor they can receive, and exactly where they should live.

SOLOS #2475