Secrets of American History, Smithsonian Magazine, October 2014
Not long ago I was asked by Smithsonian Magazine to paint George Washington for the September 2014 cover. This image would be for the Secrets of American History issue and like my Norman Rockwell homage, would be a recognizable figure with a twist.
I love working with them because they know what I can do and can think of projects I would be good for. That’s what you hope for.
Unlike the Rockwell cover, I was not sure which famous source painting of George I would base my portrait on, but of course I would likely choose either Gilbert Stewart or Rembrandt Peale as the source.
Master copies, as I’ve written before, are a common use of my skills as a painter and each time I learn something new in the process. But in recent years I try to use the source drawing but paint it my way as much as I can. In this case it would be my intricate brushwork over the structure created by Gilbert Stewart.
I knew I wanted to hide the top of his head in a dark band so my sketches investigated that, and the shadow that fell on the background was supposed to be all that the background was to be. The bands ended up being the colors of the flag, so they did double duty and made the cover a bit deeper and connected to the cover tag-line.
It was a fun assignment to do and was one that I was able to benefit from letting it dry a bit then work on the skin a bit more, allowing for subtle scumbles and glazes.
If I had longer deadlines, I would do it more. Being so busy for so long, I have forgotten the benefit of slowing down just a bit.
The two source Gilbert Stewart portraits
I like the look of this Washington very much. However, to be successful, this has to read as Washington immediately. The thing I had to take a stab at guessing is the ornamental flourish behind his collar. I figured it was some sort of bow that is gathered in the middle and we are seeing the edge of it. I may be wrong but it helped me draw it.
This is the more recognized portrait of George. In both cases I flipped him, normally not what you want to do with a portrait, but he's fairly symmetrical. I think you need that portrait facing to the right since that works better on a magazine cover.
I thought I'd like to hide the top of his head in shadow to change the portrait a bit more and add to the secret concept. In doing that I added a corresponding shadow on the wall behind them. I played with the colors a bit to achieve the colors of the flag. This was approved.
Close shot of the brushwork
Thanks to Maria Keehan for the wonderful assignment.