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.
The summer of 2014 was a whirlwind of activity. From a renewal ceremony in June (20 years!) to a sudden major surgery for my son, the summer had to be lean and efficient. I did my work but dropped off of social media, the sharing of work, and many other social activities. As the summer of '14 turns slightly cooler at night, as the leaves start to ever so slightly go yellow, I am about to enter into the part of the year that gets busy again. But, before I move on, I'd like to show a few things I've done this summer. Many paintings came from wide ranging and interesting assignments.
This was an interesting assignment for Reed College Magazine. Emilio Pucci, the Italian fashion designer was being featured. From being a fighter pilot, to a mountain climber, to an iconic designer, all elements were to be woven into this cover. The final had the planes 'shot down'. It looks better without them.
For the New York Times Travel section, a story on how hotels and destinations now seek gay couples and feature this demographic in advertising.
At the time of this assignment, a friend was losing his battle with cancer so there is an homage to him on the label. Dave was a world traveler.
As usual, a trick learned in a previous painting is useful in the next. This was helped by Spock Riding a Unicorn.
In loving memory of Dave McDowell
Francis Scott Key, 2014
Smithsonian Magazine asked several artists to interpret the Flag for the Star Spangled Banner issue. Brad Holland wrote earlier that he thought people would probably paint flags and portraits of Francis Scott Key. I actually thought people would paint the flag and not many paint Key and luckily I was right. When I get an assignment like this, I too consider how I will look amongst my peers ( peers, did I write "peers'? What I meant was people who were asked. The list included R.O. Blechman, Anita Kunz, Christoph Niemann, Daniel Libeskind, Brad Holland, Matt Mahurin, Robert Longo, and Jean-Michel Basquiat).
I then think of what I can do well and ponder that group, where they might go with their pieces, and then offer my take. I went 'portrait' and that choice was solidified after doing a search for Francis Scott Key images, very few came up. I then became excited to add the the images of Key out there in the world. The two I cam up with were mediocre (but helpful) and I arrived at an elegant, yet anxious Francis Scott Key.
I could not find who did this engraving. It was a useful source image, though blown up it's all over the place.
An image I found of Key that I did not reference. This mediocre shot and the lack of images made me excited to proceed.
The approved sketch. I like this image in it's roughness.
Finally, I'll conclude with this piece. Perhaps my favorite of the group, it was a challenging assignment from GQ; paint the 'North Pond Hermit.' In Maine, there was a man who was living on North Pond for 20 years. He would break into homes, steal what he needed and remain out of sight. He never hurt anyone but created a sense of terror because the people knew of the legend and were forced to lock doors and be wary. Finally he was caught and he was a mild mannered man. He did steal so he was put into the clink.
The idea at first was to depict him like a Magritte trick; as a fractured portrait on some trees. He's not as scary or mythical in real life, so it was suggested I move on to that mythical Hermit we all can imagine. So, I did some revised roughs and found the right image.
With apologies to Margritte.
The right guy / the wrong pose
I thought I'd hide him and still like this idea. I'll have to recycle it someday.
Sadly, I was the model for this aging, mythical hermit. I did age myself up a bit.
Our world seems to have an open assignment that some leader seeks to take in every era. Who would seek to be an expansionist leader and rule with intimidation and fear all under the guise of being exceptional? In 2014 that is Vladimir Putin. I've painted him several times including as a person of the year for Time a few years ago (didn't run). He is a walking cartoon of how he acts and I think this is one reason that there are not tons of illustrations of him in articles and covers. He makes scowls, sinister stares and dead eye expressions that work as simple photographs. Illustration works well in cases were a writer seeks to make a broader point and uses some sort or historical or literary analogy. In this case it was Putin as a classic Russian Czar.
I had a great, and I mean great source painting to work with as requested but had to swap out the czar for Putin. Sometimes a job is a rush and I have a limited amount of time to do the work and need to size the painting smaller in order to finish it in time. This assignment for the Wall Street Journal started as a one week painting but it then got pushed, which allowed for a bit more detail. I learn so much doing these kinds of pieces and know I'm standing on the shoulders of master painters to do my illustration.
The original painting was by Franz Kruger 1797-1857 and it's of Alexander II. I removed much of the background in simplified that as added more monumental clouds.
The smartly written piece is by Leon Aron and concludes with this:
"Mr. Putin's appeals to the unique ways of Russia and Russian civilization may not be enough, however, to force the country back toward dictatorship, especially after the brilliant moral explosion of glasnost and a decade and a half of liberty. Russia's fate will be determined by how much repression he is prepared to deploy—and by the wishes of the Russian people, who now face a choice between living in a normal country or in one that is aggressively and chauvinistically exceptional."
I don't know how Russia will evolve under more years of Putin, but I do think there is going to be many illustration assignments with Putin as the subject in years to come.
I also was in the New York Times this weekend and had a fun time painting a suitcase with two men holding it. The article was about gay travel and how so many places seek out gay and lesbian travel business. I thought I'd tack it onto this Putin painting because I know how much Czar Putin loves gay people.
Both the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal use illustration is such a bold and grand manner and I must admit a but of jealousy each week as I see so much of it in print, above the fold and looking spectacular. I'm thrilled to have been one of the illustrators this weekend.
You never know when something you've painted in the past will prove useful again.
As an homage to a good friend who is having a hard time, I added his name to the label. He's in the minds and hearts of many of my friends and family these days.
Much love Dave.
Last week I was called by Sports Illustrated to paint the new NBA commissioner and suddenly famous Adam Silver, the for their cover.
Adam Silver, as many now know, was thrown into the public consciousness by handing down an appropriately harsh sentence to the pathetically racist Donald Sterling, for remarks he made in a taped conversation leaked all over the internet last month.
History moves slowly forward and as a nation we do improve, kind of like an incoming tide. Sure, it recedes here and there, but I like to think it does move forward. Racism is our nation's dark history that has strong grip on some towns and minds. Adam's action in such a public manner was to again signal that racism is not only inelegant, it is an evil that is unforgivable.
I saw my job as making Adam Silver look confident and majestic. I had great reference and used subtle lighting and texture to make him look his best.
Being on the cover of Sports Illustrated is a thrill. My first was last year and ironically enough it was another national sport commissioner, the NFL's Roger Goodell in a Game of Throne's motif.
As I said then, I think of how long I've read Sports Illustrated. I received a subscription from my Uncle Eddie after my father passed when I was 9. It would come every week and I would read about boxing, learn about Ali, Sugar Ray Leonard and Marvin Hagler, my brother Jay would read about hockey and paper his room with Boston Bruin photos, and my brother Dan would read about Baseball and Football. The photos were always great and the art was as well. To be a part of that history is wonderful.
Thanks to SI for thinking of me and to Uncle Eddie up there somewhere, for the same.
Here is a sketch that was requested using my drawing of Adam Silver. Though it put him in an arena, it was not as good as the somber cover they finally approved. It's good to see the options.
Here is Adam Silver handing down his Donald Sterling decision. I hope Sterling goes away without a fight.
Up close are a million brushstrokes. Earlier in my career I would blend values together with a blending brush or fan brush. It works well, but makes all textures appear the same. From observations of the work of Paul Cadmus, George Tooker and Gottfried Helnwein, I saw that brushwork left untouched can both optically mix areas AND create a surface that can be understood like a topographic map. Some like it, others don't. I work almost to size so that the brushwork is not TOO evident and therefore is not read as hair. If I work too big and the client reduces the work too much, that brushwork is lost and the face goes back to looking like velvet.
The full portrait. I am waiting for Mr. Silver's office to call...it's suitable for framing.