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Tim OBrien
'The Mountaintop' for Arena Stage
posted:
This is a closer crop showing his face and hands.

The full poster with low contrast sign out the window and flowers in the foreground.

When an artist has done a certain thing such as portraits for a long time, there is a ease to it.  I love painting portraits and have done a good job educating my clients about what I can do and what they can expect from me.  However, once and a while I'm offered an assignment that pushes me beyond my comfort zone into an area without a net.  Such was the case when a call came in for me to do a poster for Arena Stage's production of Katori Hall's award-winning drama, "the Mountaintop."  This play is a reimagining of the last night of the life of Martin Luther King.  

“This isn’t the ‘I Have a Dream’ King. This is a more radical King. This is King, the man; not the myth. I want people to see that this extraordinary man – who is actually quite ordinary – achieved something so great that he actually created a fundamental shift in how we, as a people, interact with each other. That’s a beautiful thing. And I want people in the audience to be like, ‘If this man – who is so much a human being – can achieve such great things, then I, as this complicated human being, can create great things too.’”

-- Katori Hall, playwright

The request was to paint Martin Luther King in his hotel room, but not make it a portrait of him, more of a image of a man with an emphasis on the room and some hint of magic realism in the foreground.  Much discussion about how to depict him ensued but in the end I think I nailed him based on many pieces of reference and a great photoshoot with a fellow illustrator, James Hoston.


He hung in there while I tried numerous poses and positions of arms and legs.  
The final result is something I'm proud of; a portrait that expands what I usually do and captures a moment in time.

To research the room I eventually found my way to the set for 'The Mountaintop' on Broadway.  This set was designed by perhaps the best set designer working today, David Gallo, who is the brother of perhaps the best SciFi Art director working today, Irene Gallo.  There are photos of the well preserved hotel room to view, but David's set images helped me imagine it as well.  Learning of the artistic license that he took to make that room work for the stage while clinging to such historic accuracy, gave me the courage to shift things to work for me.
Thanks to SpotCo and Arena Stage for the opportunity.
First sketch. The basic layout was good but the pose had to be worked to look less sad and dejected.
As usual, I forgot the flowers in the first round...clearly more nervous about the portrait.

This pose was not going to work and the chair blocked him too much.

This wild pitch actually moved the final color key to gold, so not so crazy after all.

The flowers at the bottom of the painting.

Reference shot of the room that helped figure out the look...
A great painting by one of my favorites; Robert Vickery for Time.


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