Tim OBrien
December 2010
American Gothic Redux, again.
These two handsome people were our final choices for representing Mexican Immigrants. Getting that just right is so important.

One thing I can count on every year is to be asked to do some sort of master copy for an illustration.  When an image becomes so iconic that it works as a vehicle for satire  or making a broader point,  I tend to get these assignments.  I love doing them because they are often great learning opportunities and over the years I've painted in the style of Da Vinci, Bruegel, David, Gilbert Stewart, and many others.
When the style is realistic I get to see how these artists move off hyper realism to  have their individual voices.  Bruegel's understanding of structure of hands was a valuable lesson.  Grant Wood's impeccable design too.  
Recently I was asked to do an illustration for Texas Monthly of a twist on American Gothic.  I had done this before for another publisher years ago, so this was yet another chance to learn from Grant Wood.  The concept this time was Mexican American Gothic.  Texas Monthly was doing a immigration issue.
American Gothic can turn into anything and one can fill a museum of the knock offs of his iconic piece.
I have noticed that as time goes on the common knowledge of certain iconic paintings is fading here in the United States.  In Europe, however, the common knowledge of some paintings is far more broad.  It may be a reflection of the reduced role of art education in US public schools.  Here in the states pop culture is now the common language to spoof or riff off of.

I love doing these assignments and as I end 2010 and the decade of 2000-2010 I thank all the ADs that picked up a phone, typed out an e-mail, pecked out an instant message or now a Facebook query; "Are you available for an illustration?"
It's been a pleasure.
I loved trying to match the hairstyles.

Up close I'm a sloppy painter, really.

An earlier piece for Playboy. The palette was far more warm.

Howard Stern via Rembrandt Peale.

Tony Soprano via David.

RCA Victor and voice recognition technology

Albrecht Dürer hands praying, painted. (property of Marc and Janice Burckhardt)

Here is a Bruegel painting expanded upwards and sideways to accommodate a book cover. Learned a lot on this one.

Sarah Palin for Time

Visit for breaking news, world news, and news about the economy

Out today is my new Time cover.  The topic; Sarah Palin.  

The concept started with a request that I paint Sarah as the unfinished George Washington portrait by Gilbert Stewart.  I did the sketches but as I attached them to my e-mail, I felt like I was sending over sketches that, if I went to finish, would make me lose a cover in a side by side comparison with whatever else Time was cooking up that week.
I knew that the real answer here was to do an unfinished portrait that was most common.  Did a wide swath of America know of the Gilbert Stewart portrait of Washington as a common frame of reference?  I didn't think so after seeing my sketches.  So, I offered in writing that the best solution was probably Sarah as a paint-by-numbers.  This technique for doing portraits is not new.  I recall my friend Ken Smith doing a paint by numbers portrait for his weekly spotlight section in Time and then he did a paint-by-numbers of Howard Dean and that the New Republic did one of Obama.  Still, when an idea works well there is no denying it.  In all cases the subject is somewhat unknown and not yet fully defined.

I must insert here that my opinion of Palin is not something Time asked me to adopt.  What I was asked to covey is the notion of us not knowing all about her yet, that perhaps she's unfinished.  I hope that cuts down the speculation from some that there is some concerted effort to bring her down.  Questioning a person's qualifications is the least we should do when considering them for public office.  It's not an attack.  Of all of Palin's faults, I dislike that thin skinned position most.

So, for all of the subjects that ever 'posed' for a paint-by-numbers portrait, none fit better than Sarah Palin.  She is proudly unsophisticated.  She will not reveal herself in real interviews but will let the world see the flat, one dimensional version we all see.
Still, the prospect of doing a paint by numbers portrait caused no fear.  I would be able to knock it off in a few hours, right?  
What I didn't  anticipate is the careful discussion of how much of her face to reveal.  
I was able to paint her in a very loose and 'banded' way, just as a paint by numbers does.  I always worry if someone would think I forgot how to paint when doing something not so real but I ended up thinking of other illustrators who carve out latitude for themselves as problem solvers, such as Christoph Niemann and Edel.  The idea dictates the technique used (at least that's how I see it.)

I did the paint-by-numbers blue line in Photoshop and it took hours.  I actually tried to make the numbers work so if some motivated reader wanted to finish the portrait, they could.  
D.W. Pine and Skye Gurney were a breeze to work with as usual and I had a brief extension of the deadline due to the WikiLeaks story bumping my cover last week.
Here is an odd fact; I don't know how many Time covers I've done.  I start counting and lose the count in the middle years there.  There was a two year period when Joe Zeff was there that I did a bunch and some ran, some didn't.  I lose track in there.  Whatever the count, they do mean a ton to me.  I dreamed of doing covers for Time as a student and am so thankful that I get to have a shot every once and a while.
This is a digital sketch of how a Gilbert Stewart-like cover would have looked.

This is the rough that was approved. The banding was fairly simple to do in photoshop and provided me an easy to follow way to paint her portrait...just like paint by numbers actually.

Here is the numbers map I made for the final art.  For some reason I can't find the last version that included more of her unpainted eye, but here is what I found.
(My computer desktop is now as cluttered as my real's a character flaw)
This is my low brow portrait of Sarah. It was fast to do but not as fast as I had imagined. When you blend all your edges you can put the paint down in a sloppy way. This took more precision but I gave that up around her eyes. After the final came in they requested that I remove more of her painted face.

My friend, web designer and former AD at Time, Ken Smith is a veteran of the paint by numbers genre.  He has done several and here are a few of his most well known...

Here Today

Music reaches memory in a powerful way for me. Who hasn't heard a tune and had an unexpected recollection flood into one's mind?
When I was about 14 or 15 I was bouncing ahead in my life, just starting to mature and figure out who I was. The loss of my father at 9 was not stinging me anymore and with that, the memories of him had faded. It's a survival tool to forget, the mind packs things away so that we can move about the world without tripping on the clutter.
At 15 I was lifting weights, hitting my speed-bag, riding my 10 speed around, and thinking about girls. Not much else got into my head. One afternoon I was hanging out with my friend lifting weights in his basement when he put on a scratchy Beatles album (for those under 30, 'Album' refers to LP records; the large circular discs the size of a dinner plate that you put on a record player). All the songs were familiar but it was 'Because' that resonated. I remember how my day was stalled in thought. My father played Abbey Road and perhaps that was the last time I remember him playing music. Dad flooded back into focus; he looked like Lennon, with his full beard, I remembered his voice even the feeling of hanging on him in a swimming pool. The sound of Abbey Road still gives me a deep sadness.
In college as I began to sit at an easel for long periods of time, music was my airplane and allowed me to travel to new places or old ones. John Lennon was the most honest and thoughtful artist I listened to and for me, in that time, I found each new Lennon album as if they had just been released. Music is great like that as it waits for you to discover it and experience it like it's 1963, 1971 or 1980.

Back to my youth.  I never showed any emotion other than anger.  I never cried. On December 8th, 1980 John was killed.
The next night I needed to be alone and do something, anything.  I had some small cans of paint and decided to paint a mural on the wall of my mother's garage.  It was brutally cold but I didn't feel it.  I listened to the music on a radio, all Beatles and Lennon songs.  I felt wave after wave of sadness wash over me as I worked.  I was feeling bad for myself. I was feeling the sadness of my dad's passing through the public mourning of Lennon.  
I think we all felt bad for ourselves and have felt sad every December 8th since.  The unfair, too early death.  I understood this deeply.
Paul sang 'Here Today', imagining what he might say to Lennon were he here today.  I also like the idea of living here, today.  Living in the moment is the best life lesson I know of.

Finally, I want to add some clips to the end of this post.  
The first clip is a quick oil study I just did this morning.
The other videos are tributes from people who loved Lennon.
Paul doing a fairly recent rendition of "Here Today."  It's a passionate and heartbreaking video.
The next is the very pop-songish "Empty Garden" by Elton John.
Finally the live Central Park tribute by Paul Simon.  Near the end of the song a fan rushes the stage and you can see a moment of fear in Paul Simon's face that quickly moves to a strength and anger.  All that happens while he pours his heart into "The Late Great Johnny Ace."


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