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Sarah Palin for Time

DECEMBER 10, 2010

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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 desktop...it'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...