For Presidents Day, let's paint a president or any historical person, from a black and white photo or even a printed carving. This Instructable is geared toward the adventurous novice.
For this project I used an inexpensive set of student grade acrylic paints and brushes, a 16"x20" stretched/primed canvas, scotch tape, pencils, and carbon transfer paper (optional). The tools needed include a computer with internet access and the most basic photo editing software and a black and white printer.
Step 1: Source an Image
Credit your source image to the original photographer or artist. The best source for documented presidential photographs and paintings is the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery. Here is a compilation of presidential portraits (paintings).
Remember that some presidents and many more historical figures predate photographs. According to this article in the Atlantic by Megan Garber, "The first photograph of a sitting United States president was taken of William Henry Harrison on March 4, 1841." Unfortunately, it has since been lost. The earliest existing presidential photograph is of John Quincy Adams, taken in 1843 (over a decade after he left office) by his nephew, Ezekiel Bacon. This daguerreotype of our sixth president was found in 1970 in an Atlanta, GA antique shop and was bought for a mere 50 cents! It is now housed in the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery. My point here is that you will not find presidential photographs before these; you will need to rely on paintings.
For the first demonstration portrait, I have painted President Abraham Lincoln in acrylic on a 16"x20" stretched canvas. Lincoln is commonly discussed as being the most photographed American in the 19th century. My source image was an 1865 daguerreotype by Alexander Gardner. Lincoln sat with Gardner many times; I chose this image because it was the President's last photographic sitting before his death.
The second demonstration portrait of George Washington is an acrylic work in progress( that means it's not finished yet), also on 16"x20" stretched canvas. The source image is an enlarged $1 bill. It is believed to be a carver's rendition of Gilbert Stuart's 1976 unfinished oil on canvas of our first president, which is housed in the Museum of Fine Arts Boston.
Step 2: Enlarge and Print on Paper
You can print your image on your typical 8.5"x11" printer paper without borders. Cut off any white borders that will still probably show, line up the papers and tape them together with one layer of removable scotch tape. Compare it to your canvas. If you are happy with how it will look on canvas, then move on to the next step. Otherwise, re-crop, resize and reprint until you are happy.
Step 3: Transfer Outline to Canvas
So please go ahead and use any tool you have available!
For this step, you will need to either use transfer paper of any color, or you can spread graphite on the back of your enlarged image using the side of a sharpened pencil. Next, tape your image onto the canvas with graphite or transfer paper behind it. Masking tape will hold best, but I carefully use scotch tape if that's all I have. Without moving the image too much, take a peek at the canvas to see if your lines are tranferred to the canvas. Keeping your pencil sharp, draw firm outlines of major facial features and shadows and highlights. This step is all up to you. Include everything that you think is important, but only as much as you can keep track of once you are done. Here I show Washington with red marker just so you could see most of the lines I chose to make. I actually used pencil just as I am describing.
Step 4: Large Areas of Color
As stated earlier, this painting of George Washington is a work in progress. I am using it to demonstrate a middle step in the process.
Step 5: Details Details Details
Before I painted Mr. Lincoln, I did not know his eye color. As there are no color photographs of this president, I relied on physical descriptions of his appearance to make this determination. In an 1859 letter from Lincoln to Jesse Fell, he described himself thusly, "If any personal description of me is thought desirable, it may be said, I am, in height, six feet, four inches, nearly; lean in flesh, weighing, on an average, one hundred and eighty pounds; dark complexion, with coarse black hair, and grey eyes -- no other marks or brands recollected." Now we know that he had blue grey eyes.
We can also see from photographs that his ears were big, face gaunt, eyebrows bushy, hair sometimes messy, that he had different states of facial hair from time to time, and that he had a mole on his right cheek. I included all these details in my painting, because I think they communicate something of the personality of the man. For the background, I chose a messy hash of light and dark blues over a light orange, which match the skin and eye colors I chose for him and continue his hair's messy mish mosh.
In the final stages of your painting, you will want to add highlights and refine shadows wherever they are needed. Periodically walk away and revisit the painting as time allows.
Step 6: Casual Renderings
I wish you all the best in your efforts.
Please post your portraits in the comments below.