Introduction: Presidential Portraits

About: I make toys and electronic gadgets.

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

In your photo editing software, search for an option to change the canvas or image size in inches, and select the inches you have on your canvas.  Keep in mind that your image and canvas will both need to have the same aspect ratio.  A 4"x5" photo of your friend or relative will scale perfectly to my favorite 16"x20" canvas size.  When in doubt, take out a calculator and divide the larger number (either in pixels, centimeters, or inches) by the smaller number to derive your image's aspect ratio, then do the same thing with your canvas.  The aspect ratios should be almost the same.  If you are off by a tenth, that could mean the loss of an ear or perhaps a little extra headroom for your subject.  Google "aspect ratio calculator" for more information and help on this topic.

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

This is where you may start to feel like a cheater.  Don't let that stop you.  Artists throughout history have guarded their methods with great secrecy; it makes for a better show.  To feel better about using modern image transfer methods, try reading David Hockney's book, Secret Knowledge.  Hockney presents some compelling evidence that shows how the old masters used lenses and mirrors to create their works of art.  Yes, a good artist is a good draftsman, take Vincent Van Gogh as a prime example, but even he used a perspective frame.  He sketched and described the tool to his brother, Theo in his letter 254: "The perpendicular and horizontal lines of the frame, together with the diagonals and the cross — or otherwise a grid of squares — provide a clear guide to some of the principal features, so that one can make a drawing with a firm hand, setting out the broad outlines and proportions."

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

In your first sitting with the painting, it is best to not get too fussy over the details.  Focus on large areas of color.  For Mr. Washington's first sitting with me, I gave him a couple shades of color for his background, a couple blends of grey for his hair, one unaltered brown for the jacket, and a variety of beiges for the face.  See how I messed up his lips so he looks a bit cheeky?  That's ok, because I can fix his mouth in my next sitting.  He will also get creases around his eyeballs and a ribbon below with his name on it.

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

Walk away from the painting for a few hours or even a night or so, all the while creating a list of details you want to add.  In general, it makes sense to use smaller brushes as you focus on finer 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

Not every portrait of a historical person needs to be on stretched canvas with oil or acrylic paint.  Here is a photograph of artist, Pierre Bonnard (taken by himself, I believe), which I traced and colored in with colored pencils and markers.  You can have fun with any portrait, even if it is a president done with markers.  It is worth giving it a try!

I wish you all the best in your efforts.

Please post your portraits in the comments below.