Friday, July 10, 2015

Painting Lincoln - Part 1

There have been many paintings of Abraham Lincoln done by contemporaries of Lincoln, some of our favorite Golden Age Illustrators and also some present day artists.

The following two were done just a few years after his death:

Abraham Lincoln by George Peter Alexander Healy
Abraham Lincoln by William F. Cogswell

He has been painted by Pyle, Rockwell and Leyendecker.

Lincoln by Howard Pyle

Lincoln delivering the Gettysburg Address by Norman Rockwell
Lincoln by Norman Rockwell

Lincoln by J.C. Leyendecker

He has even taken on a mythical pop culture status.  From hunting vampires to juggling meat to becoming a 'super' version of himself (man, I love Adam Rex's humor!)

I don't even know where to start with Mark Ryden's paintings of Lincoln.  He always seems to be present with meat, monkeys and rabbits and pale kind of Christina Ricci-ish figure.

The Ringmaster by Mark Ryden

The best President's Day card ever by Muddy Color's alumni Adam Rex:
Super Abraham Lincoln dispensing wisdom by Adam Rex

I also love this painting by Rockwell showing a young attorney, studying during or after day of work, inspired by the images of Lincoln hanging on the wall behind him.

Law Student by Norman Rockwell

So, it was a bit intimidating when I set out to paint Lincoln a few weeks ago.  I have had a long held fascination with the time period around the Civil War, Lincoln and the effect of his time on the United States.  He is a very interesting character in history that doesn't fit into any simple mold.  Reading some of his writings, he had a wonderful wit and a great ability to write.  He reminds me in many ways of Mark Twain.  I think he could have had a career as a writer had he not felt the pull of politics.

I wanted to portray Lincoln the morning of the Gettysburg Address, taking a moment to collect his thoughts before he rode on horseback to the site of the cemetery.  Painting someone from recent history the stature of Lincoln is challenging.  It is hard not to be overwhelmed with all of the details; from the tailoring of his clothes; the tackle of the horse; to the wrinkles on his face.  There are quite a few photos of Lincoln which is very helpful, but when he is so well known there isn't much latitude with his likeness.

I set out to find some reference for his horse and saddle.  A wonderful sculpture of Lincoln was recently completed by StudioEIS in New York.  It provided a good starting point for some of my research.

Lincoln with his horse Old Bob - Sculpture installation in progress
I started by trying to find some good reference a saddle from the 1860's.  I great friend of mine, Birgitte Smoot, helped with some of the research and model wrangling (more on that below).  She located a saddle in Ogden, Utah.  It was a U.S. cavalry saddle, not exactly right for Lincoln, but I thought the finish and some of the details would be relevant.  The saddle was in the museum of the Weber County Daughter's of the Utah Pioneers.  I still don't know how Birgitte found it.  They were very gracious and let me move some things around to get a good shot of the saddle.

Next up was the horse.  It was believed that Lincoln's horse, Old Bob, was an American Standardbred, though it isn't definitive.  The horse in my painting wasn't Lincoln's, he didn't bring it to Gettysburg (he rode to the town in a carriage the day before, but then rode a horse to the site).  Still, I thought I would try to find a similar horse.

The Morgen breed is a close relative.  We tracked down (again with the help of Birgitte) a beautiful Morgen about 15 minutes from my place.  I really lucked out.  I brought my large strobe to the shoot and the ceiling of the stable was covered in insulation that was reflective.  It served as a giant bounce for my light.  I would love to do all my shoots in this stable, but I think the strong smell of horse poo might drive off some of my more sensitive, human models.

Now to find a good model for Lincoln.  I happen to have a couple friends that were able to help me with the body, costume and hair.  My friend Lars is almost exactly the same height and weight as Lincoln, standing a slim 6'4".  His wife Erin also happens to be a costume designer with a great knowledge of historical pieces.  She helped me by picking out a coat, shirt and tie that was close and then was on hand to give input.

Lars, my model for Lincoln.  At his core, it appears Lincoln is a viking!
Clearly, Lincoln didn't have long blond hair, but I had another volunteer who incredibly offered to cut his hair like Lincoln's.  Such great hair too.  I am jealous, I openly admit it!  Jason Smoot, thank you for stepping up!

There is still a big challenge ahead, Lincoln's likeness.  Lincoln did create a life mask, about 2 months before his death.  A little late for my painting, but not too far off.  The Smithsonian has been busy scanning in 3D models of their inventory, including Lincoln's mask.  You can go to their site and load up the model, rotate it and change the lighting.  I put it next to my reference and put it into as close a pose as my model.  Amazing times we live in.

Lincoln's life mask
I was then able to take the rendering and use liquify in Photoshop to bend my models features to look more like Lincoln's.  

1 - The original shot
2 - The life mask rotated and lit similar to the model
3 - The face adjusted to match Lincoln's features
4 - The model's adjusted face and life mask combined.

Continuing to use the tech at hand, I finish off my reference for Lincoln's head digitally.

Next post, I will share the sketches and the final (hopefully I will be done) oil painting.  I am about 1/3 of the way into the final now.  It is 46" x 72" on linen. I am working on the first pass, over a rough wash of color.  The was was done with burnt sienna and yellow ochre.  That is what you see on the right hand and lower parts of the painting.  The first pass is what you see in the upper left hand side.  

You can also see my iPad, mounted on a tripod with my study of Lincoln'd head up for reference.  I will finish the first pass in the next day or two and then spend a couple weeks on the second pass and working the details.

Here is a peek:

I am also trying to finish my studio space at the same time, so we will see how quick progress is.  I will post on that process as well!  I prefer painting to construction, but it has been a great learning process and in the end I will have a big new studio space to fill.

Thanks for giving part 1 a read!  Tune in, in two weeks for part 2.




  1. I wasn't aware that Abraham Lincoln made paintings of himself

    1. That is what happens when I write too late at night. :) I think I caught the errors and corrected them now. Thanks!

  2. Very interesting. Thank you!

  3. I enjoyed this and look forward to seeing your progress!

  4. What an interesting process!