Presidential Portrait Sketches


Way back at the start of the summer I vowed to read the best rated biography of each president. Why? Well, we kept getting stumped on presidential questions at bar trivia and I was tired of ignorance. I used bestpresidentialbios.com as my guide and started with James Thomas Flexner’s four-volume exploration of George Washington’s life. I read two of the four on a road trip to New Orleans and once I’d finished the series I decided to adjust my plan. I would read the best ONE-VOLUME biographies. Flexner’s work was amazingly comprehensive, but the sheer word count almost drove me to insanity. But I finished and moved on to John Adams: A Life by John Ferling, and then Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power by Jon Meacham, and then James Madison: A Biography by Ralph Ketcham. I’ve taken a break since Ketcham’s work to read a bunch of fiction, but when I resume I’ll be turning through the pages of James Monroe: The Quest For National Identity by Harry Ammon. Basically, I’ve been president obsessed this last year.

The other night I was listening to The Washington Post’s great podcast Presidential and decided to do sketches from the official presidential portraits. I used a brush pen in my moleskin sketchbook, spending about ten minutes on each portrait. Look for more to come! And if you like founding fathers and also happen to like musicals, check out Hamilton.

presidentialportraits - 1

presidentialportraits - 2


Blue Winter Self-Portrait


Back before Thanksgiving I purchased two decorative gourds at the local Market Basket. They were a buck a piece and I thought their shapes would be interesting to explore in paints. I did a gouache painting of one and then put them both together to do an oil study. As I’d hoped, they were fun to work with. I then decided to include them in a larger still life.

I’ve been trying to improve several aspects of my art. First: my eye. I’ve been focusing on really visually understanding color and value, for example: not just assuming that a blue cloth is dark blue in its shadow. Second: technique. There are so many ways to work with oil paints and I’m still finding my niche. I’m trying to use more medium now to keep my paintings oily and alive. Third: color theory. Several recent visits to museums has made me realize how important color theory is. Van Gogh’s paintings really do sing in person because he understood what colors play off one another. So for the larger gourd still life I decided to focus on the secondary colors of purple, green, and orange.

The gourds served as my orange and I had a bed sheet that worked as my purple, but I was unsure of what to use for my green until I was once again walking through Market Basket. Pickles! They’re so strange and otherworldly, floating like museum specimens in a jar. It’s gross, weird, and despite all that, truthfully mundane. They’re only weird when you take a moment to think about it. I suppose that goes for most things.

Once I had my pickles I found that there was still something missing from my setup. It lacked balance. I don’t have a lot of orange things around my apartment, so I went with a NERF gun and bullets.


  Harvest               9″ x 12″

I tried to balance the warm purples of the forefront with cool purples in the background. That may have worked better than the incorporation of the NERF gun. It seems too yellow and not enough orange. Overall, I’m happy, though I think the contrast between light and dark could’ve been stronger.

For a change of pace I turned the next day to self-portraiture.

blueselfie - 1

I used another 9″ x 12″ canvas washed in burnt umber and began with a blue gray underdrawing.

blueselfie - 2

Remembering to work in simple shapes, I kept my first paint through focused in one light, one medium, and one dark. Then I speckled in a few halftones.

blueselfie - 3

With the basic forms distinguished, I worked around trying to refine them by using warmer colors. Originally, I wanted to begin with cool blues and then paint over with warmer flesh tones, leaving the shadows cool, but as I worked I kept it generally cool all over.

blueselfie - 4

I managed to maintain the cool tones despite bringing in lots of warm colors. This flickering contrast really worked to sell the plane changes in the face.

blueselfie - 5

I don’t often paint the figure, but when I do I like to start at the nose when I’m refining shapes. Noses have so many wonderful plane changes and vary greatly in every manner, making them instrumental in creating a likeness.


blueselfie - 6

With the face mostly worked out, I turned to my shirt. I used green blues to separate the clothing from the blues in the skin.


   Blue Winter Self-Portrait             9″ x 12″

You may recognize the background from my Patterns painting. I do like that fabric. This painting was mostly a sketch and color trial, but I like the way it turned out. One of my most successful paintings in a while. I learned a lot about color while working on it that has influenced my decisions in my upcoming still life.

And I would like to thank my lovely mother for taking the final pictures of my paintings. Thanks mom! And I would like to thank my lovely girlfriend for letting me use her belongings in my still life. Thanks Sarah!

Here’s an animated gif of the progress:


Both paintings are for sale. Contact me at thewritingmann@gmail.com if you are interested!

Harvest – $600

Blue Winter Self-Portrait – $300


From the Bathroom to the Canvas

I was in the bathroom last weekend watering the lettuce I’m growing in the window when I got to looking at the way the light fell on the wall sconce. The glass body diffused the light while the golden base reflected it sharply. It was a nice contrast. And since I haven’t done an oil painting in a while I thought the lamp would make a good subject for a new painting. Plus I have a lot of 16″x 20″ canvases that need to be used up. I grabbed one and got to work immediately.

Lamp 1 Final

Last time I tried drawing in the bathroom I ran into a space issue with my easel. There was no reason to deal with that again so I just took a picture and worked from that. I kept the painting simple at the start to prevent it from becoming a replica of the photograph. After that I started every session by reminding myself not to get too focused about details. Keep the painting painterly. That was my motto.

Lamp 2 Final

Recently I have been watching videos of how other artists paint and I’ve also spent a good amount of time looking over paintings at museums and galleries. Analyzing the work of other artists has helped me pick up a few tricks. One revelation came while I was visiting the Museum of Art at UNH. It was the end of the semester show where the professors present their recent works. I stopped in front of a landscape painting by Brian Chu and checked out how he dealt with the background. The majority of the painting was clouds and sky and though the clouds were the focus, Brian Chu put an immense amount of effort into the empty sky. It really made me realize the importance of backgrounds. Keeping that in mind, I worked heavily into my background, making sure it helped my lamp pop forward.

Lamp 3 Final

Like usual, I began the painting with large shapes of color and then broke them down. You can see how I distinctly divided the reflections in the gold base.

Lamp 4 Final

Once I got the lamp base to a point I liked, I scraped it down. This prevented me from overworking it. I then left the painting to dry.

Lamp 5 Final

Here you can see I focused on the background, smoothing out the large shadow shape and working in some overall darker tones. I realized I was painting the wall too light and it needed to be darker in order for the lamp to appear as though it was jutting from the wall.

Lamp 6 Final

The body of the lamp was difficult to paint. I struggled to make it “turn” in space and appear rounded. The most difficult part was painting the crenelated top. The edges were a balance between darks and highlights and I fought to keep the shadows from getting too dark. I used my palette knife to scrape it down a lot.

Lamp 7 Final

Throughout the painting I went back and forth between slapping on decisive strokes of paint and smoothing out the transitions between tones. If you compare the above picture with the previous one you can see this seesawing battle take place on the lamp body.

Lamp 8 Final

By now you’ve probably notice the little winged dot below the lamp. That’s a hole in the wall with flaps of sheetrock. It wasn’t the easiest thing to paint, but I think I got it down okay. It pulls together towards the end. But I included the hole because it gives the painting an extra bit of character. It helps prevent the lamp from just being a lamp. The hole gives the viewer a little more information about where the lamp could possibly be and the physical state of that location.

Lamp 9 Final

To give the painting more depth I darkened the lamp shadow considerably.

Lamp 10 Final

While the lamp base gives off the overall appearance of being gold, I used mostly green and brown to paint it. I would mix the green with a decent amount of white until it was quite light and then I would mix in some brown to give it the yellow color it needed. Of course, I used cadmium yellow when this combination could not get me the proper color.

Lamp 11 Final

Painting the base demanded that I measure and remeasure. The slightest inconsistency or straight edge ruined its roundness and threw the painting askew. I stepped back often to see where I was going wrong and where I needed to make adjustments.

Lamp 12 Final

Here you can see I added white to the right side of the hole and that helped sell the idea that the sheetrock was being pulled off and away. Also, I’d like to mention here how much I like the reflected yellow light right above the hole. For some reason I got so happy when my eye caught that detail and I joyfully included it in the painting. It does a good job of demonstrating the reflectivity of the lamp base.

Lamp 13 Final

And done! I think. While writing this post I noticed a few things I’d like to fix, but I probably won’t go back and adjust them. I’m ready to move on. And now as I stare at it, it’s starting to look wobbly and funny. Oh dear.

I don’t often name my paintings, but I thought of one for this painting while I was working on it. I think I’ll call it View from the Toilet. Cause after all, that’s what it really is.

Below you can see an animated GIF of the progress photos: