Sunday, December 16, 2007

Barack Obama

The Oprah-factor. Will it help? It certainly can't hurt. He and Hillary are essentially neck-and-neck in Iowa. What's fascinating to me is his charisma and presence. That seems to go a long way with many people. He also seems to be an intensively smart man. Many people came to first know about him after his keynote address at the 2004 Democratic National Convention. I missed the speech, but I remember the buzz afterward. People noted how brilliant and inspiring his speech was perceived, and how he would be the future of the Democratic party.

It's always interesting to watch the polls and how people analyze them as if they are of critical importance 100% of the time. Any bodybuilder (or anyone trying to get into shape for their class reunion) knows it's all about peaking at the right time. Obama's peak appears to be happening at about the right time.

I did this piece a few months back to be included as part of a portrait-themed promotional brochure I was planning. After doing it, I decided it disproportionately out-shined some of the others I was to include. This sparked a fervent stretch of voluminous output on my part, that continues to this day. This has advanced my work, invaluably, and sparked some of my favorite illustrations to-date (check out the Amy Winehouse image from September -- no pun intended but I'm completely addicted to her music right now).

The brochure is still in the works. Drop me a line, and I'll send you one when it's complete.


Sunday, December 9, 2007

Nolan Ryan

"His arm should hang in the Smithsonian, right next to the Spirit of St. Louis or the first capsule to land on the moon. It is an American artifact, and object of awe. People should go look at it the way they look at the Mona Lisa." -- Jim Murray, former L.A. Times sportswriter

Nolan Ryan was inducted to the Baseball Hall of Fame in July of 1999, as was Orlando Cepeda, George Brett, and Robin Yount. I had the opportunity to illustrate these 4 players for Major League Baseball and the League Championship Series program books that year.

Sports figures in action provide a unique opportunity for an illustration. It's a great chance to capture power, athleticism, fluid elegance, and mental intensity, all within a split-second, moment-in-time depiction. It's a prime environment for creating a captivating piece of art.

In 1999, the National League series was played between the Atlanta Braves and New York Mets, while the American League series featured the Yankees vs. the Redsox. The Braves and the Yankees would play in the World Series with the Yankees sweeping in 4 games.


Sunday, December 2, 2007

Midnite Vultures

Midnite Vultures was nominated in 2001 for Album of the Year at the 43rd annual Grammy Awards. Other nominees that year were The Marshall Mathers LP from Eminem, Kid A from Radiohead, You're the One from Paul Simon, and the winner -- Two Against Nature by Steely Dan.

I was thrilled to work on this portrait for the Grammy Awards. I had my choice of artists to paint and I thought Beck would prove the best subject for me. His music is somewhat uncategorizable, so there is a bit of mystery about that aspect of him. Plus, if you listen to his lyrics, one can spend days deciphering the meaning to each and every allegory. I thought this slightly off-kilter image with undefined sweater shape would tell a nice subtle story.

As I worked on this illustration, I had the CD on constant rotation. "Sexx Laws" and "Debra" are a couple of my faves. When the big night rolled around, I tuned-in to CBS, looking at the full house of musical dignitaries, watching Madonna open the show with "Music." It was a surreal feeling knowing Mariah Carey, Pete Townsend, Blue Man Group, Elton John, Marilyn Manson, Snoop Dogg, Sweet Honey in the Rock, or God-knows-who might be holding my art in their hands that very minute -- a very wild feeling, and one of my cooler jobs to date. I hope to have another opportunity to help.

Cool song. Cool video


Sunday, November 18, 2007

Hillary Clinton

Picture a painting by Peter Paul Rubens titled, Immaculate Conception. Picture Hillary Clinton. Picture a pants suit. Put them together and what does one get? One gets this particular illustration that speaks about her and the Democrats finding religion. One also gets an illustration that luckily made it into Illustrators West 46, the juried annual exhibition by the Los Angeles Society of Illustrators. It will be on-line in the spring of 2008.

When I have some extra time, I will do self-assigned illustrations. This piece was based on a TIME Magazine cover story about the Democrats all suddenly finding religion in hopes of reaching a voting segment they've been historically unable to reach. The Republicans have been the party of religion, so this newfound interest by the Dems to start talking more prominently about their religious beliefs seemed worth probing.

What I aim to do whenever I assign myself a TIME cover story is execute it under the same stringent timeframe as is typical for a TIME illustration. It's good practice. I read the story on on a Thursday night -- when the new issue is published on-line. I generated some ideas later that night and decided on one to pursue for the finish. Friday, I shot some reference for the pose and did much of the illustration that night. Saturday, I added some final touches and it was totally completed that afternoon. It's very encouraging to have this effort validated by the gracious jurors at the Illustrators West show.

Now, as I add to this blog entry on March 4 -- Ohio and Texas Super-Tuesday -- and as we see Hillary take both states, this image takes on another life -- the martyr, the risen dead, the prodigal daughter? Is the tide turning? Does it matter? What about SNL? Are Tina Fey and Amy Poehler the combined Oprah of the Clinton set? How about religion? Funny how that has serendipitously sneaked it's way into the candidates' conversation. Thanks, Hil.

detail and inspiration

Sunday, November 11, 2007


Here's another illustration based on one of my San Francisco photos. While walking around the Nob Hill area, I spotted this belly dancer performing for tips. Accompanying her were a couple of men who gave her an exotic rhythm with drums they rested across their knees. Seconds before I depressed the shutter, a breath of wind caught her skirt. Click.

For an expressive photograph, you can't go wrong with a street performer like a dancer or singer. There is an element of rawness and unpolished beauty to these performers which adds a personal touch to their story.

The pose in itself is beautifully fluid, but I accentuated the twist in the torso and the jut of the hip to give it a little extra movement. Like the other color images on this blog, preceding this one, I did a monochromatic painting in acrylics, scanned it into my computer, and gave it adjustments in tone and color. Needless to say, the process is a bit more involved than that. However, I like having the flexibility afforded by Photoshop to try things out, make mistakes, correct problems, explore, and discover something new.


Sunday, November 4, 2007


Her name may or may not be Valerie. She kind of looks like a Valerie. I just thought it a perfect excuse to use the name of my favorite song at the moment.

I'm always on the lookout for interesting photographs. In 2005, while in San Francisco for the Illustrators Conference, I was able to absorb the wonderful energy of the city and take nearly 1,500 photographs.

Near the Hotel Nikko is Union Square, where people gather to eat lunch, hang out, people-watch, or just rest their weary bones. I hung out there quite a bit, grabbing a panini on occasion from the adjacent cafe. Of the many people who caught my eye, this girl with her cell phone and portable CD player was a source of many photos. She kept making great animated faces as she sat and waited out the afternoon. In this scene, I seem to have snapped her in mid-blink.

This turned out to be more of a character study with the background remaining fairly non-descript. The radiating brush strokes and shocks of vibrant color are recurring themes for me at the moment. I'm also experimenting with storytelling -- allowing the viewer to engage with the picture and come up with their own story. How little is required to tell a compelling story? I don't know if I've come in under or over the line on this one, but there are puzzle pieces here for the finding. I think the human mind is always looking to make sense of whatever it sees. It's always more fun to let there be some interactivity rather than spelling everything out for the viewer.

It's the same kind of intrigue we get from looking at a candid photograph -- trying to fill in the blanks to the lives of the people in the picture. What are the details of her life?



Sunday, October 28, 2007

Natalie Merchant

Back in 2001, Natalie Merchant released her third solo album, titled Motherland. Her record company was about to send the first promotional single, "Just Can't Last," to radio and needed to commission a cover. Typically, only the radio station will receive the promotional single, at least such was the case with this one, but the coolness factor was still quite high.

3 options were requested of the participating illustrators. Being somewhat excited about the prospect of its use, I thought to gauge my chances by asking how may illustrators would be submitting. The wise-gal on the other end of my probably rotary phone said, "Just one, but he has only one arm." I took the hint and turned my focus toward creating the best 3 options I could muster. Ms. Merchant would then be among those making the final decision.

I sent them off...and waited...and waited...and waited...until? -- nope, false alarm...waited...followed-up...waited. I held my breath long enough to deduce that Natalie Merchant said, "'Thank You,' but no thanks." Oddly enough, it was with this album that she kind of fell out of sight from the popular music scene -- an unfortunate snubbing from radio I can't help but think would have turned out differently had they chosen different cover art for that first single.

My goal with these was to reflect the ethereal and lush feeling of her music by creating a visual interpretation of the richness, texture, and emotion her songs embrace. I also wanted to reflect a bit of the mystery that she seems to have. Her face lends itself perfectly to such an illustration. I wanted to let it arise with just enough detail from a sea of darkness, still capturing the intensity in her eyes.

Whenever I have the chance to illustrate a musician, I wear out their CD gleaning inspiration as I work myself into the zone. For this project, they sent over a live disk and Ophelia. I love live disks.

I'm most pleased with with the one in which she's peering to the side.

Saturday, October 20, 2007


Great illustration is great storytelling.

There is a story here, but I'm going to let you tell it. Why is the chair red, like the picture hanging above her head? What's her name? Is it 3:29 a.m.? Why is she dressed like this and why is she holding her glass like that? Does everything point to the wine and what could the wine represent? Bitter, sweet, red, blood, thirst, heart, mind, dependence? Is it important that the wine level is perfectly horizontal, yet not quite spilling? And, why isn't the picture frame level? What does the hanging picture symbolize...a memory? What is off the right side of the page? Does it matter? Does it have something to do with the way she is piercing your eyes with hers or that her right foot extends off the right side of the frame? Do the boots symbolize something? Power? Sexuality? Red wine, red hair. Love, anger....what do you see on an emotional level? Does it connect with you? Does it make you nauseous, anxious, uneasy, overjoyed? Does it remind you of anything. Does it feel like the dream you had last night?

It could all just be a coincidence.

There are many ways to tell a story. Everything means something. Illustration is so great because the artist has so many tools at his or her disposal with which to tell their story. Everyone has a story and everyone loves a story.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

John Newton

Just who is John Newton?

John Newton became the main pillar of the Evangelical party in the Church of England during the 18th century. His writings and sermons were immensely popular and Newton leveraged influence in helping to end the slave trade. His early life, however, found him as a sailor and slave-trader in Africa. After some brushes with death, he made a spiritual conversion that led him to evangelical Christianity.

He also penned many hymns including the mainstay, Amazing Grace.

The crux of this book cover illustration for Crossways Books tells the story of Newton from his early troubled youth (lost in the woods) to his redemption and role with the Church of England (the Canterbury Cathedral on the right).

One of the benefits of illustrated portraits is they function perfectly when photographic reference is limited or low in quality. I've worked on a number of portraits and feel confident that I can work with any reference, no matter how small, lo-res, and out of focus the image may be. The references here were obviously historical depictions.

This is a charcoal drawing, accentuated and colored in Photoshop.


Saturday, October 6, 2007

Just Like Me

I was driving down the highway recently, listening to Squizz on 48 and the Pumpkins. Enjoying their smashingness. I thought to myself, I should do a portrait of Billy Corgan. He's an interesting character and might cater well to an illustrated portrait.

I was happy to see the Smashing Pumpkins get back together. It seems like his is the type of voice you either love or hate. I wanted to capture his energy and impassioned vocal stylings as well as his kinetic restraint.

I always use fluid and active brushwork, leaving evidence of where I was at that particular moment in time. Coupled with a shock of color, it's an effective technique to relay the energy of my subject. This engages the viewer immediately and pushes her or him toward a particular frame of mind. It adds another dimension to the visual experience.

I think it's also of note to mention his clothing. The title of this entry is from a line in the Pumpkins' song "Zero," one of my favorites. In my mind's eye, if the word "zero" were to be represented with clothing, I believe Billy's wearing it.


Friday, September 28, 2007

Lust Caution

Ang Lee is the 3rd portrait I've done for The Wall Street Journal's Hit List section. It's reproduced in color for the website and in grayscale for the weekend edition newspaper. I'm finding the unique challenges that come with these portraits are: doing something interesting in the strong vertical format, creating a definable edge for text to wrap, and making an illustration that will not turn into a gray blob when reproduced in grayscale on newsprint. With Ang, I tried a few things that I hoped would attain these solutions.

It all starts with the sketch and working out his pose. I set up my tripod and shot myself in a number of staged poses at various degrees of overhead perspective. Perspective is always interesting to look at and I thought it would allow me to get more into the alloted space as well as add interest. As I set my timer and ran back to take my position, I heard the click of my shutter about mid-stride. After the initial annoyance from wasting a shot had washed away, an idea hit me. I bet I could achieve some good candid-style pictures with immediacy and active energy by moving into or out of the frame and letting the pose happen. I liked the idea and took a host of shots with this mindset. The task then becomes taming the shots so I'm not flailing with arms askew as I race into the photo. I sufficiently tamed myself, and was rewarded with plenty of interesting vertical compositions.

As I'm working up my sketches, I'm also considering clean value patterns that are tilted toward opposite ends of the spectrum. An overall pattern that is somewhat graphic with strong discernible shapes is what I'm after. Only limited midtones and extraneous value that might push a newsprint illustration to mush. 5 sketches later, I had a nice selection of staged and unstaged poses to send for approval.

Lately, I've decided I need to get myself agitated, artistically, in order to loosen up and release any tension that might come from starting an illustration. Tension can be the death knell of one's painting. So, I popped in my most agitating CD and let the self-doubt evaporate as my earphones block out the world and the brushes, with a tension-free hand, agitatingly sculpt the red oxide across the board.

Of the portraits I've done for The Wall Street Journal, I think this one is my favorite. It achieves my goals, and I came away with some additional knowledge that I'll apply to future work—always signs of a successful experience. The Wall Street Journal folks are always great to work with, too.



Allan Burch is an award-winning illustrator and portrait artist, providing solutions for editorial, book, advertising, and institutional projects.
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Sunday, September 23, 2007

Atomic Punk

I always love working with Joy Olivia Miller and the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists (keepers of the Doomsday Clock and 2007 National Magazine Award Winner for General Excellence). I've been lucky enough to contribute regularly to their opening Opinions article. These articles pose a bi-monthly argument that a particular aspect of world affairs, as it relates to global security, isn't as it seems or as it should be. For the November/December issue, the author questions the ability of the scientific community to come together and monitor itself when it comes to initiating and participating in bio-security measures. Trust and ethics play a big part in this.

I always immerse myself in the article, reading and re-reading it multiple times. This allows me to identify all possible angles and ways to distill a complex narrative to its essence. After I have the story figured out, I'll scribble all sorts of potential concepts in my sketchbook accompanied by thumbnails. After I've amassed a sufficient amount of material, the next step is to flesh out my favorites to a more refined sketch form.

4–6 sketches later, I'll send the illustration ideas for consideration. Upon approval, I'll clean up my sketch, shoot any necessary reference, and acquire or build any needed props. For this job, I built a nice acetate beaker to replace the test tube.

There was an obvious effort toward achieving symmetry and implied lines that draw the eye to the crossed fingers. I usually try to keep my palette swayed to the warm side with just a bit of cool color to balance things. The choice of color also contributes to the mood and hopefully places the viewer in a certain urgent mindset from the get-go.


Sunday, September 16, 2007

Billy Graham

Billy Graham holds a very unique position in American culture as spiritual adviser to the most powerful people, particularly in political office.

With this portrait, I aimed to capture a stately-looking and powerful composition, to speak to his role as spiritual confidant to political powerhouses. I tried to convey the story of his connection with presidents by positioning the strong, vertical White House-like columns behind him. Also a symbol of power. The sunset colors are also representational of his place in life, and perhaps his journey with D.C. residents.

face detail

Sunday, September 9, 2007

Mother Teresa

As the 10-year anniversary of Mother Teresa's death is marked, previously unpublished letters from her have surfaced. The noteworthy aspect of these letters is how they seem to be soaked in despair and reveal more than just questions about her faith.

For this illustration, I wanted to capture the feeling of complete emptiness and hint at an internal conflict. The type of conflict that would throw into disarray everything she stood for. Her pose has a defeated look with shoulders slumped and arms hanging like dead-weight without expression. I exaggerated the posture to accentuate the sense of despair and create some long flowing lines. Her face is sullen and achingly vacant--not even enough energy to tense her jaw. Her desolate eyes look off the page for any sustenance. She musters what reserve she has to hold on to her cherished rosary bound tightly around her hand, beads digging in as reminder to the pain that binds her to this role. The cross on the rosary dangles off the end of the page without reverence.

I hoped to capture total emptiness with a bit of negative tension--not the typical Mother Teresa.

face detail

Saturday, September 1, 2007

Amy Winehouse

Amy Winehouse has such descriptive features--great eyes and full lips that distinctively and uniquely curve upward at the corners, punctuated with a Monroe -- not to mention her wild mane of hair. Her back-story is a bit troubled and she's been in the news recently canceling shows while they try to make her go to rehab.

I wanted to capture her edge and accentuate her lines to create something interesting. I exaggerated the posture, giving extra sway in her back, letting her left arm hang straight down. The bold energetic strokes and color are two things I'm experimenting with at the moment, and I think they compliment her.

After doing the monotone "underpainting" with acrylic, I take the art into the computer where I adjust my tones, apply color, and refine detail. This process lets me hang on to the spontaneity of the underpainting and affords me the ability to experiment with anything--color, tone, texture--without fear of losing any of that energy and spontaneity. I think it's a process that's added a dimension to my work, provided me greater flexibility, and allowed me to complete my illustrations quicker. This piece was uncommissioned.

Maybe the best quote I've heard so far about her Back to Black album, from itunes:

"This album is so good it makes me want to punch somebody."

(an AMAZING song)

face detail