In 2003, Illinois Wesleyan University commissioned me to illustrate Minor Myers, jr. for the cover of a commemorative issue of Illinois Wesleyan University Magazine. Mr. Meyers was the highly-regarded 17th President of the University, from 1989 until his death from cancer in 2003 at age 60.
In 2008, the University unveiled the Minor Myers, jr. Welcome Center. For this building, and in his honor, IWU commissioned me to paint the official presidential portrait of Mr. Myers.
It was an amazing honor, and I am very appreciative for the opportunity.
I went about this painting a little differently than others. The final product was acrylic on linen canvas at a size of 24" x 30."
The first step was the sketch/color comp.
Details were very important, from the distinctive shape of his reading glasses to the kind and color of shirt he frequently wore.
Other important points were the slight mischievous smile he carried and the sparkle in his eye, as if he had just told a joke. He was a musician, and his fingers were slight in structure. He loved books, so the library was a perfect setting.
The painting needed to glow.
I worked from photographic reference provided by the client.
Several rounds of sketches took place before I proceeded to the final.
One of my first challenges was the color -- warm vs. cool. Typically, I think a painting is most successful if it tends toward one temperature, with less of the opposite to balance things. Most of my works are warm in tone, with just enough cool to balance the thermometer.
Warm colors tend to advance while cools recede. As the shirt and clothing in the foreground was primarily cool, that presented a bit of a challenge, considering the books were to be mostly warm, reflecting a glowing implied light coming from off the right side of the page.
I thought it important, then, to: 1) subdue the background warmth just enough so as not to bring it forward and throw the planes out of balance; and 2) bring some slight reddish tones to the blue in his shirt (in the reflected light and in an overall reddish shift in the shirt's hue), to echo the reds in the background.
Upon approval of the sketch, I did a small painting on an 8" x 10" canvas. My goal was to identify any potential problems that might occur with a larger painting, in color or technique.
Things worked out pretty well, so I proceeded to the final canvas.
Such a pristine canvas. There's always an element of nerves about laying that first stroke, forever turning things into a state of chaos, which I then spend the rest of my painting experience trying to straighten out...or, at least that's how I tend to feel.
I have painted a number of much larger murals (20, 40...80 ft-long), so one would think the anxiousness of digging into a pristine canvas for the first time would subside. Since other artists seem to echo this experience, to some degree, I guess the tendency is ingrained.
The head and hands are always quite critical, if not the most critical things about painting the figure. If they are inaccurate, the integrity of the rest of the piece is ruined -- especially critical when those who will be judging and viewing them, daily, are those who knew every arch of the brow and bend of the finger.
This was a particularly busy time for me, in my business, so there were many late nights and all-nighters involved with this painting. I mention that because the environment of my life at the time of a painting is just as instilled in my memory as is every stroke on that canvas.
One slightly memorable moment for this painting came toward the latter stages. It was about 4am on a Monday morning. I was having a tough time keeping myself conscious. For no good reason, I don't drink coffee, or ingest much in the way of caffeine. However, I keep some tea around. As that was my best bet for a jolt of alertness, I decided to brew myself a cup. Heck, I was feeling pretty tired, so why not double up and use 2 bags?
I'll explain why -- because I felt like I shed a layer or two of stomach lining between 4:30 and 5:00 am.
I survived, though, and kept painting the rest of the day.
Just a few days later, I boxed the final product and shipped it to the school, where it was part of the building's grand opening in October 2008.
Again, I am very appreciative of Illinois Wesleyan University for the honor of participating in this project.
Allan Burch is an award-winning illustrator and portrait artist, providing solutions for editorial, book, advertising, and institutional projects.
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