Friday, February 27, 2009

Barack Obama for American Legacy Magazine

My favorite images to blog about are those with an interesting story.

On November 21, 2008, I had an appointment to have my car worked on. It was a Friday.

I always make it a point to try and check my voicemail throughout the day. I feel it's important to be available to my clients at all times -- communication is a priority for me.

I had gone a few hours between checking messages. In fact, it turned out to be much of the afternoon, uncharacteristically. It was now nearing the end of business hours on the east coast, and I was sitting contently in my freshly attended-to (and now paid-off) vehicle.

Speed-dialing home, I find a message from American Legacy Magazine about a President Barack Obama cover illustration assignment for the Spring '09 issue. Immediately, I return the call, but they had closed for the week, leaving me the weekend to stew over the confirmation of this fantastic-sounding job.

Upon contacting them the following week, I learned, due to the unfortunate time lapse, they had to assign the job to another illustrator.


I've had projects with a sensitive timeline be assigned to another artist in the past when I was unable to return the phone call soon enough. I'll admit, it is a deflating sensation. This one was no different. In fact, it rated about an 8 on my disappointment scale. How often do I have the opportunity to do a cover illustration of a sitting U.S. President, let alone a cover commemorating the historic nature of his election?

But, I'm resilient. More great jobs would come, I thought to myself.

Fast-forward to Monday, December 22. I'm preparing to hit the road to see my family for the holidays. I receive a phone call from American Legacy Magazine. For whatever reason, they need to re-assign the Obama cover job. Time was short. Would I be interested?


Since time was so short, they wanted to use my existing Obama illustration as a base, and have 4 other influential African-American figures in the background (clockwise from upper-right):

Frederick Douglass -- former slave and American abolitionist
Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. -- civil rights leader
Malcom X -- Muslim minister and human rights activist
Mary McLeod Bethune -- American educator and civil rights leader

I take care of some confirmation of engagement business, pack a few more illustration-making supplies, and hit the road, very delighted for this opportunity.

Call me crazy, but I actually enjoy working on illustration projects and conducting my business over the holidays. I know deadlines don't stop for the holidays, so I like to be an illustrator that an art director can count on during such times.

Amidst the festivities, I had my laptop open, researching imagery and compositing sketches.

The client sent a rough mock showing Obama in-place, as they'd like him.

My challenge came in posing the figures in ways that worked together in both composition and lighting.

I thought Martin Luther King, Jr., and Malcolm X should be the largest figures, respectively, as they are arguably the most well-known.

Starting with this in mind, I posed everyone in ways that led the eye toward Obama. I varied the size relationships and poses, settling on 3 sketches/color comps, which I sent off on Christmas Eve.

sketch #1

sketch #2

sketch #3

On December 27, as I was on the road again to my various additional holiday-visiting destinations, I received notice through my trusty Treo, that sketch #3 was exactly what they had in mind.

My art director was also conducting business during his holiday time.

My next task was to begin the final art. Luckily, my friend, whom I visit every year around New Year's, is familiar with my work-a-holic nature. She also happens to be an artist, so studio space was not a problem.

I was graciously allowed to work -- which I did, painting the 4 background figures and beginning the compositing process. Upon returning home, I finalized the art on the comfort of my primary monitor.

The main challenge with the final came in the aforementioned compositing of the new figures with my existing Obama illustration. It was important to take these separate components and make them work as one new cohesive work, making sure Obama didn't look cutout.

Keeping the background figures monotone -- cool on the left and warm on the right to echo the lighting on Obama's face -- keeps them in the background and not in competition for attention with the new President.

It's always gratifying to receive thanks from a client after a job, although it's certainly not necessary.

Upon receipt of the file, my art director generously emailed me to say thanks and voice his pleasure for the final art. But he also mentioned something that put the icing on this very wonderful project.

Upon completion of the final cover layout, the staff broke out in cheers and clapping when it was shown.

Certainly, much of it had to do with the project's closure after a stringent, holiday-buffered time constraint, but I like to think the art played a tiny part in that response.

The folks at American Legacy were terrific, and I am extremely grateful for the opportunity to have worked with them on this, in my opinion, historic cover.

copyright 2009 Allan M. Burch

Allan Burch is an award-winning illustrator and portrait artist, providing solutions for editorial, book, advertising, and institutional projects.
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blueblood said...

That is amazing to do work that will be a part of history. You know people's grandkids will inherit collected copies of this magazine just like I did with Life from the JFK era. Your style and technique are especially timeless in this one. Could've been out of the '60s except for the current President. Looks like a similar style of portrait I've seen of JFK – whom Obama is compared to as well. Nice job and great story!

Allan Burch said...

Thanks Mark!

larry said...

Great story. It's always the way too. You can ensconce yourself in your studio for what seems like an eternity and the first time you go out the phone rings with the commission of a lifetime. I'm glad in the end it worked out for both you and the magazine. They got a beautiful cover.

Clifford Oliver said...

Your artwork speaks for itself. Wonderful. As a photographer, I was especially fascinated by your story and how the cover grew. I hope you mentor to the future generation, you have lots to offer. Thank you.

Allan Burch said...

Thank you, Clifford, for your kind words. I've been lucky enough to have the chance to start mentoring, and enjoy it very much.

I look forward to seeing your work, sometime.