Young vs not-so-young.
Performer vs the person.
Michael Jackson is a very complex figure. How do I do justice to such complexity?
The answer, I believe, is in creating a deceptively simple composition, focusing on the man. Upon dissection, however, I hope one might see a whole host of complexities.
I contemplated illustrating the dancer. There would, indeed, be lots of potential for dynamic illustrations -- movement, lighting, emotion...all right there in any of the kinetic snapshots that were his live performances, videos, and stage appearances.
How about the latter-day MJ? I could exploit the face, no doubt. There are a multitude of stories under his skin. We all know them. If not, they are easily Googleable.
Plus, I'm coming from a place where I remember the spectacle of 1983-ish, when Thriller made him the king.
To me, that era Michael Jackson was Michael Jackson. Slowly, thereafter, he shed that skin, so to speak, and ceased to be that person.
Anyway, I wanted to do a portrait with that person foremost in mind. Yet, I had to include an allusion to his future self and the tribulations that would accompany him.
The guy above is circa late-80s, early-90s. He's starting to transition in appearance, headed toward the downward spiral, but still the young man of whom we took note.
The colors in this illustration are also simple. They are pretty flat, actually. The face has minimal rendering, the shirt is very much a basic red shape, the hair is a basic shape, and the background is a basic gray shape.
They have to be, though. The strokes are very complex. Countering the basics in color are very textured and raw strokes -- evidence of human intervention, and an echoing of the complexities that defined the man.
There is no way a complicated color scheme could have stood a chance. Believe me, I tried. Either the mark or the color had to take dominance.
The mark won.
The gray background speaks to the less-than-vibrant future awaiting him, but the brilliant Thriller red speaks of that which he is about to leave behind.
It's tragic and celebratory, at once.
Lastly, it's in the eyes.
Eye contact is important. We form connections with total strangers by making eye contact. Somehow, I feel like I learn everything about a person in that split second of contact.
As such, I thought it important the viewer be forced to look Michael in the eye while drawing his or her own conclusions about it all.
How much more complex can it get?
My thanks to illustrator, Becca Johnson, whose assistance and artistic input helped bring this illustration to fruition.
Allan Burch is an award-winning illustrator and portrait artist, providing solutions for editorial, book, advertising, and institutional projects.
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