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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Friday, February 20, 2009


This is all about vulnerability.

When depicting the female form, most of the time there is an automatic sexual component to the symbolism.

What I'm trying to do with this piece is lead the viewer on a ride that looks like we're headed towards that end, but as the composition is dissected, the intended meaning is exposed.

When I happened upon Nathalie Mark's photograph (the reference for this illustration), I saw just that. And, it was very powerful to me.

In my view, one cannot stage the purity and honesty of an unguarded moment, no matter how hard one tries. One can come close, but there is a last bit of integrity that comes through in such true moments.

With foot rested on the window sill, her relaxed, yet partially deflated posture says she is not trying to be anything to anyone. Furthermore, she is staring back at you -- expressionless and non-judgemental -- daring you to draw your own conclusions, invoke your own expressions, and make your own judgements, while forcing you to see her as a person rather than an object.

My challenge was in capturing this dichotomy and making it all about vulnerability, rather than sexuality.

The emotion that I'm banking belied the taking of the photograph, channeled into me as I rendered the illustration with some of the most unguarded strokes I have ever used in an illustration.

I believe that sort of raw emotion seeps in, through the human mark left on the paper -- another bit of the power of illustration.

There is just the slightest distortion in the form to add an undefinable touch of awkwardness to the scene. My color choice further attempts to shift the mood my direction. And, the text brings communication -- the power of words -- into the equation.

What are you saying...what is she thinking? What was said to inflict the hurt and make her remove all guard?

Allan Burch is an award-winning illustrator and portrait artist, providing solutions for editorial, book, advertising, and institutional projects.
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Saturday, February 14, 2009

Good Enough

"The way I used to love you
Baby, that's the way I hate you now."

--B. B. King, from the song, "You Done Lost Your Good Thing Now."

Quite frankly, there are plenty of opportunities out there to see the cozy side of Valentine's Day. What about the other side?

One of my favorite artistic techniques to call attention to something is to bring to mind its opposite.

How do you call to mind the opposite of love? Is love always a good thing?

Assuming for a moment that it is, what is that minute like when one realizes things have gone toxic?

Maybe it looks like this.

This is a charcoal study for a painting I have planned.

What's endlessly fascinating to me about this pose is its honesty, coupled with the tension in the body, which is also reflected in the tussled explosion of hair and gnarled hands keeping it from bursting from its seams.

The attractive woman is not attractive in her polka-dotted spaghetti strap summer dress. The revealing flesh and contours of the back, accentuated by the straps, digging in and winding their way around the scapulae, is nothing but vulnerable, as it sits exposed on her unkempt bed, doubled over in absolute grief.

This image is a collaborative effort with Photographer, Nathalie Mark.

I was thinking about the other side of Valentine's Day and what kind of imagery would speak to utter toxicity.

Turning to the web for some inspiration, I happened upon a photograph that wound-up being the reference for this illustration.

I saw incredible potential in a shot that, intended or not, captured something very pure and very emotional, and something that would be very difficult for me to otherwise stage. Plus, the supplemental components (the dress, bed, lighting, room decor) were perfect, and exceptionally ripe for storytelling, in my eyes.

I decided I had to go to the source and see if the photographer would grant permission for me to use the photo as reference for part of a series of illustrations I am planning.

Ms. Mark was very gracious, and we worked out an arrangement granting me such permission.

This is the study.

Some other elements will be added to the painting, to further enhance the story, but as a drawing, I think the power in the pose comes across.

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