Learn about the artists who painted Obama’s paintings in the White House

When Robert McCurdy and Sharon Sprung’s official White House photos of Barack and Michelle Obama were revealed on Wednesday, they looked like cousins. bold pictures The National Portrait Gallery debuted in 2018. McCurdy’s painting of Barack Obama is very realistic and has no frills. First Lady Sprung is straightforward and simple.

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But when you look closely, it is clear that the relatively traditional methods contrast with strong artistic visions. Drawing inspiration from McCurdy’s meticulous process, which he likens to “directing the world’s shortest film”, and Sprung’s passion for painting, which she described as “almost pushing the pools of this living matter” These images aspire to more than sincere representations for future generations. They aim to make the former president and first lady feel present – to make their similarities as easy as the Obama family itself.

Here’s what President Biden, former President Barack Obama and his wife, Michelle, had to say at the unveiling of their official White House portraits. (Video: Michael Cadenhead/The Washington Post; Photo: Demetrius Freeman/The Washington Post)

Their public appearances will come a long time ago – the commissions were kept a secret for six years. Handpicked by Obama with the help of Thelma Golden, Director Studio Museum In Harlem, McCurdy and Sprung were hired in 2016 after a months-long interview process.

Stuart MacLaurin, president of the White House Historical Society, said the images are particularly expressive. “With our first presidents,” he said, “the Americans didn’t know what they looked like, so they relied on paintings.” “Now, we’re saturated with pictures,” so these photos don’t just show Obama, “they’re a snapshot of how the president and first lady see themselves.”

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For McCurdy, 69, Barack Obama’s photo isn’t actually a “portrait” at all. It is a meeting place. He said that his subject is not the sitter, but his gaze.

“I don’t even call them portraits,” McCurdy, who is based in New York, said in a phone interview. My drawings are about creating a meeting between two people. We are trying to achieve a moment where there is a personal connection between him and the person looking at him.”

Anyone who has visited the National Portrait Gallery will be familiar with this type of encounter. The museum has many McCurdy works in its collection – from Toni Morrison, Jeff Bezos, the Dalai Lama and others posing mostly expressionless against stark white backgrounds.

McCurdy’s art training goes back to high school. He attended Camp Hill Institute, a school in Pennsylvania that allows students to major in art, and went on to study at Maryland Institute of Art College in Baltimore. McCurdy said he was influenced by minimalism, the artistic movement prevalent during his formative years, and for two decades, he painted in an abstract style.

Then he said one day, “I felt like filming [paintings of people] Right outside the door saying, “Whatever I did there, I could do better.” “

In the abstract images McCurdy painted today, those early influences are evident. His works have a mechanical quality and are in keeping with the spirit of industrial simplicity of Donald Judd simply Ellsworth KellyHe is one of his favorite artists. “If I start to draw gestural lines and create movement in the piece, I will start by telling the viewer how to think,” McCurdy said. “I try to create as many opportunities as possible for this to be an interactive experience for the viewer.”

When McCurdy met Obama in 2016, they talked about the artist’s rigorous process. He only spends a few hours with his subjects, during which time he takes dozens of pictures of them staring straight into the camera without nodding or emotion. He said all the photos are destroyed, except for one that McCurdy feels captures a timeless moment, with neither before nor after. It works from that picture for 12 to 18 months, nine hours a day, bringing every hair and follicle to painful perfection.

Obama sought McCurdy to take the photo, which McCurdy said was rare. His only other commission is a photo of the founder of Amazon Jeff Bezos. (Bezos owns The Washington Post.) When he gets to the people he wants to draw, they sometimes say no.

“We are in the age of Photoshop where we make everything look beautiful. We are not used to having all our imperfections out there and being a real human being,” he said. “The people who chose to do this are very brave.”

As for why Obama wanted such a sincere offer? “My impression is that he never tries to be anything but what he is. He always tried to have a real relationship with people,” McCurdy said.

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That was definitely a Sprung experience. When the artist visited the White House in 2016 as a candidate for the official body (Considered for both photos), I brought up the printed talking points. Obama drove them away. She said in a phone interview that he just wanted to have a conversation.

What followed was perhaps even more emotional and honest than Sprung, 69, was ready to. When Golden asked her why she was drawing, Sprung began to cry and told the coordinator and Obama about the loss of her father when she was six – a tragedy that led her to art.

After his death, she did not speak for a year. “Since then, I think my approach has been to watch things and try to figure out what’s going on around me,” she said.

“When you live in a family with a lot of stress and trauma, people don’t tell the truth, so reading people’s faces has become essential for me to work.”

Sprung has been an artist since those difficult childhood days in Glen Cove, New York. She remembers drawing illustrations for her mother as she gets ready to go on dates. At the age of 16, Sprung began going to Manhattan on Saturdays to attend the Art Student Association, where she now teaches. She remembers being inspired by the diverse faces she saw in the city – in stark contrast to her homogeneous hometown.

“Where I grew up, every house was the same. The lawns were the same. It was just repeat, repeat, repeat,” she said. “Coming into town was this wonderful world where I saw all these faces and everyone was different.”

At 19, Sprung left Cornell University to pursue art full time, a decision that separated her from her family. “I had no choice at that point but to succeed, and I had to do it quickly because I had neither the money nor the support,” she said. She wrote to artists she admired and developed an acquaintance with Aaron Sheckler, who, by chance, painted official portraits of Jacqueline Kennedy, Nancy Reagan, and former President John F. Kennedy.

Sprung describes her career as a “slow rise”. The gallery itself – Galerie Henoch in New York – has shown her work over four decades (she has a solo show there in October). She didn’t start to feel like she really “worked” until she was hired to paint portraits honoring female congresswomen—first, Janet Rankin, who she painted in the early 2000s, and later, Patsy Mink.

“I felt very powerful through that,” she said. “I was drawing women who I admired, who took risks, who had courage, who made it difficult.”

Sprung is an evocative painter, and her rich pantomime work reflects her love of oil painting, which she describes as “sensual” and “almost alive.” You have drawn a brooding, lonely woman, and children with bright eyes. Her photo of Rankin, the first woman elected to Congress, was so amazing that it made Rankin’s nephew cry.

For nine months, Sprung toiled painting Michelle Obama. She began by drawing the First Lady in the White House and then worked on painting in her Brooklyn studio. Obama visited Sprung’s home to approve the final piece.

The picture became so real for her that she even caught herself saying good morning and good night to the likeness of the first lady, and she even asked for help with the drawing.

Sprung said she felt artistically free while working because it was clear that the First Lady trusted her. Obama did not ask for reference photos or provide feedback during the process. “I can express myself because I’ve never had anyone look over my shoulder, ‘Oh, I don’t like my eyebrows,'” Sprung said.

The final portrait of Obama appears in a blue dress on a red sofa and was rendered in a style that Sprung calls “contemporary realism” for its bright, modern colours. “I think I have a sense for who she is,” Sprung said of the former first lady. “Not in words. I couldn’t describe it. It is a different and intimate kind of knowledge.”

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