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I'm gonna go out on a limb here: I generally like the Obama official portrait. It's an odd style, but it expresses him, and what's more, it reflects the art of his era. It has a background that appears computer-generated as a pattern, with a quite flattering visage of the first black president in a realistic rendition in the foreground. It's a composition that creates the appearance of vector art mixed with a photograph, very modern in the era of cell phones and quite similar to the animation being produced by Hollywood in this era. I can feel the vibe of Playa del Rey and South Central and Melrose Avenue all through this piece. And Obama, of course, spent massive time during his presidency hobnobbing with the likes of Harvey Weinstein and other Hollywood bigs at fundraisers.
I like the arresting flower wallpaper and the tieless Obama sitting in the middle of it – because it's so him. It's good just as Peter Hurd's official portrait of Lyndon Baines Johnson was good. (That was a more-flattering-than-he-deserved portrait, done in the most modern representational style of the era, which was in the characteristic renditions of this Western artist, who also did this beautiful piece.) Johnson, inexplicably, hated it and got a poem about it by Richard Wilbur for his idiocy. Obama, on the other hand, loved his image, which says something about him as well, in more ways than one.
Here's the problem: it's not drawn very well. The work shows a lack of skill in the basic rendering of an image. The hands are out of proportion in size, even placed in the foreground, overly big. One might be able to write that off as intentional. But the front hand itself has problems in construction, at least if the aim is to create a realistic hand placed against a surreal background.
Look at the problem: The fat pad under the palm seems to extend upward into the first half of the little finger. Some observers think it appears like a concealed thumb placed on the wrong side. It is possible to have a fatty hand with flesh that could extend that way; I went over some of my own drawings of hands to get that inference. But one would have to have exceedingly loose skin, which Obama does not have. There also should be lines dividing the bottom of the little finger and the palm, at least if the hands are to be anatomically correct. Another problem is that the wrist is exaggerated in its thinness. No man has wrists that thin unless his entire stature is diminutive – again, which Obama's is not.
And maybe that's inevitable in this era. Drawing is devalued generally in this era of computer-generated graphics just as spelling is denigrated by spell-check. When you can use a tool on an Adobe program to draw a perfect circle, you end up not being able to draw one freehand. Drawing, in addition, takes practice, daily practice. This is why Rubens and Delacroix and every classical artist there is had scads of notebooks. When I was a fine art student at Santa Monica College, where classical art was studied and copied intensively and required of even the most out-there artists, we had to fill notebooks, drawing anything around us, repeatedly. It's the only way to get good. One thing I learned from my professors there was that many of Los Angeles's top art schools – and there are a lot in that city, including the rigorous Santa Monica College – is that incoming students in the age of the photocopy, the trace, and the computer-generated design really aren't learning to draw.
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