I’ve always loved painting people. Something about the human figure, especially the intricacies of our human facial expressions are absolutely riveting to view, and a real challenge to capture! As you can see in my portfolio, much of my artwork to date has been around the human form.


Naturally I’d assumed this would lead me into commissioned portrait painting. But as we’ve seen with the newly unveiled portraits of former President and First Lady Barack and Michelle Obama, portrait painting is rife with both possibilities and pitfalls.


The National Portrait Gallery recently unveiled the official portraits of former president Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama as the newest additions to their “America’s Presidents” exhibition.


The artists chosen by the Obamas, Kehinde Wiley and Amy Sherald respectively, had a tall task: to incorporate their signature style while also toning it down a bit in order to impart a sense of gravitas and dignity appropriate to their subjects. The artists also felt it was essential that their works were “creating portraiture of African Americans that will reconfigure the canon and the museum in more inclusive ways”1


Both artists paint life-sized portraits of African-American subjects which grab attention and draw the eye from across a room. Wiley’s subjects tend to be set in grandiose poses against ornate and extravagant backgrounds; whereas Sherald’s subjects are depicted with skin-tones painted in shades of grey and positioned on bright, mono-color backgrounds. Both Wiley and Sherald’s works create a distinct sense of surrealism, though in very different ways: the classical, historical, saturated, ornate of Wiley vs the contemporary, pop, muted, minimalistic manner of Sherald, respectively.


These two portraits were not meant to be displayed together (the artist’s worked independently of each other, and the paintings will hang in separate wings of the National Portrait Gallery) but they nonetheless have a sense of balance and unity reminiscent to that found in any strong partnership, such as that shared by the Obamas themselves. 


Wiley’s background includes a flurry of foliage with flowers referencing Obama’s Hawaiian, Kenyan, and Chicagoan heritage, effectively softening the intensity of his gaze while also perhaps alluding to the complexities and responsibilities inherent in assuming the responsibility of President of the United States. 


Sherald’s composition is decidedly geometric, including a bold yet not extravagant department-store dress that consumes much of the painting in a stark, unyielding foundational pyramid atop of which rest Michelle’s muted charcoal-colored bust.


Displayed together these two magnificent paintings compliment each other well. And when displayed separately in their eventual final locations at the NPG, these pieces (just as the Obama’s did themselves) stand out as essential aspects of building momentum to balance out the racism which has historically shaped both the United States and the fine art and portraiture traditions.


That was quite a bit more than I intended to write, but am glad to have had the chance to reflect on this topic, and hope this note has provided you with something interesting and/or informative as well. 


In my own brief portrait-painting experience (a total of 1!), I’d agreed to complete a commissioned portrait of my client’s grandson. As you can see in this initial watercolor sketch, I’ve accurately depicted a cute little boy, but to him it was not HIS cute little grandson. There is a world of difference!


As such, at least for the time being, I’ve decided not to pursue portrait painting professionally, though I still enjoy depicting the figure and face of human beings: it’s an artistic form of people watching, which we all enjoy doing, right?!


That said, if you DO want a commissioned portrait, definitely connect with me: there are a few amazing artists that I can put you in touch with for a traditional or non-traditional style portrait as you so choose.


XO Hannah


[email protected]



1. www.washingtonpost.com “The Obama’s portraits are not what you’d expect and that’s what makes them great”