Inspiration: Michael J. Deas

Creating a celebrity’s likeness is a challenge for a portrait artist. Unless you happen to be a famous portrait artist, like Simmie Knox , you probably won’t be working from the live model, but from someone else’s photograph. (This presents copyright issues, which I won’t go into here. Just be aware that most photographs of celebrities are protected by copyright law, and copying such a photo (whether with a pencil or a Xerox copier) is likely a copyright violation.

Stephen Vincent Benet commemorative stamp. Original art by Michael J. Deas.

Something to be aware of.) Even famous portrait artists sometimes have to work from photographs. For example, by law, US postage stamps can only depict images of actual people once they have died. So how do you paint a color portrait of someone when all you have for reference is old black and white photographs?

2009 postage stamp commemorating the 200th anniversary of the birth of Edgar Allan Poe, by Michael J. Deas.

Master portrait artist Michael J. Deas has faced this predicament many times. Deas has created 16 commemorative stamps for the US Postal Service, including James Dean, Marilyn Monroe, Humphrey Bogart, Carey Grant, and most recently, Edgar Allan Poe. Below, you can see one of the photo references Deas worked from. Deas has done more than simply “colorize” an old photograph. His portrait looks like the man actually sat for the artist. The eyes have life in them that is not really present in the black and white photo. Poe seems a bit more handsome and confident in Deas’s painting. Deas has made some artistic decisions to make the portrait work better, such as changing the color of Poe’s coat from some light color to dark brown. The background is dark with a glowing center, giving it the look of a classic portrait. His hair looks curlier, as though he’s skipped the Brilliantine today. Overall, it’s just an amazing piece of work.

The full portrait of Poe by Michael J. Deas. Reference photo inset.

Perhaps the most famous of Deas stamps is his portrait of Marilyn Monroe, of which an astounding 400 million copies were printed. As you can see, even when working from a color photograph, Deas did not just copy an existing photo. He used a photo for the face, but used a model friend to pose the hand and body. The result looks completely natural and lifelike, as if it were based on an authentic, previously-unknown photo. This is true of all Deas’s work.

Portrait of Marilyn Monroe for 1992 postage stamp, by Michael J. Deas, left. Reference photo, right.

Here’s a classic example of Deas’s ability to create authentic-looking portraits. I’m assuming the photo was combined with a shot of a model dressed as Mark Twain for reference. The result is completely convincing and authentic. Due to Deas’s skill, we now have a living, breathing portrait of Mark Twain.

Portrait of Mark Twain by Michael J. Deas. Compare with the black and white reference photo.

This next example just blows my mind. Even when Deas does not add to the existing reference photo, as with Twain and Monroe, he manages to bring out more information than exists in the original photo. His skin tones are made up, obviously, but they’re utterly convincing. His knowledge of anatomy, and skill in capturing a likeness, overcomes the lack of detail in the original. To the art critics who think “copying photographs” does not take talent and skill, I’d point to this portrait as a counterargument.

Portrait of Theodore Roosevelt, by Michael J. Deas. Based on inset reference photo.

Beginning portrait artists can learn a lot from the following portrait of Cary Grant. Beginners tend to trust photographs implicitly, and copy whatever has been faithfully recorded by the camera. The problem is the camera is limited, and often does a poor job of capturing reality. The shadows under the eyebrows are too stark and black, for one thing. And in this case, the art director for the USPS (United States Postal Service) wanted the franking amount (37 cents back then) to appear in the lower right corner. Black tie dress was specified, therefore, to allow the number 37 to show clearly. For these reasons, the artist needs use the photograph as a means to an end: a good portrait. Deas used the reference photo as just that — reference– and created his own composition and design for the stamp. I’m guessing that, once again, a model or another photo of Grant was used for the costume change. The hands may be the original, just reversed, but I’d say another shot of someone’s hands was used. On the other hand, Deas seems to have an uncanny ability to work with very little good reference.

Portrait of Cary Grant, by Michael J. Deas. Notice the changes made by Deas from the original inset photo.

Our last Deas portrait is one that has me scratching my head. I have no idea what Deas used as reference for this portrait of Lincoln. The photo shown next to it here was probably used, but obviously there’s not enough there. Deas must have used other sources, and combined them to create this unique portrait. That’s an awe-inspiring talent, in my book. Keep an eye out for more Deas masterpieces, coming to a mailbox near you.

Portrait of Abraham Lincoln, by Michael J. Deas. Possible reference photo shown.
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