“I know the deal, that I must be fast, do sketches quickly and get starting immediately,” O’Brien, a veteran illustrator for dozens of top publications, tells The Washington Post’s Comic Riffs. “I immediately saw the image in my head: the swirling paper, driving rain and, of course, the hair flapping.”
It is that Trump ’do, in fact, that proves especially challenging.
“The hair is actually not easy — there is a structure to it, a variety of colors and angles that it is combed in,” says O’Brien, who is a professor at Pratt Institute.
That lack of uniform color really renders it tricky. “It is sometimes lit with warm light so we think of it as yellow, but I think it’s dyed blond, and the sides and hair underneath the combed-over layers is white. The combo is confusing,” says O’Brien.
Under his “super-fast” deadline, O’Brien worked in mixed media, painting with oils while also using airbrush, pencil and gouache on board. The original is slightly larger than the printed cover.
“I love minimalist approaches to Trump,” says O’Brien, who has also memorably painted portraits of Bill Clinton and Bob Dole. “When someone becomes so well known, so ubiquitous, then artists can shorthand how they portray him.”
In Trump’s case, he is “an extreme presence” who wears “always the same clothes,” O’Brien says, so “an orange shape with yellow on top now is an effective likeness. I just do what I do.”
A few of O’Brien’s covers have a permanent home at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery. But what if another Washington institution — the White House — wanted to acquire his new Trump portrait, especially since the president has proudly acquired large portraits of himself?
“Well, my portrait is not large, but it’s loud,” O’Brien says. “He can look me up — unless he already has … gulp.”