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 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. Something to be aware of.)

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

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

Poe Stamp Image
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 references to the photos Deas worked from. Deas has done more than “colorize” an old photograph. His portrait looks like the man sat for the artist. The eyes have life in them that is not 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 a fantastic piece of work.

Eapoe Ba Image
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 an image 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 original, previously unknown photo. This is true of all Deas’s work.

Portrait of Marilyn Monroe Photograph
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 compelling and authentic. Due to Deas’s skill, we now have a living, breathing portrait of Mark Twain.

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

The following example blows my mind. Even when Deas does not add to the existing reference photo, he manages to bring out more information than exists in the original image with Twain and Monroe. His skin tones are made up, obviously, but they’re utterly convincing. His knowledge of anatomy and skill in capturing a likeness overcomes the original’s lack of detail. 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 Photograph
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. A black-tie dress was specified, therefore, to allow the number 37 to show clearly.

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

For these reasons, the artist needs to 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 minimal good references.

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

Our last Deas portrait has me scratching my head. I have no idea what Deas used as a reference for this portrait of Lincoln. The photo shown next to it here was probably used, but 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.

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