Thursday, July 12, 2018

The Lincoln Portrait: An In-Depth Look at the Artist's Process

"The Second Inaugural Address"

by Anna Rose Bain

48 x 38 inches

Oil on linen


Collection of Goldenview Classical Academy
Golden, CO

Commissioned by Hillsdale College

Purchase a limited edition print here

On May 24, 2018, Goldenview Classical Academy celebrated the unveiling of an original work of art by Denver artist Anna Rose Bain, commissioned for the school by Hillsdale College. The 48x38” oil painting is a portrait of president Abraham Lincoln drafting his Second Inaugural Address. The unveiling was accompanied by some excellent remarks by Goldenview’s principal, Dr. Robert Garrow, and a narration of the entire address from memory by a group of the school’s 5th graders. Dr. Larry Arnn, president of Hillsdale College, was in attendance that evening and assisted with the unveiling. 

The following contains the artist’s thoughts and documentation of the complete process for creating this portrait, in the hopes that the next generation of young artists and creatives will benefit from it as an educational tool. May they be inspired to create excellent work of their own, for the benefit of us all. 


I graduated from Hillsdale College in 2007 with a major in art. By this time, Dr. Larry Arnn had been president of the college for several years, and he had and still has an incredible talent for remembering every student’s name and something interesting about them. 

Nearly ten years later, in the fall of 2016, Dr. Arnn visited Goldenview Classical Academy, which had only just opened the year before, and gave a talk in downtown Denver about Hillsdale College. I happened to be in the audience that night. At the end of the event, I stuck around to shake his hand. He remembered me immediately, and said that he thought I should create some artwork for the charter school he had just toured that day. 

I was put in touch with assistant to the principal Kate Lochner, who then helped me set up my first meeting with Dr. Garrow.  When he showed me around the school in early 2017, the meeting was impactful for us both. I was blown away by the standards of excellence and classical ideals demonstrated by the academy, which so clearly aligned with my own experience as a Hillsdale grad; Dr. Garrow was thrilled with the idea of making an original piece of art to uphold those standards even more. 

And so, the dialog began. Dr. Arnn, with his big picture thinking said simply, “Just make it great.” Dr. Garrow came up with the concept—Lincoln drafting his Second Inaugural Address, and I was the artist chosen to execute it. 

Hillsdale College's Central Hall, May 2007

Anna was the first student in Hillsdale's history to have a solo senior art exhibit. May 2007.

About the Second Inaugural

Goldenview displays numerous reproductions of classical art and portraits of presidents, but, when it comes to America's 16th president… there are simply not many good paintings of him in existence. Lincoln is best known for his Gettysburg Address, but he himself felt that the Second Inaugural was his best speech.  He also knew it would be potentially his least liked, because one cannot appreciate it without the belief in an almighty God. The three Scripture references he uses (Matthew 7:1, Matthew 18:7, and Psalm 19:9) are actually the core of his speech. Instead of quoting Scripture as an afterthought, Lincoln used it to encourage his battered nation to accept in good faith the will and righteousness of a “just God.” There is an important question in the middle – the only question in the address:

"The prayers of both could not be answered; that of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has his own purposes. “Woe unto the world because of offenses! For it must needs be that offenses come; but woe to that man by whom the offense cometh!” If we shall suppose that American slavery is one of those offenses which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South, this terrible war, as the woe due to those by whom the offense came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a Living God always ascribe to Him?" 

Lincoln does not blame either side for this disastrous war; instead, he wonders if the war is punishment to them all for the allowance of slavery. Ultimately, he is encouraging the nation to seek God’s will as it brings its affairs into order.

The Research

I started my research by reading the address for myself, and by turning to books and articles—whatever I could find that talked about the speech, and the setting in which it would have been written.  My primary source of information about the Second Inaugural was Lincoln's Greatest Speech, by Ronald C. White, Jr.  The many valuable insights in this book gave me a better visual for how I would portray the president writing his address. For example, White writes: “Noah Brooks tells of observing Lincoln writing in his armchair, his favorite position, with his legs crossed. He laid the sheets, which were five to six inches wide, on his knee. He crossed out words and edited until the text was ready to copy as the final version of the speech to be delivered [1].” This testimonial motivated me to pose the president seated, with the rough draft on his knee.

Other helpful descriptions of Lincoln could be found in White’s use of quotes by Walt Whitman. “I see very plainly Abraham Lincoln’s dark brown face, with deep-cut lines, the eyes, always to me with a deep latent sadness in their expression.”[2] Whitman also claimed that Lincoln’s expression could not be accurately captured by artist or photograph, so I had my work cut out for me!

I never learned exactly where Lincoln was when he wrote the final draft. Was he in the White House library? The War Room (after all, the war was still underway)? Was he on a train, or contemplating the speech over dinner? I decided that as long as I was able to capture the man himself, with all the gravity and sadness he would have felt at that point in his presidency, the specific room he was sitting in ultimately didn’t matter.

[1] Ronald White, Lincoln's Greatest Speech, Chapter 2, p. 48 
[2] Ronald White, Lincoln's Greatest Speech, Chapter 2, p. 59 

The Model

I began to look for a model who could pose in period costume as Lincoln. I was fortunate enough to find the Association of Lincoln Presenters, a group of Lincoln doppelgangers who are dedicated to preserving his memory through conventions, re-enactments, and educational presentations around the country. I was even more fortunate to discover that one of these presenters happened to live locally, in Littleton, CO!  Mr. John Voehl, a retired aerospace professional, has done Lincoln work for over 20 years and can quote dozens of historically accurate portrayals and anecdotes, as well as some of Lincoln’s most famous speeches, from memory.

John was enthusiastic about the project and agreed to pose for a photo shoot and a brief color study from life. We met one afternoon in a studio at the Art Students League of Denver, which is a beautiful historic building with tall ceilings and lots of natural light. I knew I’d be able to use this setting as a great starting point for my portrait.

John came prepared; he had a full suit, complete with Lincoln’s iconic hat, spectacles, and bow tie. He had a period wooden arm chair, an aged-looking replica of the Second Inaugural Address, a pen and inkwell, a vintage carpet bag and coat rack, and a large book about Lincoln that included every documented photograph taken of the president. He also brought a replica of a map from 1863, showing the distribution of the slave population in the American South; we decided this would make an excellent background prop.

I already had an idea in my head of how the model would be posing for this portrait, but John was gracious in making well-educated suggestions and trying different ideas and expressions. He was even able to answer my question about which way Lincoln parted his hair. "He parted it both ways," John replied.

We opted for a less formal setting, free of the hat or jacket, and tried several different angles with and without the spectacles.

Above: Images of Mr. Voehl from our photo shoot, October 2017.

The Color Studies and Sketches

Whenever I plan to work from photo references for a portrait, I try to make sure the model has time to pose for a 30-45 minute color study. The color study is very important because it helps me take accurate notes of the model’s hair and skin tones, and the color of the light and background. Because it goes quickly, I don’t focus on likeness or details; just big shapes, colors, and important landmarks in the sitter’s facial structure.  It can also help me decide whether or not a pose or expression will work for a successful painting, as sometimes this is hard to tell from only looking at a photo.

I had the pleasure of painting John’s portrait from life while he quoted the Gettysburg Address and entertained me with stories about Lincoln, spoken in the first person. I set John up under two light sources; a cool window light on his right, and a warm interior light on the left. My goal was to incorporate this into the final painting to portray the emotion Lincoln felt as he wrote his address to a nation that was torn in two. The color study would remain as reference next to my easel for the duration of my work on the final painting.

After our painting session and photo shoot, I gathered my reference materials in my studio and began to look through the hundreds of photos I had taken. I chose a handful of favorites that I felt had the most potential, and proceeded to draw some rudimentary thumbnail sketches in pencil. The purpose of the sketches was to lay out several ideas for the painting as simply as possible. The miniature sketches were to scale, based on the canvas size Dr. Garrow and I had agreed upon for the school. I selected three or four of these to send to him and Dr. Arnn for their approval before moving on to the next step. We discussed the pros and cons of each; for example, one depicted Lincoln looking directly at the viewer, which could potentially invoke more questions and interaction with the viewer. Another showed him looking down at the draft on his knee and adding a line or two. Another showed the president staring down at the draft, with his head resting on his hand as though deep in thought.  We were torn between sketches 1 and 2 (see image below), so I moved those two forward to the next step: small color studies of the whole painting.

The color studies were each approximately 12x9”, larger than my pencil sketches but obviously much smaller than the 48x38” canvas I would be working on. I painted these on Arches oil paper, and gave the backgrounds each some variation of color and value to see which I would prefer for the final painting. Ultimately, we ended up choosing the pose where Lincoln is looking down at the address on his knee, but I preferred the background colors in my other color study. 

Other Reference Tools

One of the most fascinating parts of my working process for this portrait was coming up with creative ways to bring “the man himself” into my studio. Not only did I discover that high-resolution photographs of Lincoln are available online under public domain, but the Smithsonian has also provided free 3-D CAD files of Lincoln’s life masks. A death mask was never made of Lincoln’s face, but life masks were taken in both 1860 (casts were also done of his hands) and 1865. Since the Second Inaugural was written shortly before his death in 1865, I wanted to convey him at this stage of life, his face bearded, haggard, and aged considerably from the stress of the war. It has been speculated that Lincoln had either Marfan syndrome or Grave’s disease, either of which could account for his elongated physique, depression, and purported sallow coloring.

The Lincoln life mask 3-D files are available through the Smithsonian's website:
My husband Steve is an engineer, and one of his hobbies is making things on his 3-D printer. At my request, he downloaded the CAD file of the 1865 life mask and was able to make a life-sized plastic replica of Lincoln’s head. He printed it in four separate pieces—each piece taking an entire day to print—then glued them together to create the perfect sculpture for me to work from in my studio! I was able to recreate the same lighting I had on my model, and use both historical photographs and the 3-D head to gradually reach an accurate likeness. Of course, the color study and reference photos of Mr. Voehl were invaluable for drawing the pose, mixing skin colors, and creating a life-like portrait.

An image of my "high-tech" setup (ha!) in my studio, placing the Lincoln head under two different light sources and using creative means to position him at the correct height for my working vantage point.

The Painting Process

Step 1: Prepping the Canvas

For large paintings such as this one, I stretch, size, and prime the canvas myself. My surface of choice is portrait grade (meaning a very fine weave) raw linen stapled to heavy duty wooden stretcher bars. I size the linen with two coats of rabbit skin glue to tighten the canvas to the stretcher bars and create a barrier between the linen and the oil paint (if oil were applied directly to the canvas it would eventually cause it to rot). This method of protecting the surface has proven tried and true since the Renaissance.

RSG dries within a few hours, and after that, I am able to prime the canvas with two coats of oil-based primer. The primer needs about two weeks or more to fully cure. Once it's ready to paint on, I tone the canvas with a middle-value brown (see image below), which creates the perfect setting to start painting relative values (this is much harder to do on a pure white canvas!).

Step 2: Drawing/Block-in

Because this painting was so large, I found it helpful to draw a 2-inch square grid over the whole canvas to assist me with my drawing.  I placed the same grid over my reference image in Photoshop—making sure everything was to scale—and referred to my computer screen as I drew in the main shapes and proportions of my design.  I used vine charcoal for this, as vine tends to rub off very easily once you start painting over it. I never want to be tied down to my drawing at this stage – it is simply a loose block-in. Once I’m happy with the placement, I begin painting, and I almost always start with the face.  For me, the face will make or break the painting, especially in this case!

Step 3: Focus on the Face

Lincoln's face underwent many transformations as I worked and reworked the structure, lighting, and features. I was especially thankful for my color study of Mr. Voehl in helping me see the brilliant color transitions that happened when his face turned from light into shadow. With the addition of glowing color to edges of high contrast, such as where the hair meets the background, I hoped to create a feeling of life that surpasses the limitations of photography. The 3-D life mask was also a tremendous help when it came to figuring out the length of Lincoln’s nose, the placement of his mole, the depth of his eye sockets, and the width of his mouth and ears. All of these details evolved as I carefully studied his face with the help of my visual aids and historical photos. 

Step 4: Transparent Darks and Opaque Lights

One of the benefits of working with oil paint is that depending on the color and how much of it you are using, you can create beautiful atmospheric effects. In classical art, you might notice that high-key areas have thicker, opaque paint applied to them; they tend to appear like they are coming forward in space. In contrast, the darkest areas of a painting are painted very thinly, or transparently. I employed this effect in my Lincoln portrait, trying to plan my decisions as though I were playing a game of chess.  The dark black suit has areas that are thin and transparent, but as they begin to gradually turn towards the light, more paint volume is added and they become slightly more opaque. Lincoln's white sleeve and the window behind him, and a few key places on his brow bone and shirt collar, have thick, juicy paint. When you see the painting up close and in person, you'll be able to find a wide variety of brush strokes and paint consistency.

Step 5: The Background

Backgrounds are just important as the subject matter;  they can make or break the abstract design. My challenge with the Lincoln portrait was to create a good composition, while pulling in elements that upheld my narrative, such as the map, the desk and Bible, and some kind of curtain on the window. You may recall from my reference photos of Mr. Voehl that there were no curtains in the studio where we did our photo shoot, so I had to make those up from imagination. Additionally, I had plain white walls to work with, and based on some of the images I found of Victorian-era interiors (example below), dark colors were popular at the time. I decided to create a deep red curtain behind Lincoln, which would then cast a shadow on the map in the background. I also began to paint the walls a muted hunter green, indicative of the wallpaper in my sample picture.

Step 6: The Map, and a Couple of Important Decisions

Finally, it was time to tackle the map. I worked on it in several layers, making sure each layer was dry before continuing on to the next. This method allowed me to paint the detailed shapes of states and counties, and then gradually glaze the whole thing darker so that it melted into the background. I had to be certain it wouldn’t distract from the main focal point, the president himself.

The next question was whether or not leave the hat in the composition. I felt that it added nothing of value to the painting from a design standpoint, and instead was becoming too distracting. So I opted to remove the hat, which again, required several layers of painting over it (you can see its ghostly outline in the image below).

I had a similar debate over adding spectacles to Lincoln’s face. I loved how they looked in the reference photos, and thought it might be more historically accurate to include them. However, when I painted them on, they made Lincoln look too “scholarly” and took away from the sadness and gravity of his original expression. Thankfully, the face was dry when I painted the glasses, so I was able to wipe them off completely with a little bit of solvent!

Step 7: Finishing touches included refining the map and background elements, darkening the floor, and added a few more key highlights to Lincoln's hair and face. I placed my signature in the bottom right hand corner.

My hope for this painting was convey the weight and sadness Lincoln must have felt as president of a war-torn nation, and the hope he would inspire with his speech. The light is indicative of this, illuminating him, the Bible, and the document on his knee, while the map of slavery becomes gradually diminished and lost in the background. I am truly grateful for the experience of painting this remarkable man, and I hope this portrait resonates with future generations as we remember the priceless contribution he made to our country.


  1. Bravo! Thanks for your detailed description of the printing processes! When handled a big project like this really worth several months of prep work. Spectacular work!!!

  2. Gosh, are incredible, Anna Rose. The research you put into this portrait of Lincoln is so amazing. My thought when I first saw it was where was the reference from in order to create the painting. You did an outstanding job each step along the way, including finding a life model. You are so impressive to me and I love all your paintings that I've seen. With my best wishes to you for your continuing success......Suszanne


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