With Black History Month in mind, I went strolling through the Google photo archives for historical photos to use as reference. There’s a real wealth of imagery available on Google Images, and slightly different search terms bring up related but different images. I went looking in the period near the end of the Civil War.
There are a fair number of historic photos of people of color, but the stand-out in terms of sheer number and variety of photos from Lincoln’s time was certainly Frederick Douglass. He had numerous sittings for photos from when he was a young man through old age. It’s very clear from the number, types of images, and the poses he chose that he was very aware of the power of the camera and used it to good advantage. It’s also clear that he was extremely photogenic and had a strong personality that comes through clearly in all of his photos. He’s obviously a gentleman, always well-dressed in velvet collared jacket and cravat; I kept hearing a powerful, well enunciated baritone voice while I was drawing. He has a really powerful, very direct gaze. It’s hard for me to imagine the extreme levels of prejudice and discrimination that he must have experienced daily, but his dignity and sheer presence are very clear. The strength and stubborn tenacity he must have had come through in the photos of him.
It’s always interesting to draw a face and try to capture their unique likeness; my version certainly isn’t perfect, but it did let me observe his face and all of its characteristics very closely. He’s not smiling, exactly, in any of his photos, but the shape of his jaw and the broadness of his mouth let you know that he would have had a wide, brilliant smile and the lines of his face say that he carefully controlled a lot of anger, but he also probably had an infectious, hearty laugh, if he allowed himself. It’s an odd sensation when you draw a person from reference photos and then see them later, in real life. There is an odd sense of familiarity, of intimacy, due to studying their features and characteristics so closely. It’s a bittersweet but precious thing, to observe and draw the face of someone long gone, and learn the ways of their temperament and personality through the lines and shapes of their face.