Saturday, March 22, 2008


William Oberhardt (1882 -1958) was like a 20th century version of Hans Holbein the Younger. Just like Holbein, Oberhardt had an astonishing gift for rendering the human head. "Heads are my preoccupation," he said. "To me the world is full of heads." Both Holbein and Oberhardt were summoned to draw the most famous people of their day. Holbein drew portraits for the court of Henry VIII while Oberhardt drew portraits for Time magazine.

Cover of the first issue of Time magazine, by Oberhardt

Portrait by Holbein

Both artists could paint, but both found their highest expression in the medium of charcoal drawing, which enabled them to display great freedom and sensitivity.

Oberhardt was a very traditional, almost old fashioned artist. He was appalled at his fellow illustrators who used photographs, emphasizing that an artist's job was not to "copy form" but to "strive for interpretation of personality through form."

He advised young artists:

Avoid haste, and don't take pride in hectic activity...Technique evolves gradually. It is the blossoming forth of years of intelligent study, not surface imitation of accepted mannerisms or formulas. Do not waste time on cleverness which might develop into mere facility.
Despite his traditional approach, you can find great, almost abstract designs in Oberhardt's portraits. Once he gets beyond the subtle nuances of the face, he allows himself to go wild with bold surrounding marks that play an important role completing the design:

In discussing "the distribution of blacks in the background," Oberhardt the traditionalist sounded surprisingly modern: "I follow only my feeling of harmony."