How a Time magazine cover artist captured the chaos of Donald Trump's presidency

By Michael Cavna

By artist Tim O'Brien. (courtesy of TIME 2017)
By artist Tim O'Brien. (courtesy of TIME 2017)

The assignment came in as a brief: Think "Trump in a hurricane." And in a creative whirlwind, artist Tim O'Brien had just days to turn around an illustration.

The result - a striking portrait of the president - is this week's Time magazine cover, which features the caption: "Nothing to See Here."

"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, told The Washington Post's Comic Riffs.

Time magazine's latest cover, by artist Tim O'Brien. Photo/Time
Time magazine's latest cover, by artist Tim O'Brien. Photo/Time

"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 colour 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."

- Washington Post

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