Last week, the White House unveiled the official portraits of the former president and first lady Barack and Michelle Obama.

This is the second set of Obama portraits the public has seen (presidents and first ladies get two; one goes to the collection of the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, DC for public display, and one stays in the collection of the White House). The first set to be unveiled (in 2018), painted by Amy Sherald and Kehinde Wiley, were widely (though by no means universally) acclaimed and became immediately famous.

Originally the Wiley and Sherald portraits drew controversy because, it now appears, the public was under-informed and believed these were the official White House portraits and not the National Portrait Gallery’s, which have always had more latitude for personal artistic style and experimentation. Now appreciated as a refreshing take blending tradition, insightful portraiture, and contemporary style, the National Gallery portraits are currently on a country-wide tour, drawing long lines at their first stop, the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

The previously unveiled, “unofficial” portraits of the Obamas by the artists they chose, Kehinde Wiley and Amy Sherald respectively, which were commissioned for the National Gallery in Washington, D.C.

It’s a tough act to follow. The official White House portraits, it seems, are being relatively ignored by the public. However, the portraits  are being criticized by some art watchers, especially  Barack Obama’s. Here’s one art watcher’s tear-down on Instagram, for example.

While Sharon Sprung’s portrait of Michelle Obama has for the most part been seen as pleasing and humanizing, Obama’s White House portrait, executed by realist Robert McCurdy, has drawn swipes from disgruntled critics for being pretty much the opposite. The Washington Post noted that of this set of more conservative portraits, the first lady’s is still “more accessible” than the former president’s. The effect, said the Post, of McCurdy’s signature style of rendering his subjects in a harsh lighting with no background “is to tell us almost nothing about the man, beyond the salient fact that he must have wanted to tell us nothing about himself.”

However, magazine went harsh, criticizing it as “a photorealistic, disastrous mistake of a portrait.” To the Slate’s culture critic, the former president’s portrait looked like “the opening shot of some future Netflix documentary brought to us by Barack Obama’s production company. It looks like the Facebook thumbnail advertising Barack Obama’s MasterClass on the seven principles of leadership.”

McCurdy took about 18 months to paint Mr. Obama directly from a photo taken during Obama’s presidency, but don’t blame the artist, Slate said. “The former president and his team knew exactly what they wanted, and McCurdy executed exactly as he always does. It’s just that for this subject, and in this context, it feels exactly wrong.” Slate further dismissed the choice of image as “unpleasantly contemporary” and “grimly corporate.” Remarked another critic on Twitter, “What, did the Obamas just say screw it, let’s go to Sears?”

But Mrs. Obama told the New York Times that as she sees it, last week’s traditional unveiling ceremony was not really about the paintings or about her and Mr. Obama. “It’s about telling that fuller story,” she said. “A story that includes every single American.”

Many noted that, apparently the first time in history, the unveiling of the presidential portraits happened four years late. “Generally, the portrait ceremony takes place during the succeeding presidency,” said CNN, which would have been during Donald Trump’s tenure. CNN wrote that the traditional ceremony is “typically a lighthearted affair to show bipartisanship and continuity across party lines.”

However, CNN said, “ex-President Donald Trump had no interest in sharing the presidential limelight with anyone. And Obama was hardly going to stand beside the man who authored a racist conspiracy theory that he wasn’t born in the United States.” So it fell to Biden to do the honors.

Donald Trump’s White House portrait, incidentally, kept much closer to the tradition of 19th or early 20th century-looking portraits.

Donald Trump’s portrait, by the artist Chad Fagan. Photo from, used courtesy of C-SPAN

If you’re interested in honing your own portrait skills, there’s a DVD for that.

Correction: Free Hour-Long Video on Gouache

Mike Hernandez, Iceberg Lake Montana 16×20 inch gouache on illustration board

Yesterday’s Inside Art failed to deliver on a link to a video by Carla O’Connor on her technique using gouache, “the opaque watercolor.” medium. However, here we present a free 80-minute in-depth lesson on landscape painting using gouache by Mike Hernandez, a DreamWorks animation artist and an excellent instructor. And here is a separate link to the best brief introduction to gouache on YouTube.

In the paint,