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Behind the Scenes—The Making of the Emperor’s Portrait


Rob Day is a nationally-recognized illustrator, with work appearing in Smithsonian, Time, Business Week, Rolling Stone and more. Day’s portrait of Emperor Qin Shi Huang is his second project for The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis. You can also find his first painting of the infamous Captain Kidd in the Museum’s permanent exhibit, Treasures of the Earth.

When visitors to the Terra Cotta Warriors exhibit are welcomed by the larger-than-life image of China's first emperor, Qin Shi Huang, they might never guess that the emperor had a “stunt double.” Many thanks to David Donaldson, The Children's Museum's Chief Technology Officer, for graciously agreeing to be photographed—wearing full emperor garb—for reference images that have made the emperor’s portrait come to life!


The Reference Image: Shooting reference shots is often necessary when historic images are rare or difficult to obtain. As an illustrator, I’ve found many a model over the years to help me capture just the right reference images. When combined with historic information, they make for a much more realistic and engaging painting. Working with Children's Museum Creative Director Ned Shaw, we found just the right model in David, who Ned described as having “a regal bearing of an emperor.” (I wonder if this is a prerequisite for all CTOs?) Knowing that we needed a full-length portrait that captured the power and posture of Emperor Qin, we went to work shooting various poses that ultimately would be combined in the final portrait. 


The Research: One of the things that I enjoy most about working as an illustrator is the opportunity to research and learn about the subjects that I paint. I began by investigating existing images of Emperor Qin, costumes, and sword designs of ancient China. During my research I learned details about the emperor that would be included in the portrait. For instance, did you know that the dragon shown on the emperor's clothing always has five toes? Or, that the emperor is always portrayed wearing an unusual cap called a Guan Mian? In the Chinese idiom, Guan Mian Tang Huang translates: "elegant and stately in dressing". The "Guan" and "Mian" refer to cap. 

The Sketches: As Ned and I reviewed the dozens of reference photos taken from our shoot, we chose several images to combine for the portrait. I created pencil sketches incorporating details gleaned from my research to achieve an historically accurate portrayal of Emperor Qin's physical likeness. After discussing final elements with Ned and his team, I began painting the emperor’s portrait.

The Scan: The painting, which is 23"x38" oil on paper, took three weeks to complete. The next step was making a high resolution digital scan of the painting. Color corrections and costume details and embellishments were made digitally. Museum staff reproduced and enlarged the image and today the portrait of Emperor Qin towers over guests who enter the exhibit.

I thoroughly enjoyed learning more about the history of what is considered to be the most significant archaeological find of the twentieth century and look forward to being one of the thousands of visitors who will be welcomed by Emperor Qin as I visit The Terra Cotta Warriors.

Want to see the portrait for yourself? Buy your tickets to see Terra Cotta Warriors: The Emperor's Painted Army.




All photos and sketches are courtesy of Rob Day, 2014.

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Categories: China, Exhibits,
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