Studio: Drawing US Presidents

John Springs on illustrating US Presidents throughout his career

Features Studio

A sure sign of getting older is when policemen get younger (and shorter and fatter), so it must be good news for all when a new US President is elected far beyond pension age.

The US President is probably the most scrutinised person on the planet. For 40 years I’ve been caricaturing, doodling, satirising, studying, drawing and painting (in watercolour, acrylic, oils) these leaders of the free world in the attempt to render their inner being into something palpable and visible. So after 175 gallons of Indian ink, 3,200 steel pen nibs (412 of which had to be discarded immediately due to metal fatigue), 230 B pencils and 240 HB pencils sculpted to a point with a scalpel (never a pencil sharpener) and one heroic Brause 512 pen that lasted for almost nine months until it fatally splattered its last, we come to President Joe Biden.

Although more than one former president has been described as having a Teflon quality, Biden seems to have more of the Velcro about him

To a caricaturist’s eye he may not immediately seem like the gift that keeps on giving, unlike his predecessor. Despite Biden being around forever, the only time I drew him was when he was taken to task for plagiarising a speech by Neil Kinnock. In the words of Montaigne, he certainly made a nosegay from another man’s flowers.

Cartoonists who aren’t particularly strong in portraiture managed easily enough to nail Donald Trump. Biden will put up more of a challenge.

Although more than one former president has been described as having a Teflon quality, Biden seems to have more of the Velcro about him. I found him from the outset rather cartoonish. I’ve already portrayed him in “old guy” sneakers with self-adhesive fastenings. One of the difficulties that cartoonists may encounter is a certain implausible physicality. It seems as though while he’s been asleep someone has been ironing out the contours of his features, leaving a lack of definition, a visual cross-thread, which makes me think that my kind of old-school delivery (pen, ink on paper) might finally hold an advantage over the digital-graphic masters who can tweak and cajole computer pixels into minute perfection.

For me the key to successful caricature is to “intensify” an aspect that was perhaps hitherto unobserved, rather than simply exaggerate someone’s features to cartoonish lengths. Grotesqueries and distortion in drawing political satire are a loss of faith because they lack wit; I prefer the charm offensive. By kicking a man you’re being neither amusing nor insightful.

My career began at the time of Reagan, an inspiring kickstart. The Thatcher/Reagan alliance provided a new inspiration. The American publications featured stunning artwork from seasoned illustrator/cartoonists such as David Levine, whom I got to know quite well.

I remember with some surprise him telling me Nixon filled him with such a “violent rage” that it affected his drawing. In a way Nixon was the first “modern” President to be mercilessly lampooned: with his jowls, ski-jump nose and four o’clock shadow, he could be reduced to a figurine.

I was probably one of the first to draw Barack Obama, in the late 1990s

Bush senior was a sort of step backwards but he had a certain steeliness, no doubt as a result as being the last President to have undergone active service in World War Two. Clinton seemed to me very much the political heavyweight and knew how to work a crowd, Bush Jr rather less so, his rather bland features surprisingly easy to portray.

I was probably one of the first to draw Barack Obama, in the late 1990s for the Journal of Blacks In Higher Education, probably not a publication you’ve heard of. I drew him, prophetically, on a road leading to the White House.

The Trump years are perhaps still too fresh in the mind to sum up. But if ever anyone erects a statue of him, it should be financed by every cartoonist and caricaturist in the world with unfettered gratitude. Most saw in him an uncontrolled rage the wrong shade of apricot. I saw him as feckless and a bit vulnerable; thin-skinned, vain, yet looking a bit ridiculous: who can forget his attempt at white tie when dining at Buckingham Palace? Some are already suggesting that Biden won’t be a full-term President. Should we start doodling away at Kamala Harris?


My very first cover was President Reagan in black and white, April 1980 for the Spectator. No internet images to source, newsprint pre-digital, so very little in the way of reference apart from trawling the US weeklies. Regal, resplendent in white tie, the pompadour and despite the myth, no hair dye!

GEORGE H.W. BUSH 1989-1993

Last of the WW2 Presidents; During the Iraq crisis he relaxed by watching box sets of Fawlty Towers; how endearing is that? Less endearing for poor Japanese prime minister Kiichi Miyazawa when at a state dinner Bush managed to throw up over him.

BILL CLINTON 1993-2001

Always charming, never ever forgot a name, which is a fine disarming trick. Unfortunately some dirty linen came to light; the famous blue dress that Linda Tripp advised Monica Lewinsky not to take to the dry cleaners, as her “insurance policy”. Bill said it was a right-wing conspiracy; more a “white ring” conspiracy. He never inhaled but blew a fine saxophone.

GEORGE W. BUSH 2001-2009

Connecticut-born Texan and unlike Reagan he never looked very comfortable on a horse; I often drew him as in a scene from Brokeback Mountain. His expressions were either dumb bewilderment or self-satisfaction worked under the eyebrows into pin-prick eyes. The only president that I drew as many times as his veep (Dick Cheney).

BARACK OBAMA 2009-2017

I always thought he was rather foppish and that allowed me to experiment with more vivid colours and outlandish outfits. Enough visual presence there to be able to draw him successfully front, sideways and from the back view. Famously created a media fuss by ordering dijon mustard on his hamburger at a takeaway.

DONALD J. TRUMP 2017-2021

Visually combustible, he can look like a great orange hulking, sulking colossus. The patron saint of caricaturists. The hair? It’s American hair, sprayed, sculptured and the structure much speculated on: it could be a double crown. Is that a prophecy?


I first drew him in 1988 during his Kinnock-speech plagarisation debacle, when he was thought to be a spent force. It pays to stick around! I’d forgotten the drawing until I rediscovered it, but he makes me keep forgetting him. The fact that his face appears to look like someone peering into a wind tunnel doesn’t help. He is gaffe-prone, dull yet irascible, drifting in and out from some political wilderness. You’d be forgiven for thinking he’s Canadian.

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