Wall Street Journal Hedcuts

  hedcut self-portrait

I’ve been practicing my portraiture lately, and in the process of trying out a few different styles I started thinking about the iconic portraits of CEO’s and celebrities they use in the Wall Street Journal. The Journal quite famously eschews the use of any photographs in its stories, though this has been changing in recent years.

As an alternative to photography, illustrator Kevin Sprouls approached the editors with the concept of stipple portraits, which resemble both engravings and the stippled halftone portraits that were common in newspapers before photography became the norm. Since then these ‘hedcuts’ as they’re called (note the spelling) have become a trademark of the Journal.

Although originally developed by Sprouls, there are now a number of artists generating these portraits for the Journal (between 4 and 6 depending on which article you read). Though I haven't been able to track them all down, the following artists are well known participants.

  • Kevin Sprouls — the originator of the technique. CNN filmed an interview with Sprouls in 1984 that is available from the National Portrait Gallery, though the quality is pretty low.
  • Noli Novak — a staff artist for the Wall Street Journal, she now oversees other artists learning the technique. NPR’s All Things Considered did an interview with Noli in 2005.
  • Randy Glass — who has a large collection of his Journal work on his web site. I was also surprised to see his pencil and watercolor portraits of the Deep Space 9 cast.

Sprouls’ style has become so iconic that the National Portrait Gallery here in the U.S. now houses a collection of original portraits donated by the Journal, and provides a web gallery discussing the topic with examples and information.

One thing the NPG’s web site notes is that the guidelines developed for this technique allow the Journal to homogenize the work of multiple artists into a uniform look. Indeed I think that many people assume that the process is mechanical. However if you look carefully at the portraits, you can see small differences. Glass for example always surrounds his portraits with a thick outer contour.

The belief that these portraits are simply a Photoshop filter of some sort is underscored by the large number of people posting to related forums looking for advice on how to reproduce it. Though an ersatz copy, one of the best tutorials I’ve seen is this technique (though the author incorrectly conflates this technique with the woodcut style of illustrations on O’Reilly books). You’ll also see people using scan-line filters to give a similar, and fare more pleasing effect. NPR is currently using this technique for the portraits of its bloggers, for example on the Blog of the Nation (see the right sidebar).

If, like me, your more interested in the pen and paper techniques, the Dow Jones Company (The Journal’s parent) provides a PDF which explains the process. Best of all, the resolution is outstanding, so you can get a close look at the stippling.  Above is my first attempt.