From Keyboard to Canvas: Meet the Political Reporter Who Paints Washington
It was through serendipity that he discovered his talent. And it’s thanks to D.C.’s “ego economy” that art has become his side gig.
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Today’s newsletter is special and considerably less stress-inducing than our regular fodder. It’s about political journalist Pablo Manriquez, who has quickly made a name for himself in Washington as a painter. Make sure to follow The Bulwark on Instagram, where we’ll be posting more pictures in addition to the ones below.
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Pablo Manriquez reports on Capitol Hill most days, writing for the New Republic and publishing at a variety of other outlets such as Vanity Fair and the Intercept. But about a year and a half ago, Manriquez took up oil painting.
He started the hobby after getting his first paints by mistake when a box of art supplies was wrongly dropped on his doorstep. (His theory is that the parcel was abandoned by a porch pirate who’d grabbed it from another stoop.) But the accidental delivery turned out to be fate. Painting has turned into a new passion for Manriquez, and he has flipped it into an increasingly successful small business, as well.
He has honed his skills through tutorials on YouTube and TikTok and describes the social media scene for art education and training as a “very welcoming and encouraging place” for new artists to get started.
“We always think about the comments as these nightmare places as political reporters—Twitter is enough for me—but then you get into the art world and the education and production side is incredibly encouraging,” he said. “It’s so warm. It’s a nice place to meet random anonymous artists like you.”
Manriquez told me he started out by painting Mark Twain, but wanted to try a current subject with an equally interesting and expressive face. Naturally, he chose Mitch McConnell.
When a Capitol Hill staffer began inquiring about purchasing one of Manriquez’s earlier McConnell paintings, he learned about some of Congress’s stringent ethics rules regarding the sale of artworks like his. Paintings must be bought at a “fair market value,” but since he had never sold a painting before, there was no market to set the price. He settled on $50. In the months since he made his first sale, his rate has increased: Manriquez has now sold dozens of paintings at varying prices, some even for several thousand dollars.
McConnell is his most requested subject—he’s sold more than a dozen so far—followed by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ilhan Omar. Another popular subject is top House Natural Resources Committee Democrat and longtime Arizona Rep. Raúl Grijalva, who has a particularly expressive face. Manriquez estimates that roughly half of his commissioned paintings depict politicians or the U.S. Capitol, while the rest vary from commission to commission.
Manriquez also sometimes paints photos he has taken while reporting on the Hill, like this one of a reporter walking alongside recently retired Sen. Roy Blunt of Missouri:
The New Republic reporter says he has found inspiration in the works of Vincent Van Gogh, Paul Cézanne, and John Singer Sargent, but he also pays close attention to contemporary artists, like Texas-based painter Vincent Valdez. It certainly helps that Manriquez’s day job regularly puts him in the Capitol, which is adorned with hundreds of oil paintings. He says he’ll often closely examine them to study their brush strokes and styles.
“It's cool to be in a building full of oil paintings and then to go home and oil paint,” he said.
Manriquez’s business offers a special value proposition in the selfie era: He says he’s found a “wide-open market in this ego economy.” Lots of important people want paintings of themselves, their bosses, or the figure they view as their leader—and they’re willing to pay. Mariquez’s brothers help him with the business and marketing side of his work, but he also picks up a lot of commissions from people who have learned about him through social media.
And while he’s found plenty of potential customers, Manriquez has not met many other artists working on the Hill. Arguably, the two most famous working political painters nowadays are George W. Bush and MAGA superfan Jon McNaughton. For Manriquez, that means plenty of work.
These days, he’s cranking out between three and eight paintings a week. The precise number depends on the size of the canvases he’s using, as well as the competing demands of his regular workload as a reporter.
Manriquez does most of his painting in his backyard in Northwest D.C., but he’s painted inside the Capitol a number of times, and on some occasions he’s even hidden finished paintings in the building’s less-trafficked spaces to allow them to dry before he goes home.
Countless paintings have been hung on the walls of the Capitol and incorporated into its architecture. In the future, Manriquez would like to see his own art displayed in this setting—a portrait, perhaps, or a commemoration of a live event such as a State of the Union address. In the meantime, though, he’s got an endless slate of commissions for paintings that will hang in private residences and offices. Not bad for a guy who got his start thanks to a misdelivered package.
What a delightful break from the usually dark and ominous things we've come to dread from Capitol Hill! Thanks, Joe, and thanks to Pablo Manriquez! I wish him great success!
Very cool story!