A while back, I was approached by the wife of the president of a local hospital. She’d seen a solo exhibit of mine and wondered if I’d be willing to paint a commissioned piece for her husband’s new office. Would I be interested?
Of course I’d be interested! I’d need to see the space and talk to them about what they’d like, and we could go from there.
The three of us met not long thereafter. When I paint a commission, I want to get to know as much as I possibly can about the person who will be viewing my art for a long time to come. If they’re going to make a financial investment and I’m going to invest my time, it’s important we’re both clear on what’s wanted so that everyone is happy with the outcome. Things like color, subject matter, and the emotion the viewer wants the painting to evoke are always at the top of the list. All three run deep and bring about strong emotional and psychological responses.
I found out his favorite colors are oranges, rusts, and olive greens. Not my usual palette, but I’m always open to exploring new colorways to expand my vision, and I was excited to do so (I’m glad I did–I’ve fallen in love with this palette). His favorite place is the Cape Neddick marsh in York, ME. I asked him what he liked best about it–what moved him when he was there. He responded that the way the light hits the grass always has a big impact. And, because his job is demanding, he wanted a painting that would be calming and tranquil–something to view to help clear his mind’s eye when he had to make an important decision.
The three of us talked a bit more. We looked at the size of the space behind his desk where the painting would hang and determined that a 30 x 48-inch painting would work well. His wife was particularly enthusiastic about it being a diptych, so two 30 x 24-inch canvases would be the way to go. I took note of how the light entered the room, took photos of the sage-like green of his walls, asked more questions about types of art he loved and why. Then, his wife and I had a lovely lunch and talked further. By the time I left, I felt I had a clear understanding of the kind of piece that would suit him. This part of the process is very important to me, for I view it as the foundation of a successful collector/artist relationship.
After meeting with a collector, I usually like to do one or two studies–smaller, quick paintings–and then share them to make sure I’m on the right track. I emailed this study, which they responded positively to. And then, a couple of days later, I got a text. Could I include the pilings that run across the marsh? That would make it look more distinctively like Cape Neddick.
Of course I was happy to oblige. Upon reflection, however, I realized that meant I needed to change the composition. Since the pilings are located in a different area from the marsh grasses, I needed to rethink how to emphasize the light. It also meant creating a more distant view. Totally new painting.
So I began, and I encountered all the questions artists encounter. As I moved through the painting process, I came up with some answers. One of the many things I love about painting is the constant flow between intuition, emotion, and deep thought.
- How could I make this scene different from the already-done scenes of the Cape Neddick pilings?
Emphasize the light–in the break of the sky, in the way it touches the tops of some trees, in the reflections on the water.
- How would I incorporate the oranges and rusts and olive greens the collector wanted when there’d be so much blue sky and water with a distant viewpoint?
Ah! A sunset! But not just any sunset. There was one evening during my many visits when I observed a cloud bank in the upper sky with light breaking through the horizon area, and I was captivated. If I’m captivated as the artist, that will carry over into the feeling the painting conveys to viewers.
- How would I make sure the oranges weren’t too garish? Orange can so easily take over a scene.
Use a grayed-down, neutral blue for the cloud bank and water to help ease the eye, and make sure it has movement to help guide the viewer through the painting.
- How would I make the middle ground and background distinct from one another?
Warmer tones in the middle ground, and bluer green tones in the background. The background also had to be a bit darker given the way the light was traveling. The trees there are backlit, so will appear dark to the eye.
- How would I create a focal point in each half of the diptych that wouldn’t compete with the other when hung together?
Because a diptych consists of two paintings that can stand on their own or go together, it requires a bit of a different kind of composition. I solved the problem by making sure the trees were of different heights, colors, and weight, and by distinguishing their placement–notice how in the left side there are many trees and the right has only a couple–and by using the light to fall upon the tops of the trees, placing it so it would allow the eye to move through the painting and rest upon important areas.
- And the big one: how would I incorporate those pilings in a way where they were noticeable but didn’t become the “diva” of the painting?
I didn’t want them to be the main subject. I wanted the light and the trees and reflections to call the attention, because, to me, that’s what made the painting evoke emotional response. The pilings could not compete or the viewer wouldn’t know where to rest in the painting. That one took a while, but I eventually realized that by painting them in values close to the reflections, they’d be present but wouldn’t stand out too much. And by highlighting some of them with the color of the light, they’d have form and guide the viewer to other parts of the painting.
Every artist needs to think about issues like this before proceeding, or a painting will, in most cases, fail. These were big things to tackle, and, I’ll confess, I started the painting one way and scraped it out because I didn’t like the light, started it another way and scraped it out because the balance of the composition was wrong (balancing the sky, trees, land mass, reflections and water was trickier than I’d initially thought, and it took correcting the weight of each mass in order for them to work more harmoniously), and wiped out various colors until I was happy with how neutrals calmed intense colors in some areas and helped them stand out in others. Finally, the painting you see here emerged.
I re-learned perhaps one of the most important lessons for an artist: allow the painting to speak and listen to what it wants to say.
Obviously, this version is much different from the initial study. That happens, especially in this case where the composition needed to be changed. But I’m much happier with it than the study, because this painting stands out. It reflects a light, time of day, and time of year I’ve not seen in other Cape Neddick paintings, so it is one of a kind for its owner. It reflects my colorist approach while still being in the palette the collector wanted, so I feel it’s true to my style and vision while also incorporating all the elements that were important to the collector.
When he and his wife came to pick up the painting, he stood for quite a while looking at it in silence. He moved close and backed away (something I always love to see in collectors, for it shows a discerning eye). He quietly watched until he said, “I think I’m going to see something different in this each time I look at it, and that’s what I want.”
The next morning, I received two lovely notes–one from each of them–expressing how happy they were. I love the rewards commissions can bring, especially when I’m pushed out of my comfort zone so I can grow.