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.

Cape Neddick Marsh Study, original oil painting by Dawn BoyerAfter 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.