This time of year most of my art commissions are gifts and are top secret. No blogging about them. Well this time a couple asked me to create a double portrait of their two cats and since it’s a gift to themselves they’ve let me blog about it! (Happy Holidays to all of us!) Here’s how it went:
In September Sue and Dean asked me via Caplan Art Designs, my Portland gallery, to create a double portrait of their two cats. They were pretty sure they wanted it to be 12 inches by 18 inches and on handmade paper to be framed.
A time to meet to discuss the commission was arranged and my wife, Judy, and I went to dinner at Sue and Dean’s house. I brought an example of the 100% cotton handmade paper that I’d use at the size they’d requested and a few other sizes just in case. I also brought my camera, a note pad and an extra pen.
After we’d been there a short while the cats came out. So did my camera. As the cats got used to me, and over the evening, I took over 41 photos of them. Here are two of the photos I took.
I asked questions of the humans about the cats favorite places, toys and habits. I asked questions about the humans favorite places, drinks and memories. On my note pad I wrote down the answers. Where possible I photographed the answers . For example on of my questions was: “What drink do you reach for most often when you want to relax? And what kind of glass do you have it in?” Here was the answer:
Generally we just talked about one thing and another. You know, dinner party talk. I asked questions, kept my ears open, and my notepad ready for recording things that might be relevant to the commission. I like to include in any pet portrait elements from the humans’ lives: favorite objects, drinks, food, anything that sparks pleasant memories. Helpfully, Sue and Dean both volunteered lots of information about themselves such as a favorite artwork that was meaningful to them.
They told of past travels that were particularly memorable. Famous people they’d met in Hawaii. All kinds of things were talked about and without interrupting flow I asked more questions and made as many notes as I could. Without being too obvious I also looked around their house noting colors and patterns, writing those notes down too. This is what I call the “data dump” phase of a commission. At this point I have no idea what information will be relevant for the final artwork.
We relaxed into the evening; just talking, having a very yummy dinner with a good wine. Slowly as Sue and Dean talked I began to get ideas… The cats got comfortable too and began doing their “normal” behavior.
Ollie likes to sit in a basket that holds magazines. Tony likes to sit on the couch and watch Nature on television. The cats behavior prompted me to ask which human had the magazine subscriptions (Sue did) and what magazines were favorites. Dean has worked in technological fields…so technological advances (including TV) were discussed..
Later in the evening I floated a general portrait concept: Ollie reading magazines and Tony watching TV…perhaps the basket Ollie likes so much could become a “table” in the artwork, perhaps… They both seemed to like my concept direction. They verified the size of artwork they wanted. I said I’d send them, via the gallery, a sketch for their approval before I began the finished artwork. We enjoyed a bit more conversation (and wine) – I glanced at my notes and racked my brain to make sure I had all the data I needed – and then we said our good-nights.
In the driveway pulling away from their house about 9:30pm I texted the gallery owner with the gist of what size artwork Sue and Dean wanted etc. Then my wife, Judy, and I discussed the evening in the car as we drove home. I still had my note pad out and was writing notes in the moving car by flashlight. (Judy was driving.)
Occasionally it had happened during the evening that I was talking with Sue in one room while Judy was in another room talking with Dean. So Judy filled me in on what I’d missed. At this point I am still in “data dump” mode. I have a rough direction for my design. But the details are very fuzzy. (Over the many years I’ve done special commissions this kind of uncertainty is normal and I trust it as a part of the process.)
The next day I went over my notes and began making 4 x 6 inch size thumbnail sketches. Over several weeks I did this; going over my notes and photos, drawing possible poses of the cats, possible objects, considering composition and colors. I also showed my sketches to Judy discussing the possibilities. At one point Judy said that they had both talked of Nova Scotia, Newfoundland and Hawaii enough that she was sure that they were important. I agreed and adjusted my drawings so that a reference to those travels was emphasized. Slowly an idea began to come together in the small thumbnail size anyway. What works visually at a small size doesn’t always work at a larger size but it’s a place to start.
On my easel I put the 12 x 18 inch handmade paper. Then I covered that with tracing paper and drew a grid (you can see it in the photo below). Then I put tracing paper over the grid and drew one of the thumbnail ideas to that scale. Then another tracing paper was put over that and that drawing tweaked…. And so it went, with multiple tracing paper overlays and re-draws, for a week or more. Tweak, tweak, tweak, until I had something I felt good about. The “good drawing” I sent to the gallery and to Sue and Dean for their approval. Here is what I sent:
They approved the drawing! Yippee! I did a happy dance and then I got serious about colors.
Upon arriving home after the dinner with Sue and Dean I had gotten out one of my interior design color swatch books. Flipping through the pages I found a couple of color spreads that I felt had the “vibe” of Sue and Dean’s house. I showed the pages to Judy to get her input. With those interior design book pages as a rough guide along with my photographs taken inside their house I began mixing colors and making color notes. I used my thumbnail drawings to play with color schemes too, painting blobs of color here or there. Anyway, here’s a photo of the interior design book page as well as a few pages of my sketchbook color notes. I did 6 pages of color notes but this one photo will give you the idea.
As I decided on the colors I made pencil notes on the approved to-scale drawing where the colors would go. You can see some of this in the photo above.
Then I began on the finished artwork. The actual painting took about 10 days start to finish. As I say often – the sketching/drawing/planning is where the bulk of creation happens. I transferred the approved sketch/drawing to the handmade paper I intended to use for the finished artwork. Then I began to make tiny adjustments to the drawing directly onto the handmade paper in prep for painting. I also discovered gaps in my visual data base.
For example I realized that I didn’t know what the back of a vintage TV set looked like. Not well enough to paint it in detail anyway. Fortunately there are some vintage shops where I live – so a few visits downtown with my sketchbook and the problem was solved!
I also realized that I had an opportunity to make a portrait of Sue and Dean on the front cover of the “magazine” that Ollie, the cat, would be reading in the finished artwork. So I asked for, and got, a picture of the couple that I could use as a reference photo. From the photo I did several pencil drawings on tracing paper to design the magazine cover and to get the humans to look like themselves. I drew until I had a cover design and human portrait that worked. Here it is:
Once I had the magazine “cover” drawing ready (drawn to the scale needed in the artwork) I transferred it to the appropriate spot on the handmade paper. At another point I realized that I could include the stain glass windows I’d seen in their house as part of the “back cover” of the magazine. But I hadn’t gotten photos of the window when we visited for dinner. And neither Judy nor I could remember the exact details of the windows. So I contacted Amy at the Caplan Art design gallery and she helped fill in the missing data! Whew!
Here’s what the finished artwork “Ollie and Tony” looks like. I’ve photographed it as it was on my easel when I finished it, so you can see the four deckled edges of the handmade paper. I used acrylic, gouache, watercolor and ink.
I sent the photo of the finished art to Amy the gallery owner to let her know it was done. Then I spray varnished the piece with a removable varnish that has UV protection in it.
When that was dry I contacted Amy and arranged for a time to deliver it to the gallery. The date was set and the varnish dry so I slipped the artwork into an archival plastic sleeve and into a cardboard portfolio to protect the artwork from being bent on its travels between my studio and the gallery or between the gallery and the framer. (It rains in the Pacific Northwest – so artwork needs all the protection it can get.)
We delivered the artwork to the gallery and as a nice surprise Sue and Dean were there! Here we all are looking at the artwork and talking about it:
Amy will take the artwork to the professional framer the gallery works with and have the art floated on a neutral mat, with spacers so the artwork won’t touch the glass. It will be given a simple black frame.
What a fun project!! I love getting to make highly personal and meaningful visual stories like this! Thank you!! And thank you, Sue and Dean, for letting me share it on my blog!
Happy Holidays Everyone!!