Each commission I accept begins as a collaborative experience. My most recently completed commission has been one of the most memorable. It is an oil portrait of three beautiful young children, two brothers and a sister, ages 10, 7 and 5, who were as invested in the entire process as were the parents. It was never a challenge to engage any of the children when I was at work with them. They were very attentive and in tune.
During our discussion of the importance of preliminary studies, I was asked by the parents if I could work from life with the children. Since the portrait itself was to depict all three of them together on canvas, I thought it prudent to honor their request in the preliminary phase of the process by arranging individual sittings, drawing each child one at a time. This proved to be extremely beneficial to me in seeing their unique personalities.
I began with the eldest of the three. Each sitting was for two hours, with numerous breaks and lots of conversation. My goal was not only to begin a good, accurate drawing of him, but to make him feel comfortable in my presence. Being the first born, he is very conscientious and respectful. Having to be a model for an artist is not an easy job; however, he approached his task with seriousness and dedication. He helped make my job easier. Although we ended each sitting with a few reference photos, the primary part of his drawing was done during those sittings.
Next, I turned to the middle child. Since he is younger, I felt that I would need to be more mindful of break times than with the first. To my surprise, he seemed to enjoy “posing” and the discipline of having to find something to focus on to help him hold his gaze. He even volunteered to be time keeper during his sittings. At times during his pose, I would see his arm slowly rise to the side, and there was his little sister, who had quietly tiptoed into the room to slip him a little treat. He especially seemed to enjoy everything required to complete each sitting, and looked forward to the next time. As with the first child, he was very cooperative, helping to bring me to the completion of an accurate pencil rendering.
It now was time to begin work with the daughter, the youngest of two older brothers. I kept the same time schedule of two-hour sittings, but was certain that things would work a little differently during my time with her. She was excited about it being her turn and looked beautiful in her pink dress with a flower on the shoulder, which was to be an important element in her portrait. Her focus had more brevity than with the boys, and it was clearly necessary that she have something to do while she sat, such as drawing. Since my work consists primarily of painting children’s portraits, remaining flexible and patient are paramount in keeping the children comfortable. I had no problem accomplishing this with this little girl. I simply asked her if she would look up when I asked, and she agreed. It’s amazing how much information I could take in during the fleeting minute I had each time she would look up.
I noticed right away that she would purse her mouth into a “pouty” look of confidence and determination, which proved to be helpful in capturing this specific trait of her personality, a strength that will take her far throughout her life. By the end of our sittings, she had drawn my portrait while I was completing hers. Working from life helped me, as in my work with her brothers, complete an accurate pencil rendering of the youngest child.
My next move in the commission was to create a small color study … an aid in the plan of value and color for the final portrait. The next step was to stretch the canvas for the oil portrait, followed by a painted wash of background color to cover the white on the canvas. In this particular setting, I chose to mix an outdoor green color for the background, since the children were to be depicted in the family garden.
Before I knew it, I was standing before my easel, facing this newly stretched blank canvas that was ready to receive all the rich information I had acquired. In my early years of painting, I would draw the image on the canvas before beginning to paint. I find now that simply marking the placement of the subject(s) and then letting the brush develop the form allows my creativity to flow more freely. As the children began to take form on the canvas, I was able to transfer the fruits of my experience with each of them, free flowing through the brush in hand, translating their unique personalities into color and form. When their presence started to emerge, I knew I was on the right track in capturing the essence of each individual character.
I can’t think of anything more exciting while working on a portrait, than to step away from the painting, as I do, to take that necessary overall view, and to discover that the portrait has taken a life of its own. From here, the painting lets me know when it is complete. Somewhere during this stage, I always offer a preview of the painting. I provide this for my own benefit, as well as for my client. Often I am asked to assist in selecting a frame and make plans to deliver to the frame gallery, instead of its designated home. The preview enables me to see it in its selected environment prior to the framing.
When the framed portrait was home and on the wall, we celebrated its completion and our journey together. I am left with many fond memories of time spent with this family and our trek together in the making of a portrait.
For information about commissioning an oil portrait, visit my Commission a Portrait page.