Creating a commission painting is both a joyful and a scary endeavor.
While it is a lot of fun to get to know a customer and make something special for him/her, I am also aware that this artwork holds meaning for the client, will hang in his/her house for years, and may be passed down to further generations, becoming part of that family’s legacy. Every commission has a story behind it. There was the homesick American in France who wanted a retro diner painting to remind her of her home country, the expectant couple ordering a floral piece for the nursery of their first child, and the woman who wished to give her husband the anniversary present of a painting of the international cargo ship he worked on several months every year. So, I do not take on these assignments lightly.
A few months ago, a gentleman emailed me about doing a small piece spotlighting one of his favorite artists, Edward Hopper. His only requirement was that I include his favorite Hopper book within the composition. “Okay, this will be fun!” I think.
Before I answer this email, the phone rings. (Actually, it startled me. I had just received a new phone with too many dancing apps and bouncing buttons, and was playing around with its settings. “It’s ringing? What? What? Did I hit a button or something?”) It is Kevin, who had inquired about the Hopper piece. I explain to him the procedures I follow for a commission: putting designs on a personal page on my website for him to okay, making changes until we find the right design, and posting pictures of the finished painting before shipping. Kevin says, “No. No!” (Well, not exactly in those words, but to that effect.) He is adamant, in the most friendly way, that I just create the painting in my own fashion, without his input or final okay, and send it to him. He wants the surprise of seeing what an artist will create.
“Hmmm,” I think. My stomach crunches. My breathing gets faster. “This is an interesting situation. What if I make it and he does not like it?” I jabber to myself in my head. “Okay, Danforth, you can do this.”
I tell Kevin I will do it.
The first thing I need is a copy of Kevin’s favorite Hopper book, the exact edition and dustcover. I order it through one of my favorite online book sellers. A few days later, the postman uncharacteristically parks his official USPS delivery vehicle in front of my house, and I wonder, “What’s up?” I went running outside, to find my usually friendly and upbeat postman struggling with a large package and mumbling to himself. Yes, it is the book. All 16 inches and nine pounds of it.
I drag the package inside, break open the box, and … Oh, no! There is no dustcover! I need the dustcover! I write the seller, get a refund with instructions not to return because of the high shipping cost, and order another copy from someone else. The second copy, with appropriate cover, arrives within the week. The postman is beginning to wonder if these huge, heavy packages are going to be a common occurrence. Now I have two huge Hopper books and two smaller ones I bought in case I needed them for the composition.
I set to work.
I emailed Kevin, asking him what his favorite Hopper painting was. He had wanted me to choose one, but I really wanted this work to reflect Kevin’s taste, not mine. He answered with a list of four. Two did not inspire me. The third was an eerie night painting of a drug store, an understandable choice since Kevin is a medical doctor. However, the front window contains, in strong type, the word “Ex-Lax.” “That will not do,” I think. (Yes, still talking to myself.) I am not alone in my concern. As the story goes, Hopper originally called the painting, “Ex-Lax - Drug Store,” but his agents’ wife did not like that and Hopper was talked into repainting the word to “Ex-Lac” and renaming the work. When the piece was sold, the collector asked that the artist repaint the original word onto the canvas.
The painting “Early Sunday Morning” did speak to me. It was full of great rusty oranges, gutsy greens and a clear blue sky. This I could compose around. My walnut dining table has the same orange tones, so off goes its 1950’s tablecloth and on went the 20 pound pile of books. I pushed them this way and that way, taking photos along the way. Photos help me envision the three dimensional objects in front of me as a two dimensional painting.
Nothing looked right. The books sat on my dining room table for a few days. Occasionally, I would stand in front of them. Maybe nudge one a bit. I shoot a few more photos, run them out on the printer, and tape the prints to the fireplace mantel. I lay on the sofa staring at those prints from time to time. The composition was not jelling.
Then, something happened.
While speaking with Kevin via email, he talked about his admiration going back to his days in medical school, when he would do pencil drawings of Hopper paintings to relax. One of his drawings had been published back then in a medical journal, and he gave me directions to find it online. When I looked at that digital picture, I jumped out of my chair with joy. This was it! Here was the perfect item, the last piece of the puzzle, to make this a really personal work for Kevin. And, because he is not seeing this before shipping, it will be a total surprise! I was in artistic heaven. I ran that drawing out on my printer and ran to the dining room.
Okay, now this works. Add a nice red pencil, and shoot another photo. The composition is not quite right, but I have enough information to start. I sketch it out on a panel, making the adjustments I envision. The two upper books need to be larger. The “Early Sunday Morning” print, which actually flips open beyond the right side of the book, becomes a flat book page. The pencil sketch is moved from between the pages to under the book. Then, the type faces are painted in black acrylic, which will show through an oil paint layer just enough to help me hold the integrity of the type when I come to finish it.
The painting begins. I usually work from the background forward. It makes it easier to control the edges of overlapping objects. The initial goal is to cover the whole surface with appropriate colors and values. When that layer is dry, I go back to make corrections and add fine details. The most difficult part of this painting is rendering the type, even with the help of the shadow of the black acrylic showing through the oil paint.
When the painting appears to be done, I put it on the fireplace mantel for a few days, during which time I lie on the sofa periodically to stare at it. Occasionally, I jump up, carry it into the studio, and make a small adjustment. Mostly, I am happy with it. The real question is: Will Kevin like it?
Kevin did like it. So much that he sent me two thank you gifts. Imagine!
I spend my days in the studio painting things that make me happy. A commission like this is something all artists dream of, the chance to create a piece that holds meaning and gives joy to another person.
Thank you, Kevin, for granting me the privilege of painting this for you.
Enjoy your day, everyone!