My Strange And Wonderful Commission Adventure

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! 


1350 Is The Magic Number

Having moved to Spokane, WA last summer, this was the first year of our vegetable garden. Here in the Pacific Northwest, we have a short growing season, so there is a mad scramble in May to get everything planted. We started by pulling the grass out of a section of the backyard, putting down cedar raised beds and filling the beds with four and a half tons of soil. What a project!

In August, the garden was in full swing. Well, almost too much! The three tomato plants in the center bed grew into monsters. They look under control in this picture, but eventually grew to cover an area of 8 feet by 12 feet, at about five feet high. 

Just before first frost in October, we harvested every red and healthy green tomato we could, but still had to let about half freeze on the vine. As we picked and cleaned up, we kept a count. 1350. Yes, that is one thousand three hundred and fifty tomatoes! The reds not eaten fresh or given away were canned into spaghetti sauce and frozen for soups later. The greens were made into jellies and condiments. Guess what everyone is getting for Christmas this year?

You can bet that next year we are heavily trimming back those plants as they grow!


When Green Isn't Green

We are back home in Washington state after a lovely winter vacation in Florida.

I do not travel with my oil paints, but this time away from the studio has prompted me to look into ways of painting while traveling. So, I spent a lot of time lately watching online videos about plein air landscape painting. This style of art is way out of my comfort zone, but I am ready for a new challenge.

The most difficult thing for me in dealing with painting landscapes is in seeing the many colors. When I look across a beautiful view or at trees, all I see is green. All different shades of green.  Many landscape painters see so many other colors when looking at the same scene ... purples, rusty reds, even light blues. I am determined to find a way to see those colors too.

Lately, I sit outside on my back patio a few minutes each day and just look at the trees around me. It is real winter here, with snow on the ground, so the greens are muted. To someone as in love with color as I am, muted greens are not inspirational! Then, one morning, I noticed that the tall pine trees in the next block over were pink. Honest! They were a soft, misty pink in the early morning overcast. Eureka!

As I have said before, much of an artist's job is seeing. That takes time. Patience, patience.


Play With Weebles

I have been having a lot of fun with my new retro toys series. Not only am I enjoying the actual painting, but I have the perfect excuse to buy toys.
Enjoy your day!
8x10, oil on panel


What Madilyn Taught Me About Being Fearless

Who of us has not had that feeling? Fear of creating. Fear of the big, white, empty canvas. Fear that a work might not be as good as we want it to be, or as good as someone else’s. You know how that feels … how that keeps you awake at night, supplies you with a multitude of reasons to procrastinate, and causes you to freeze before the easel.

I would like to tell you about my niece Madilyn. She is an artist, working in acrylic on paper and canvas. Her painting style is spontaneous and courageous, just like her. When painting, she wears whatever she wants, often pink and purple. Unicorns and sparkles are a common choice. She spreads her quart jars of acrylic, brushes, and canvases on the kitchen table. And, she just paints. Marvelous happy houses and smiling people. Rainbows and animals. If something is not the way she wants, she paints over it, or throws it on the floor and starts a new canvas.

Being so spontaneous, she makes a mess all over the table and herself. Who cares? She just strips down to her underwear and continues with her work.

Madilyn is 7 years old.

What my niece has taught me:

Making art is fun. 
    Madilyn does not do internet searches to see what others are doing. She does not tell herself she cannot do it or call herself names when something goes wrong. She does not think about that person who told her she had no talent. She joyfully plays.

Art can be made anywhere.
    Got a kitchen table? A corner of the dining room? A seat at Starbucks? Go for it!

Dress the part.
    Okay, so we may not all want to strip to our undies to paint, but having one special piece of clothing can tell you “It’s time to create!” How about designating a favorite old t-shirt as your “art shirt”? Or, a funky old hat? Personally, I have a box in the studio full of colorful cotton play clothes just for painting. 

Throw it out and move on.
    So, the piece did not work out. You learned what not to do! It was not a waste at all. Get a fresh canvas and do it again.

Put your art on the refrigerator.
    Well, maybe not literally. But, share your work with others. Making art makes Madilyn happy and I smile every time I look at her canvas (below) on my wall. Enjoy your creativity and spread the joy around.

Happy creating!

8x10, acrylic on canvas
by Madilyn


Smile With Howdy Doody

The first of my new series of retro toys.  Hope you enjoy!
8x10,, oil on panel