Commission from Photo: Wedding Venue in Colorado

The finished commission, 24×18″, acrylic on stretched canvas
I finished a commission from photos of a wedding venue in Colorado, adding the final touch-ups and varnish yesterday. This scene had a lot of aspects going for it, a strong focal point with the lodge, the walkway to the left along the lake directing the viewer to the lodge and the distance with the background mountains. However, this painting was a tougher challenge than first expected because of something I overlooked in the photo; no shadows. The photo was taken with the sun directly behind the photographer. It’s was a great shot, but shadows give the illusion of an object being 3-dimensional for the painter to use. Everything looked flat, so it was an excellent way to learn alternative ways to show depth and form. Adding warmth to the foreground and cooling off the color with blues to the background gave a good sense of atmosphere. Overlapping the trees in front and behind others was a huge tool for front to back depth. To show roundness in the foreground trees, very subtle color shift were used to add the greatest warmth to the center and cool off the sides where the sky reflects more . Other tricks were to use the rocky places in the background mountain to form broken lines to indicate loosely an illusion of roundness. Similar to looking at a striped towel with folds, the stripes form curved lines leading the eye around the shapes. Fortunately, the client and her husband loved it. Now it’s being packed and it’ll be sent off to begin it purpose. I love it when the scene automatically connect the viewer to a great memory. 


Feeding the Birds (Commission): Steps 2 & 3

This is the continuation of the previous post, describing a commission to create and paint a scene of a homemade platform feeder with two cardinals and a chickadee.  Since this is cedar country here in central TX, the background scene would be based on this. 

We came up with a rough sketch to arrange the birds in the first step, and next was to make a color sketch.  The goal with this was simply to get put color to the sketch and see if it works.  I found out there is a big difference between painting a scene from a photo or en plein air, and illustrating a realistic scene from imagination.  It took a few fails and some outdoor adventure to put this all together. Here’s some initial attempts that seemed close, but somehow didn’t feel right. I think the sky blue with the bright red was like wearing plaid short with a rugby striped polo (while I have never done…twice).  Taking out the sky was just depressing.

Attempts to make the birds stand out and also have some harmony with the background. A very humbling lesson.
Attempts to make the birds stand out and also have some harmony with the background. A very humbling lesson.

Time to look down my website list of favorite artists (a long list) for some guidance and inspiration.  The painting below, from Edward Aldrich, shows a perfect example of color harmony.  The rich, dark background has all the colors of the bird if you look closely, making the bird and flowers seem to “fit” in like high notes in a symphony.  Looking back at my color sketches, I saw a squeaks and random, out of tune notes of a middle school band practice, complete with “tuba farts”.  I needed a focal point to draw it all together and something in the background to create harmony.

Edward Aldrich's oil painting showing amazing color harmony
Edward Aldrich’s oil painting showing amazing color harmony

If my background was about cedars, it was time to get out and do some plein air, really evaluating how the bird colors would fit in with this.  I found reds in the cedar bark (male cardinal has red), yellow ochre and rich greens in the leaflets (female cardinal)  and bright and dark grays in the branches (chickadee).  Amazing how much you can find if you look!

cedar tree studies for the painting
cedar tree studies for the painting out near Dana Peak park (Belton, TX)
The cedars had everything from cool blue colors, warm greens and yellows and even chalky white colored branches. Perfect.
The cedars had everything from cool blue colors, warm greens and yellows and even chalky white colored branches. Perfect.

Next came the cardinals.  I searched the web images, took pictures from yard, ranch fields and rooftops, and this is what I found: the male cardinal is just red. Bright, bold red. The female, however, it subtle and varied in color, making it very elusive. The only way I found a female to take pics of was to listen and look for the males.   Oh, Mom, if you notice there’s not many cardinals visiting the bird bath or feeder lately out in the yard, it’s because I chased them with the camera around the yard for a few days. I’m now a living scarecrow to them. Sorry about that. I did it in the name of art, right?

A mash-up of pics from Google searches to my hunting down birds with an ultrazoom camera here and in Weimar, TX.

A mash-up of pics from Google searches to my hunting down birds with an ultrazoom camera here and in Weimar, TX.

After a couple more attempts, I found a color sketch I was comfortable with. (note, it’s meant to be a quick and rough sketch)

Here's a rough color sketch that seems to harmonize a bit better (as you'll see in the final painting).
Here’s a rough color sketch that seems to harmonize a bit better (as you’ll see in the final painting).

With a better color sketch and all the research, I stepped into the final painting feeling much better.  Working back and forth between the birds and background (repeatedly), I found it naturally merged them slowly into it.  I’d paint part of a bird, then use that color somewhere in the background, and vice versa.

There were a couple things that personalized this painting to put a their story in the painting’s concept. The feeder had perfect elements, such as small drainage gaps in the corners and the squirrel proof cone below it.  Also, the female is in the tree because they notice one cardinal feeds while the other stands guard. I’d put her on the feeder and make the male stand guard (as it should be, right), but her colors were perfect compliments to the sky blue (sorry lady).  As for the little, bold chickadee, note the branches of the cedar tie in with it.  Little details like this make a huge difference!

16x20" acrylic on canvas panel.
16×20″ acrylic on canvas panel.

Thank you Mrs.  Harmeyer for this adventure!!

Birds at the Feeder (Commission): Step 1 Concept and Design

As in my previous posts about working through a commission, you can easily turn something stressful into an enjoyable journey.  Good communication and breaking it down into steps is the way to go and if you have fun, it will show in the results.

Step 1: Concept and Design

My client’s husband likes the birds in the area and made a platform feeder for the backyard.  As a gift to him, she’d like to have two cardinals and a chickadee around the feeder.  Also, they notice the cardinals often take turns at the feeder, the other close by standing guard. The chickadee, well, that just an awesome bird. Gotta have it.  Lastly, there are a lot of cedars nearby, so having a dark cedar green as the background would feel right.  With a quick generic sketch we both liked, the concept was clear. All this information is pure gold when it comes to putting the painting together.  It’s becomes the story behind the painting.

I did a generic sketch when I was with her to brainstorm ideas and we both found a basic design we could use.  From that design, I did these quick sketches below:

Two option with the canvas in portrait. The left sketch has the male cardinal in the tree "standing guard", while the female eats.
Two option with the canvas in portrait. The left sketch has the male cardinal in the tree “standing guard”, while the female eats.
Landscape orientation options.
Landscape orientation options.

Any of the sketches could work from a design standpoint, but the bottom one in landscape orientation seems to combine all the aspects of design,  doesn’t minimize any of the birds (especially the chickadee), puts one cardinal on guard duty and includes the entire platform.  Winner. So, with a solid design, it time for the color sketch! (next post)

Having Fun Painting a Commission: Final Step, Scaling Up

This is the final step in a four-post series. Painting a commission work should not be a lot of pressure.  The reason for painting in the first place is to share what you love to do.  When you’re having fun, that really shows in the final painting. I encourage you to read, or at least scan, through the previous steps (they are short posts).

Step 1: Review the Painting
Step 2: Values and Composition
Step 3: Color Sketch
Step 4: Scaling Up

This is the fun part. You’ve made all the important decisions, now just paint! In this commission, my client liked the initial drawing and color sketch and decided to ditch the bench (totally agree with that).  I’m really happy with the result and EVERY step came into play, guiding me in the final painting. Here’s a short mental review:

18x24" Acrylic. A Commission work of the view from a hiking trail in Colorado
18×24″ Acrylic. A Commission work of the view from a hiking trail in Colorado

The concept: the background view is the important area. (Step 1). The client told me what she like about the reference photo, which told me the “story” is.

Darkening the foreground will push the viewer into the background view. (Step 2). With that concept in mind in step 1, I wanted the lightest area, what the eye goes to, to be the background, the darkest area, what the eye avoids, to be the foreground. Beirstadt is a great example for this style.

Getting the colors about right, but more importantly, the right value with color notes (Step 3). Looking at the photo, I tried to match the colors, but keeping the values in line with my sketch in step 2.  The values are so important!

The final painting:  I didn’t change much from the color sketch, except add some details. I had fun with the rocks. I kept them basically the same as the color sketch, but didn’t restrict myself from letting it unfold as I went. The point is the background, not the foreground. I also saturated the color a bit in the distant mountain to get those rich blues, but kept the edges soft and details to a minimum.  The mid-ground mountain had fantastic windy, path-like clearings, so I emphasized them to draw the eye to check it out.  I also noticed some kind of ground cover growing between the rocks, so a added them in the foreground for some variety.

I can’t wait to give this to my clients!  She and her husband hike in Colorado, so I really hope having this on their wall will be a reminder or inspiration to get out there and experience the real thing.

Thanks for letting me share this with you!

Having Fun Painting a Commission: Step 3 Color Sketch

Painting a commission can be fun without all that pressure.  I’ve learned if I take it a step at a time, it leads to a more enjoyable experience for both me and the client, plus a better painting.  Hopefully it can help you too.  And please add a comment if you have some tips for me and other readers!  If you haven’t read the first two steps, I encourage you to do this first(they’re short posts).

Step 1: Review the Photo
Step 2: Value and Composition
Step 3: The Color Sketch

I left off with a solid value study, deciding to follow the wisdom of Beirstadt in getting the viewer to move into the background view (thanks Albert — yes, we’re on a first name basis now, ha) with a dark foreground, light background. Now, it’s time to nail down the right colors at the right values.  The sketch is still a small scale, rough draft worried mostly about color notes, not perfection.

Color Sketch
6×8″ (tiny) color sketch. Only worried about colors and values, not perfection.

Before getting into the painting, I’ll give the option of a bench just to see how it’d fit.  I’m not so sure it’d add much.  This is a perfect time to paint it in, take a pic and ask them!

Hmm. Let's if a bench would be good in there... now's the time to check. Not so sure.
Hmm. Let’s if a bench would be good in there… now’s the time to check. Not so sure.

Color temperature is a big deal with a color sketch. Cool muted colors (blue and green light grays) make up the distance hills, while the foreground has more saturated warm colors (ochre, deep browns, yellow greens).

I’ll wait to see if the client has any changes she’d like to make, but I feel pretty confident about scaling up to 18×24″ now.

Having Fun Painting a Commission: Step 2 Values and Composition

As I work through a commission painting, here’s the steps I’ve found to take the pressure off painting a commission and make it fun.
Step 1: Review the Photo (might want to read this first if you haven’t)
Step 2: Value and Composition sketch

After determining if the commission suits you, now’s the time to sketch out your idea in simple monochrome.  I’ve found a strong design or composition is mostly determined by values (lights/darks) more then color.  Unless you’re a veteran  pro (not me), it’s much more effective to keep it simple, not tackling value and color at the same time.

The goal was to emphasize the background drawing the eye from the foreground rocky point into the mountain range.  One master at doing this was Albert Beirstadt and the Hudson River School painters.  One trick he used to draw the eye into the background but still have some interest in the foreground was his use of values.  Look how dark the foreground is compared to the background:

Beirstadt's painting uses values to lead the eye into the background. Ref.,_Albert&number=BIA016&artist=13&countsp=15
Beirstadt’s painting uses values to lead the eye into the background. (Ref. link).

This is along the lines of what I’m wanted to do (in my style), so I made a rough drawing, darkening the foreground and lightening the background (below).

Here’s a rough value sketch from the photo to determine values and composition

I also noticed the rocks probably will need to be moved a bit to the right to invite the viewer into the painting, rather than be a visual block. As with Beirstadt’s painting.

Sketch 2
Alterations in composition to invite the viewer into the background more.

Lastly, circle the areas that are point of interest in the painting.

Hopefully, this will build a strong foundation for the rest of the steps. Next step, a color sketch.

Having Fun Painting a Commission: Step 1, Review the Photo

A commission painting is fun if you plan right. Small steps and good communication really help.   Rather charging right into the final painting, and wondering, “Is it good enough? What would they think if I make this little change…?”, take it in steps.  Invite the person you’re doing a commission for to join in with feedback or approval at each step.

Step 1: Review the photo and decide if it’s really something you can put your heart into. Make sure they’ve seen your past work and know what to expect.

For this commission, I’m painting a scene from a rocky outcrop in Colorado.  Being a landscape painter and outdoorsy, this is definitely something I can put my heart into! Here’s the reference photo:

This is the reference photo for the commission.
This is the reference photo for the commission.

Review of the photo: In looking at the photo, I wondered: “What’s the story behind it?”. Why was it taken?  How can I personalize this to be “her” painting? Was the rocky structure and bench and foreground trees more important, or was it the background view? She replied it was the backdrop, which I understand perfectly being a hiker and coming onto a summit or viewpoint.  The bench, being red could be either a distraction or a key part of the story here. While I like the concept, I made sure it was not an important part of the story before starting (it wasn’t). Everything about the painting will support one thing: that “Wow” moment when you see the view from the trail.

Next step: The initial drawing/sketch to look at values and composition.  (Next post)

Figure Commission: Josh giving “Thanks”

"Thanks" 30x40" Acrylic. Josh praying before heading out into the surf.
“Thanks” 30×40″ Acrylic on 1.5″ thick frameless canvas. Josh praying before heading out into the surf. The camera likes to saturate red, but the actual skin tones on the painting are much more like the photo below. (Click on the painting image above to see it more clearly).

A few weeks ago, I had a request for another commission from Cheri of her son praying before heading out into the California surf. Her timing of the request could not have been better. I’m stalled in my Appalachian Trail series for the moment until I learn to paint figures better. For those who paint figures, you know it’s one thing to paint a small study of a figure, and quite another thing to paint one large scale. In small scale, a single brush stroke could be an entire forearm; in large scale muscles, skin tone variations, facial details, painting in layers… it all comes into play. What a great challenge!! I studied Vladimir Volegov paintings for weeks. What an awesome painter! You should watch his YouTube speed painting videos.

Cheri sent this iPhone pic and we chose not to crop the photo and keep it pretty much just as it is.

photo reference
photo reference

I wanted to focus on Josh praying and make all other aspects of the painting revolve around that concept. Here were a few consideration I made: I chose to mute the colors of the background trees and beach and not make the palm trees as tall and distracting. I also chose not the add the people in the background for the same reason. The photo grayed out the color of the water a bit, so I punched up the saturation to add some vibrancy that you’d notice from across a room. It’s a fun beach painting after all. I did bring Josh forward a bit as if he was next to the seaweed in the foreground to emphasize him more. The real challenge was keeping from getting too detailed, especially in the background. It’s a catch-22. If I try and get too detailed blending everything with small brushstrokes, it’s looks like I painstakingly did each part, but if I use a very, very carefully added single bold stroke, it expresses better the enjoyment I had in doing this. It really makes a difference in how Josh will enjoy it too!

When trying to critique myself, there’s a point to just let go and enjoy it. There is no “perfect” painting and never will be. When I ask myself, “Does this capture the anticipation to get out there and surf with his favorite board, but give thanks in prayer before going?”, yes it does. “Did I enjoy it and learn a lot about figure painting?”, absolutely. Does Josh like it? He responded, its “awesome” and he aptly named the painting “Thanks”.

I paint it, he enjoys it: Win-Win.

Thank you, Cheri for giving me this commission!!

Carlton, TX ranch views

Here’s a commission work I’m working through (work doesn’t sound right…”playing with”…better). It’s going to be a fun one for sure!  I asked my great aunt Helen, “What do you love about this ranch?”. Her single response “The view.  I love to look out my window and see the view.”.   I noted things about the view that gives the ranch it’s personality and headed off to do a quick color reference sketch.

Left side of the main view from the window
Right side view from window


This is the 8×10″ study in the field (literally) to get accurate colors the photos can’t seem to catch. Detail’s were left out and can be reference from the pics.


Here’s the first stage in going from the 8×10″ to a 24×36″ panorama. Next, I’ll sketch in the base colors to get the colors/values right.

Blocking in the background.

Done blocking in. Now to go back over it.

Added in the details over the base colors.

24″ x 36″ Acrylic on canvas panel

So, after about a month of painting, leaving it alone.. then painting again, it’s finished.  She loves it!