Someone recently asked me about making a custom painting from a favorite photograph. It was a great photograph; that is, it was so great, that I worried a painting of it wouldn’t make it a better picture. Thinking long and deep about how to respond to the person, I had about three different trains of thought and decided it would be a good idea to write them down, as well as my response, to use as a guideline when talking to other potential clients about commissioned paintings.
At the advent of photography (stay with me), painters were afraid photography would be the end of the painting business. A couple decades later, the very modern Henri Matisse (work pictured above) replied to a subject who didn’t like his painting, “You want it to look like you? Take a photograph!” Now, no one would ever categorize Mr. Matisse a realist, but his point is important for all types of painters. A painting inherently transmutes a subject. That’s a great word that means to change its nature to something better, to elevate the subject on some level. Frankly, I think that’s why all painters paint. We zero in on an element or a feeling and see if we can show why we think it is worth painting.
So then, what makes a painting a good choice instead of a photograph? I summed it up like this: A photograph is right for capturing a moment. A painting is right for enhancing a moment. Is there overlap? Certainly. And there are different styles of photography just as there are painting. And don’t forget mixed media! There are no rules with art and--more important--with what appeals to an individual.
But when it comes to a commission, both the client and the artist have to be happy. Know that when you approach an artist with your request, she may respond to your chosen subject like Edward Hopper did to the entire American southwest, who said it was too beautiful and therefore “unpaintable.”
When I worked at the Art Institute, I wrote some copy for a calendar sold in the museum store featuring cats in art. I wrote that as animals that are asleep more hours than they are awake, cats make great still life subjects. Many times when I walked past my own cat, I’d poke him to make sure he was still breathing.
I’ve painted him a few times, and he’s a favorite subject because of his ability to stay put, yes, but also his shape. Cats have great lines. Pointy ears, tails, joints, whiskers, and chins make great silhouettes, even when they’re curled up on a sofa. A master of capturing all those articulated lines was illustrator Theophile-Alexandre Steinlen (1859-1923). I bought a little book of his studies Steinlen Cats (Dover Art Library 1980) that I turn to when I need a reminder about what makes the animal look distinctly catty.
My dear cat recently passed away. I’ve been flipping through a bunch of pictures of him I had taken for art reference. He’d often fall asleep in a sunbeam, creating great shadows (thank you, Cat!). He could fall asleep on top of anything, making funny juxtapositions with other objects (books, keyboards, stovetop). He’d fall asleep on top of anyone, making endearing pairings of man and animal. I’ll do more paintings of him, I’m sure. He gave me lots of rich source material, lots of love, and he let me dress him up in a bow tie for special occasions. I owe him for all of that.
When I paint on canvas, I paint four out of five sides of that thing. Two related reasons:
1) So that it doesn’t need to be framed. With attention to the sides, it has an extra level of finish that leaves the painting looking complete from every angle. Some people will tape the sides prior to painting to then reveal the clean canvas beneath; others will paint them black or another color. I think that continuing the picture around the sides gives it more dimension, plus it’s a little surprise. Plus, plus, it’s awkward for me to stop painting on an edge. Like, I wouldn’t frost just the top of a cake.
2) In case it does get framed—with trendy floater frames. The edges of the frame don’t touch the sides of the canvas, so you can see them even if there’s just a slight space between canvas and frame. I think it’s still necessary to pay attention to the other four sides of the canvas.
Bottom line: Framing is expensive, and people want more frosting.
When I chose to paint a photo from a trip to Miami, it immediately reminded me of a painting with a similar perspective by William Merritt Chase. And, boy, was I glad, because I wanted to see how someone else had rendered the rocks from foreground to background. My concerns were 1) keep the line of monotonous rocks interesting 2) create perspective without getting too detailed or too amorphous.
Like Chase, the rocks in my painting are the main area of interest. I gave a lot of space and detail to a couple of foreground rocks. I added texture, too with some palette knife work. Now how to keep it interesting and lead the eye back? I paid close attention to the shape of my rocks and how the light hit them. I went with more contrast between my shadows and light, keeping the light just on the tops. And then I had to give you a reward for following my dark path. Chase stops you in the middle of his painting with something orange lying on the rocks (a blanket? fishing equipment?), then you get to the titular lone fisherman, and finally a boat. I ask you to walk across all the rocks first to get to the cool, clear ocean, a sliver of bright blue sky, and finally a little hot orange crescent of a kite surfer’s kite.
The hardest part for me was pushing the high-rise hotels back far enough. When I took the photo, it was late afternoon. The buildings were deep in shadow and competing with the rocks. I landed on an abstract treatment to get them out of the way but still let you know you’re in a place like Miami. And isn’t Miami kind of abstract? You leave asking yourself, was that place real?
Last year I wrote about painting on wood panels versus on canvases. It was a hate letter to panels. So many artists I admire use panels, and I didn’t get it. I couldn’t get the paint to stick to the surface. Every brush stroke pulled up more paint than I put down. In December I picked up a pack of little panels to try again, and since then I’ve painted almost exclusively on them. I cracked the code!
I read one artist say that she had the same problem I complained of until she switched to bristle brushes. Someone else said to add another coat of gesso first. Nope, nope. The answer for me was in my technique: I changed how I lay down the paint. On the smooth, hard surface of a panel, I needed to decrease the angle and the pressure of my brush to the surface. Apparently, my technique on canvas is more, um, scrubby, like I’m trying to push the paint into it. On panel, I now pull the brush in more deliberate, even strokes. I’m using more paint, too, so that I've got enough for the brush to glide through. My altered brushstroke works as well on canvas, but now I’m hooked on the firmness of panel. I always liked the slight bounce of a brush on canvas, but now I prefer the hard stuff. So, I’m sorry for bad-mouthing you, panels. This is my open apology, and I can tell that you already forgive me. Peace.
Later is what?
After settling into various desk jobs, I always said I'd get back to painting later in life, and later is now. Again means that I tried once before. I decided to write about my painting endeavor, too, as a learning tool, an accountability tool, and to stay sharp in case I have to go back to a desk job. Again.
I love periodicals, and if I weren't trying to devote more time to painting I'd mail paper copies. Sign up here, and I'll conveniently send it (blog posts, sales, and new work) by e-mail instead.