Memories of Rob: A Commission Story

Some commissions are definitely more emotional then others (for both the client and the artist) and this recent commission I did for a woman I went to high school with (Deb), definitely falls into the more intense end of the emotional spectrum. I have done many commissions of beloved pets. But this time, I was asked to paint a portrait of a beloved husband.

Deb sent me two photographs that she wanted me to paint.

The picture on the right is Deb and her husband Rob, who had died of MS about a year ago. The picture was taken at Badlands National Park, one of their favorite places. The picture on the left is called “Sunset”. Deb explained that it was a picture they took while at her sister’s farm in Pennsylvania, where she and Rob would visit in the summer the past few years. I learned these details by prying a bit about the backstory of the photographs, so that I could use that information as inspiration while I paint. When I do a commission like this, I want to do my best to capture the memory the photograph evokes for that person.

We discussed sizes, and style — that the landscape would be landscape orientation, and the portrait would be portrait orientation (and yes, it is then that I lightbulb went off in my head as to why they call the orientation landscape and portrait!). Changing the orientation of the portrait photograph meant that I would need to crop a lot out of the photo to make it work. The landscape photo was also a little long for what we decided on size, so I cropped that a bit as well, and used the resulting images for my reference photos.

Deb wanted the portrait to be more realistic, and the landscape to be more painterly. I asked her to take a look at my online Fine Art America gallery, so she could pick out paintings that she particularly liked. That helps me get a sense of her preferences, and I keep those choices in mind as I paint.

I started first with the portrait, because I thought it would be harder, and also help me to get a better sense of Deb and Rob. What I was most moved by in the photograph was the way they held hands — how Rob pulled Deb’s hand in close to him with his large hand holding on tight. I don’t know why exactly, but this was inspiration for the loving bond that I wanted to bring to the painting. And of course, I wanted to get it to look as close to them as possible. The size we chose (12 x 16), is not that large, and acrylic paint is thick, so harder to get small details, but I was determined to do my best. I asked Deb to send me a few other photos of them from the same time frame so I could see different angles and poses.

And then I got on painting! Here were the first progress pics I sent to Deb:

The truth is, that I take progress pictures for myself EVERY time I am done working on a painting for the day. It helps give me perspective, and I often look back on my process. It helps me tremendously as I go.

Deb seemed pleased with the initial progress but also let me know that, although you can’t tell in the picture, Rob has red highlights in his hair and beard, especially when he is in the sun. This is the exact type of feedback I need when I am painting, and I was so glad she shared that with me.

There were nights I felt I screwed up the painting. And then mornings where I fixed it and as elated. That is how it works for me. My husband Jon is always a great support, and he is always honest with me. He reminds me often that he does not know a lot about art, but his feedback usually turns out to be good, because he can just tell me when the painting doesn’t seem right, even if he is not sure what is off.

When I was pretty much finished with the portrait, I turned back to the landscape. I knew since the picture file was named “Sunset” that the sunset was why they took the photo, and I wanted to capture that magic they saw in the sky that night. Sunsets can be tricky because they are made up of so many colors, and it takes a while to discover their secret. (Sometimes I wish they would just sell a paint color called sunset and it could all come out of one tube). But I wanted to get the sky right before I worried about the details of the farm, which would be much easier to paint. Here are some trial and errors with the sky:

(You will notice from the painting on the right that along the way I moved my art space from our basement to my home gym now that my 19 year old birdie is back in the nest. That’s okay, all things I love in one room!)

One thing I learned quickly is that the lighting makes a big difference with the landscape. So I needed to make sure I had very bright light when I was painting. I experimented A LOT, before I got it where I wanted and moved on to the foreground.

We were getting close to Christmas, and I thought I would send Deb some pics and maybe even be able to get the finished paintings to her by Christmas.

But Deb let me know that she was going to be out of town for Christmas, and I should not send them until she got back. (Which is what allowed me to switch gears and do the baseball commission in between!).

So I sent Deb her paintings this week, and truthfully was bit nervous about what she would think (as I always am!).

But when she got them, she sent me a note:

“Oh Eileen! The paintings just arrived, and they are beautiful! Thank you so much for capturing Rob and I perfectly, and the landscape brings me back to Pennsylvania.”

So happy! Painting brings me so much joy, and helps connect me with others in ways I could never have imagined. Deb and I did not know each other well in high school, but now we can share this special connection through the paintings. I feel so blessed.

Thanks for taking the time to read about my process! I have one more commission painting I need to get started on pretty soon (back to a beloved pet!) — and another blog will follow!

Stay well!

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