Anatomy of a Commission
Oil Painting Demo
Although I don't advertise the fact, I occasionally do
commission work. I generally only accept work which is similar to what
I normally paint, so if for some reason the commission agreement falls
apart, I can sell the painting to another party.
In this instance, the commission came through one of my
Harold Gallery in Tahoe City, California. Commission
terms were handled by the gallery, so I won't go into that here. The
collectors are a married couple from San Francisco, who had seen my work
in the gallery. They
work of Lake Tahoe, but were avid Yosemite lovers (the husband is on
the board of the Yosemite Fund) and wanted a fall scene of Yosemite Valley.
After sending various images back and forth in emails,
plus a number of phone calls, we decided to do a composite of several
scenes and colorations. The scene is fairly close
to an actual place, but some of the colors and details were borrowed
from elsewhere. One of the main concerns of the couple is that the
painting complements, at least in color, another painting they have in
room. The painting
shown further below, I eventually learned is by Walter Bailey,
a noted muralist and landscape painter of the early 1900's and is somewhat
a tonalist quality. We also decided on a standard size of 30x40.
Below is a narrative of the development of the project.
In some instances, I copied parts of the emails we traded as the process
continued. Since the collectors initially worked with James
Harold Gallery to arrange the commission, I did not actually met them in person until
I hand delivered the painting. Although the collectors didn't mind me
using their names, I will use only her first name
in the narrative.
I first did a small color study of the
final scene. I chose 9x12 as it is the same aspect ration as the
final 30x40 painting. Below is part of an email I sent with a jpg
of the first small study which gives
I have attached a jpg of the 9x12 study... First,
let me walk through the painting a bit...
For the background, I put a little blue in the
sky as you requested, splashed some light across Sentinel
Rock, etc. I left the right side of the cliff face fairly
undefined as this helps lead your eye away from here
and towards the center of interest. I might add a touch
of clinging snow to this area, but not much.
Concerning the large black
oaks, which is the primary center of interest. I actually
painted them several
times, with back light, direct light, with different
shades of yellow and orange, and finally what you see.
This seemed to look the best against Sentinel Rock. I
also added more red than the original photos. I am not
sure if you had specific fall colors in mind, but this
seemed to work the best, at least to me. I also opened
up the oaks a little so the bluish glow from the valley
floor comes through. This really sets off the colors
of the leaves. The bright colors of the oaks needed to
be balanced with the rest of the painting, so I made
one of the small bushes in the far right river bank more
red, and muted the reddish tree in the middle ground.
I added a little more interest to the stream
bank, staggering it rather than just the straight line
in the photos. One thing I want to change in the final
painting is to lower the stream bank slightly, and open
up the middle ground. This will allow me to make the
oaks just a bit bigger.
In response to my first study, the collectors
emailed me back:
We like the study you did very
much, but would like the colors adjusted to better match
our other picture.
We also thought that the study had a sense of winter, with
the gray sky and the clouds and the touch of snow--and
we would prefer a sunnier, fall perspective, before the
first snow. We like the oaks, but were less attached to
the smaller tree in the center which is now a mauve color,
and probably not a good match with the palette of our other
picture. We are happy to have you decide on the size of
the pines--you have a much better eye than either of us!
Let me know what you think.
They also sent me a photo of the other painting in the room, shown
further below, which gave me a better idea of the color of the
foliage they want.
After seeing a jpg of the
other painting in the room, I painted another study with the foliage
more golden yellow to match. I also warmed up the cliffs in the
background to match. I didn't want to just paint over my first
study as I thought it was a good salable painting in it's own right.
I won't walk through the painting
again, but the first jpg seemed to have too much yellow,
especially in the big
trees. It seemed once I painted it large, the yellows would
be overpowering. So, I thinned out the leaves a little
and added a few more oranges & reds. These are actually
a bunch of Black Oaks (or Cottonwoods??) and if I treat
them more like individual trees with their own color it
looks a little better. Also, the cliffs seemed too dark
and blue for a fall scene, so I lighted and warmed them
up considerably, and adjusted the rest of the painting
Painting by Walter Bailey with my study.
I mailed the actual second study to the
collectors and asked them to take a photo of it beside the painting
room. Since cameras, monitors, lighting, etc. can vary widely,
the only way to get
an exact comparison is to have both in the same picture. Here is
my response to Mary:
Seeing the two paintings side
by side is very revealing! The yellows in the Bailey
painting are a little brighter than I thought, but
seem fairly in line with my study. Yes, I can put more
blue in the sky and gray/blue out the cliffs if you
want. There was a method to my madness...
The cloudy skies represent
a harbinger of winter, and I would suggest we might
leave in just a few wisps to keep a little interest
in that area. The very dark, very saturated blue in
the Bailey painting I don’t think would work
across the entire sky, but more something in between.
I originally had the cliffs
grayer and bluer, but thought a little more purple
would represent warmer fall colors
better, but either is fine. In the final large painting,
(attached it again for your convenience) they are
actually grayer/bluer, but still have quite a bit of
and I would like to leave just a touch of purple
on Sentinel Rock, as that draws your eye back into
painting a little more. At any rate, if this sounds
OK with you, I will proceed.
As you can see the yellows in the two paintings
were similar, and the collectors were satisfied with this study.
I had already started blocking in and working on the large final
canvas, but no changes needed to be made as I had not yet reached
the stage where colors were an issue.
My palette here consists of Ultramarine
Blue, Cobalt Blue, Quinacridone Red, Cadmium Red Medium, Sap Green,
Transparent Iron Oxide, Cadmium Orange, Yellow Ochre,
and Cadmium Yellow Medium. I occasionally use other colors, but
this is my primary palette.
I usually pre-mix a combination of Ultramarine Blue and Quinacridone
Red to form a purple. This is usually the only use of Ultramarine
I use in a painting. For most of the blue tones during the painting
process, I usually stick with Cobalt Blue. I also mix Cobalt Blue
Red Deep to get a rich gray.
My brushes are a #12 Bright for about
90% of the painting. I did occasionally use other brushes such
as #12 filbert to do the sky and part of the cliffs. I used the
round in order to get a little softer edge in places.
Starting the final large canvas, I first
drew in the basic composition. Since I had a fairly complete study
need a lot
of detail in the drawing. I did however detail Sentintenal Rock
in the background. The profile had to be correct as it is a recognizable
landmark in Yosemite Valley.
Thought you might like to get periodic updates on
the progress of the painting. The attached jpg is my initial
sketch-in. It doesn't look like much, just a general indication
of major masses. Since I have a study to work from, many
details can be left out of the sketch. The one important
item though, is the profile of Sentinel Rock. Since it
is a recognizable landmark, I have to get it's profile
just right or the painting won't work. I hope to get the
background cliffs done by the beginning of next week as
I will be in Tahoe much of that week.
Normally, I would block in much of the
painting prior to working in detail. However, in this instance
since I had a fairly detailed study to work with, I basically painted
the canvas top down.
The sky and cliffs are painted primarily with
my pre-mixed gray and purple with touches of other colors such
as Cobalt Blue in the sky. I used primarily a #12 filbert bristle
in order to keep the edges soft.
I sent a new jpg to the collectors,
and received this response:
Overall we really love the painting.
There is one adjustment we would like to suggest to see
what you think.
As you will see from the photos (and it's even stronger
in daylight), your painting's mountains have a purplish
cast and the sky is fairly white. These are the elements
that most differ from the Bailey painting. And we our best
memories of Yosemite tends toward gray granite and bright
blue skies--which I think might line up better with the
Bailey. Do you think those adjustments would work?
I now begin the painting in earnest.
I agreed with Mary's assesment that the cliffs were a little to
warm or purple. I used mainly some Cobalt Blue, white, and some
gray to cool them down and lighten them up.
The cliffs are now basically
complete and I start blocking in the foliage and
working my way forward in lighter colors. I use a variety of
colors from Transparent Red Oxide to Cadmium Yellows. Highlight
areas are left for last.
I will do the stream and reflections
last as they need to accurately reflect
Continuing to work on the foliage, I
paint the background evergreens, the large oaks and continue on
bank. I keep using brighter Cadmiums such as Orange and Yellow
in more purer colors as I layer in the foliage.
Here is another update. Much
of the middle ground foliage and stream bank is in,
maybe about 2/3 done. When the painting got large,
the grassy stream bank looked too monotonous, so have
added even more interest with a little erosion, more
rocks, etc. Am still on track to finish the bulk of
the work this week. Once this is done, I usually put
it away over a period of several weeks and look at
it occasionally with a fresh eye every few days to
After putting in most of the stream, I
was starting to become dissatisfied with parts, especially the
Just an update. I have painted in the Merced, fleshed
out more of the
river bank, and put more definition in the left and right banks.
Frankly, I am not happy with the results, but here it is anyway. I
painted and scraped parts of the Merced multiple times and it is still
not right...the small jpg may look OK, but it is a mess, and the Merced
better. I may scrub much of it entirely tomorrow with a fresh look.
rocks on the left stream bank are not right...there is no balance.
I did scrub much of the stream and redo it. It had become too
thick and muddy with paint. I generally paint water fairly thin
without a lot of paint. This gives it a more liquid look as contrasted
with the surrounding ground, which is put on more thickly.
I also scraped out the far left evergreen...
Attached is another jpg of where
I am at now. Since I last emailed, I
scraped and redid the water. Although it still needs more work, it
looks much better now, but you may not be able to tell a lot of
difference just from the jpg.
I also changed the rocks, and the river bank needed something more, so
added a redbud to break it up. I also modified the large foreground rocks,
and may change them more once I get further along. I also painted out the evergreen
on the far left. As I had it, it made the painting look a little claustrophobic.
I need something there to bring your eye back into the painting, so might either
paint another evergreen with less foliage, or maybe a dead tree or leafless
The evergreen on the left is painted back
in with a little less foliage, and the stream is improved.
Attached is another jpg. At this point, all the elements
are in and I consider the painting basically 'complete'.
However, as I mentioned before, I let it sit for awhile
and make adjustments over a period of several weeks with
an occasional fresh look.
Although not readily apparent in the jpg, minor adjustments are
made all over the painting. After emailing the latest jpg to the
collectors, I received this response.
I think it's gorgeous. I have
only two things to suggest: (1) The four boulders in
a row in the lower left corner (starting at the new
tree and reaching into the river) are rather uniform
in shape, I might like some differentiation. (2) I
also think the sky still looks a little grey--I do
love the bright blue mid day sky in Yosemite. What
do you think?
This was the response I was looking for. They liked the work overall,
but also took enough time to go over it in detail to offer suggestions.
||After a few more adjustments and adopting
their suggestions, here
is a little larger image of the final painting.
Since the collectors live in San Francisco,
which is a little over an hours drive, I delivered it personally,
which was the first time we met face to face.
I also brought
my paints along in case they wanted any minor color adjustments.
They liked it as delivered so no further changes were made. Here
of the wall it will hang. The original agreement was to deliver
it unframed. They seemed very pleased and I hope they still are!