Last month I completed a couple of portrait commissions that shared dual themes: family and gray. On the left is a portait of my brother in-law's grandparents, and on the right is a painting of a college friend's son and father.
Both contain a whole lot of gray paint, and honestly that is my least favorite color to work with because I mix up to seven colors to create just the right shade. I was taught to mix my grays rather than add water to black--I don't use black at all--so it is a chore. Also it was March, and the weather was utterly depressing. But a paying gig is a paying gig, and I was happy to create these portraits for Tyler and my pal.
Tyler's family is from northwestern North Dakota, just a few miles from the Canadian border. His grandparents, the perfectly named Alice and Milo, were photographed at a wedding in late December. It's the last photo taken of the couple--sadly, Milo died about a month later. This 20"x16" painting will be a surprise gift for Alice.
I asked Tyler to write a little something about his grandparents, and here's what he had to say: "Their names are Alice and Milo. They were married for 66 years. Grandpa farmed for so long he actually used horses at one point. Grandma was a teacher at a one room school for a while. She made quilts, gardened, canned her own food, and cooked for a small army on a daily basis. They weren't exactly flashy, just incredible people."
The reference photo and pose is super traditional, but the novelty of painting such sweet, elderly faces is made this portrait interesting. And Tyler's grandmother looks so much like him! Tyler's only request was that I move Milo's glasses up on his nose a bit. This was kind of tricky--in the original photo, the glasses covered important eye details that I had to make up.
Nearly everything about Alice was easy to paint. Her skin, hair, and dress were so light, and light colors take less time to paint with watercolor. All the wrinkles and folds provided convenient stopping places as I painted. It's kind of hard to explain this if you don't paint with watercolor, but trust me when I say that older skin is infinitely easier to paint than young skin. I liked painting Milo and Alice's hands, especially that little skin fold Milo's thumb makes as it pushes into the back of Alice's hand. (I'm easily amused.)
The last things I had to paint here were Milo's (gray! hard! pinstripe! harder!) suit, tie, and rose, along with the background. I especially enjoyed painting the shiny blue tie, and the rose had a droopy petal in front with a light area near the bud that added some interest. I gave the painting a blue drapey background. Tyler and his siblings are thrilled with the painting, and I'm not sure how or when he plans to deliver the portrait to Alice, but I hope she likes it! It was an honor to paint these two. 66 years--how inspiring is that?
My friend L. asked me to paint this 20"x16" portrait of her son Sean looking up at her father with admiration. She planned to give the original to her parents. Sean and Grandpa had spent some time sledding together on an overcast, typical Illinois winter day. Grandpa had hip replacement surgery over the summer but was sledding again by Christmas. That immaculate sled is over sixty years old! I created the reference image above by combining two different cell phone photos. I also moved Sean a little closer to his grandfather.
Little Sean's face was only about an inch tall, and grandpa's was only a bit larger, so once again I had to use my tiniest 000 brush. I think Sean's expression is what makes this painting work, so I painted him first. Note the little snowflakes in his hair and on his nose. What a cutie!
Their ruddy faces are by far the coldest I've ever painted, and I had a good time adding extra pinks and reds to their skin. I eventually darkened grandpa's teeth a bit--always a touchy thing to do, especially when they're so small. I sent these shots to L. ("Perfect!") before working on the rest of the painting.
Clothing, sled, snow, background trees... I masked off the big tree and painted the background, starting with a drab blue-gray that you can see near the top-right corner and adding lots of thin, mostly bare trees over the top. I liked painting the woodgrain on the sled. Woodgrain is one of those textures that are easier to reproduce with watercolor than other mediums.
Finally I added the big tree and the grass peeking through the snow. L. was so happy with this painting that she decided to keep the original and give a print to her parents.
I don't make a lot of print money from portraits like these--most people don't want to buy pictures of people they don't know--but if you're interested in seeing examples of my portraits/prints, click here. You can also see works in progress by liking my Facebook art page.
I've been offered a one-person show at the Decatur Area Arts Council in August, so over the spring/summer I will be busy completing new work to fill that big gallery. But after that I will be able to take on more commissions like these. If you're interested in having me paint something for you, please read this and send me a message any time!