A Large Commission/ Art in the Time of Coronavirus
In this post I will be documenting the planning, preparation, and creation of a 6’x8′ painting for returning clients through my Rhinebeck gallery, Albert Shahinian Fine Art.
The project has presented special challenges because of state restrictions imposed due to Covid-19. The planning began before our abrupt quarantines, and the piece was finished in late May, framed, and installed June 6th.
I met these folks at a reception at the gallery on February 15th. What followed was a 31 email chain discussing various possibilities for their beautiful, big wall:
They already had a good-sized marsh painting of mine, acquired from ASFA years ago when the gallery was located in Poughkeepsie:
A sea view was always the idea, either open sea or with Chatham sandbars or with big surf. I sent multiple jpegs with ideas and they sent me many others. It seemed that they liked several of the ideas and had to go through a process of narrowing down, until they honed in on their choice, a view of blue sea, sandbars, and Monomoy from a favorite bit of beach in Chatham, MA.
These were a few of my pieces that they were drawn to initially:
In an email about 25 in, the clients were dialing in:
- In the first attachment, Moving Clouds: we really like the way you have angled the beach in contrast to the horizon. We feel this will work well with your rendition of the CBI waterfront. We also think that having a more active sky would be good, since the water is usually tranquil inside the bar.
- The second attachment shows the near shore section of the beach that we hope you might be able to represent similar to the way you already mentioned, “show just a bit of beach, a simplified swath of beach grasses off to the right… And some sky interest.” We would like to see more beach than grass though. We recognized that you would not be painting the scene exactly as is, and that is fine with us. We are going for something that looks natural, but for those of us who know the area, we can easily imagine it as the same section of shoreline.
- The third picture can be found at the following website. We really love the colors and contrast of the water and the nearshore beach, the middle bars, and the bright sand of the outer bar. We are hoping you could incorporate these elements along with the above.
All of this made perfect sense, after the discussions that we had already had. And since all of it is also perfectly within a subject matter that I hold dear and in my signature style, I was more than happy with their choice. That it wasn’t a tweaked or reformatted version of something that I had done before made it exciting and fresh.
I was lucky with several of the logistics that could have proven difficult under quarantine. First, that I could have a stretcher made in the needed size through my Vermont custom stretcher-makers Brickyard Enterprises—that they were healthy and willing and had the supplies. Next, that when I contacted Claussens linen in Belgium I was assured that the weight linen that I like to use —for its lovely slubbed surface–would be fine for a canvas of that size. Lastly, that I could get a porch drop-off delivery from Brickyard, since this canvas would not come even close to fitting in my Volvo wagon.
I always start a commission with a study, usually oil on paper and small, in the 8″x10″ range but to scale with the desired piece. Approval of the study is sought before moving forward. I agreed with the clients that the size of the painting called for a larger study, and when I realized that I had a 30″x40″ on hand , perfectly to scale with 6’x8′, I suggested that we do a way bigger study…seemed to make sense with a way big painting.
The day before the delivery of the stretched canvas, the clients decided to come by for a porch-viewing of the 30″x40″ study, since they were having a hard time seeing the true colors from the jpeg. I was so glad that they did, since it put a few questions to rest, and they left very happy.
Priming with my usual off-black gesso proved to be a challenge. I usually do this flat, but realized that I wouldn’t be able to reach the middle section that way, so I opted to prop it on the ground against a table that I use for various outdoor jobs. I wired the back of the stretcher to the sides of the table with picture wire so that the wind wouldn’t catch it, which turned out to be a wise precaution later in the day when the breeze picked up.
I positioned the canvas so that the sun didn’t hit the front, since the gesso goes on more smoothly if it stays damp.
The first coat is wettest and the last coat the thickest, following an oft-used maxim in painting, thick over thin. I sand lightly between coats, and even very lightly, at the end.
By the end of coat #3, five hours later, I was exhausted. Using a 5-inch house-painting brush, the gesso has to be thoroughly worked into the fibers of the linen, and quickly. The physical part was one thing—wrist and shoulder of my right arm, though I did try to use the left a bit—but the mental another altogether.
My understanding is that repetitive motion releases serotonin in the brain, something that we enjoy with, for example, running or walking. So maybe that explains the level of brain-dead that I felt at the end of the afternoon. It was unlike anything I had felt before, like I was stunned into absolute mental disfunction. You might think that this would be accompanied with euphoria, but it was not!
The next day, canvas back in my studio, I was not satisfied with the evenness of my priming job and, knowing that once I started painting I would be stuck with whatever it was, I did a forth spot- coat and some very careful sanding, and then got the canvas back up on my easel (with help…a two-person job).
Next up: mix a palette, making a range of blues, sand colors, and a few greens, and adding nice amounts of my wax medium for easy spreading on the absorbent gesso.
Establishing the horizon line was the first step in applying paint. For such a large canvas, it is hard to see proportion while working up close and impossible get a level line without measuring. I used, as I have before, a standard equation for proportion, in this case x is to 72″ (the height of my canvas) as 30″ is to 40″, the height and width of the study: and so I came up with the placement for the horizon and measured across a few times. The sea does need to be level at the horizon, gravity doing its work. Then eyeballing it, I decided I wanted it a little higher.
Many passages in the painting of this large version can and will be spontaneous and based upon a lot of coming forward to paint and backward to examine. But given how hard it is to see proportion while working up close, it has been very helpful to measure based on the study and not reinvent the wheel at every turn. I calculated that one inch of study is equal to 2.4″ in the large piece, and then deviated a bit where I saw fit as the painting evolved.
This clip of video catches a bit of the of the process:
The next week, a pic of the painting after one layer was completed:
The composition and all of the major shapes have been worked out, following what was established in the study and then shifted a bit where it felt natural to do so.
I add layers of paint to an area based on what, to my eye, needs brightening up. For this painting, it ended up being three to four layers, with the original dark gesso showing through very subtly to mitigate flatness. I am at heart a minimalist, so often less is more in terms of detail; but within each area there is a good deal of color shift and soft brush work.
Going up in size means more play in each area of color. For example, going from a swath of green salt grass on the outer bar an inch high in the 30″x40″, to two and a half in the 6’x8′ gave me room to segue from varied warm greens (with quite a lot of white in them) above to some burnt reds at the edge of the sand. This created a visual link to the reds in the lighter sand colors, and also explores the warm green to warm red color-wheel interaction (think olive green to burnt sienna).
This is the final version, signed off on when the collectors visited for another yard viewing. You can see the difference in luminosity.
The way that I explain my version of minimalism is to point out that if you try to pack too many elements into a painting, it is hard to fully see and appreciate any of them. Further, the openness of large shapes and soft edges creates a strong composition that works with the image, or view, to invite contemplation. In that way my pieces are very much about the painting as abstraction, while also expressing a strong sense of place.
Named Chatham Bars by the collectors, signed in front with my initials and labeled on the back with my name, title of the piece, medium, dimensions and date, the piece was ready for framing. The final step in the whole process for me was to get the piece to my framer extraordinaire, Geoffrey Rogers, in Pine Hill. It’s a short hop from here, but still required hiring a mover, due to the size.
The clients had requested a walnut floater frame, so Geoff created his own molding, which he hand-finished. He suffered a broken collar-bone in the middle of the process after a bicycle mishap, so help from his son moved the project forward to completion. Here is the painting in the shop, awaiting pick up from Albert Shahinian.
I wasn’t there for the installation, which was carried off by Albert and another art installer that he brought on board, with help from the clients. As you can imagine, getting a large painting up on this wall was a process.
This project was particularly meaningful for me in the midst of staying home during the pandemic. It not only created a complex, multilayered point of focus for me, but also worked so beautifully as metaphor—a very large canvas of a particularly open and expansive view being created within a set of constraints unprecedented in our lifetime.
Special thanks to my husband Jack and son Tony, one of whom had to help with every out-into-the-sun and back into the studio later; each up-and-down from the easel to work different sections; and the final in and out of the truck for delivery to my framer. One day when unexpected dark clouds blew up and I was home alone, I managed to get it into the studio with no damage to myself or the painting…which made me appreciate all of the help even more.