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.
And I am all caught up to date!
Let me know if there is anything you would like me to address: creative, ethical, time-management, etc.
Sunday, March 22: Another sunny day, though I didn’t get out in it until mid-afternoon. Took a walk with Tony and Carla, after driving to her place so that he could get some of the willow shoots that he likes to root and plant in favorite spots. We stayed six feet from Carla.
Otherwise, a nicely focused yoga practice—I am loving rock star these days—and blog and some paperwork. Emailing in regard to an amazingly still alive prospect for a large commissioned piece, probably a triptych.
I started collaging the Catskill Park section of the Site Map just to see how I am going to go about handling that while marking every single stream in the Catskill Park watershed. This has a long way to go, but provides me with a path to follow.
My palette is mixed to start right in tomorrow morning and do the second layer on the sand flats painting.
Some good news is that I feel that I feel myself coming out of my winter flatness, a lingering malaise that followed death of my mom in early December. I miss her sharply still, but have regained creative traction in the studio that makes it a a sweet pleasure to be alive, puzzling out and making manifest my ideas.
Monday, March 23: Spitting mad about that jerk Rand Paul tracking the virus all over the senate —including pool and gym—instead of self-isolating while awaiting test results. I guess I’d better get in line.
I am worried that Fauci was not at the press conference tonight, after he got a little too honest about Trump in a recent interview.
Some more work on the Site Map in the studio and I have only a few tweaks to go on the sand flats 30″x60″.
Snow today, first not amounting to much and then beginning to accumulate on roadways. Jack and I decided that he should go try to do a food shop in his truck on a day when most folks wouldn’t want to go out, and it was a very successful excursion.
Tony came in from a walk in the snow and brought me outside to see how stunning his solar jar lamp looks tonight, sitting on the stump remnants our old maple tree.
Several times a year, I am approached by a collector who wants a particular kind of image in a size/format that I don’t have available, and so a commissioned piece is the route to go. I recently finished two and am about to start another, so being currently on my mind, I thought I would discuss the process. In many cases, the collectors have work of mine and/or have known me personally for some time, but in others, it all goes through a designer or gallery, and I don’t have direct contact with the buyer. The pastel sketch (really a small, complete version of the image), mentioned below, can sometimes be eliminated if all concerned are very clear on the imagery desired. The description that I share with galleries and collectors is copied below. I have developed a process for creating a commissioned artwork that has so far worked out very well for all concerned, and goes as follows: The collector finds a piece or several related pieces among the photos of my completed work (either sold or in the wrong size) that they like. They then determine the size of the piece that they want, and whether they would prefer an oil or a pastel. I give them a price quote for that size and medium, and then we discuss the imagery that they are drawn to, and how it would relate to the format of the piece that they want (horizontal, square, or vertical). The new piece can have color similar to one of my finished pieces and the landforms of another, and could be the same scene as a square one, but in horizontal, and so on. One thing that I won’t do is exactly duplicate an already executed piece in the same format and medium. Once I feel clear on what I’ll be doing, I do a small pastel, to scale, of the scene that has been worked out. (I will keep this pastel and frame and sell it afterwards, as it is done on spec and not included in the price.) After the collector has approved the sketch, I will need a deposit for half of the price of the piece, and then I will begin work on the large finished painting or pastel. It usually takes me 2-3 weeks to complete the big piece, depending on what else I have going on. Final payment is due upon delivery, and I will handle framing in my usual way, or the client can use his/her own framer if they prefer. Of course, I can only do commissioned pieces within the range of my own style.
A Recent Straightforward Commission
I recently completed this vertical piece of the sun behind a cloud creating a reflected gleam as the water hits the sand at bay’s edge.
A designer in NYC who I have worked with for years, thought that it was the perfect image for clients who have bought my work over the years and were re-doing their dining room—except that it was too narrow. Therefore, I painted the below, with many small differences in addition to format.
It was great fun to look at both pieces in the end and observe which things I liked better about which piece, and also what elements and affects are simply different.
An Early Corporate Commission
Years ago JSO ART Associates commissioned a piece from me for the first-class lounge at Kennedy Airport for American Airways.
The pastel triptych was based on a version of the pastel below, an image I have explored a number of times in different ways.
The finished piece, pre-digital camera for me, has been moved (from a building since torn down), but still graces the wall of an AA hospitality lounge at JFK . (I love it when my art has history!)
I also did these two commissions for JSO within e few years of the AA one, both based on earlier pieces of mine, yet quite different upon completion.
A Complex Commission
A couple who already owned a handful of pieces of mine saw “Contrasting Shapes” online and wanted to purchase it. Upon finding out that it was sold, they decided to commission a piece of their own reservoir view.
After a great deal of back and forth, many photographs of their nearby view, and lots of discussion (all very pleasant, as they are lovely people—always a plus!), we decided on a triptych (for length and interest) that emphasized the folds of the mountains. We also cleared out a few trees (virtually!) to be able to see more water. I did a few pencil sketches to firm up what was going to be in the painting (like the notch on the left) and to get the shape of the water right. Then I did the pastel, 6″X18″ (which I appear not to have a jpeg of).
Painting the final piece involved a great deal of detailed decision-making, since the collectors had been studying and admiring this view for years and were interested in accuracy. Often, when I paint, various details get omitted or changed to serve my vision of the whole, but in this case I had to do both—capture each mountain accurately, while also satisfying my own need for simplicity. The monochromatic palette was a big part of the solution to this duality of intent.
A Recent Commission and Two from Many Years ago
A couple from Washington, DC (also consistently delightful to work with) commissioned their first piece of mine about ten years ago. Having a longstanding affection for the Catskills, they wanted a 24″X48″ painting of the Esopus, our local stream, at dusk. First I did the pastel version, to scale, below.
The final version is below (excuse the bad jpegs of some of these older pieces—I did not really understand the process with my first digital camera).
A year or two later, they decided that they wanted an image of their own town. After seeing a few pictures of their (then) home, I pitched the idea of a vertical, to fit between two windows in their living room.
They were recently interested in acquiring a new painting (number six, by now). They had looked over a number of pieces of mine online, loving two that were not the right size for the wall that they had in mind. The husband contacted me, and together we decided on a commissioned piece that would combine elements of the two that they had liked, which would arrive as a surprise for his wife.
Another Straightforward Commission
A decorator that I have worked with for years had a client who liked “Winter Brilliance”, below, but needed something smaller and more horizontal. They also decided on a pastel.
Since the new piece mostly involved a shift in format, we skipped the pastel phase. Of course, there are plenty of other differences between the two pieces in color, shape and details.
A Commission for my Biggest Collector
The collector who now has 37 pieces of mine (and has a wonderfully decisive and generous nature) between her apartment in NYC and her weekend place in the Catskills wanted a large piece, either urban or road/headlights, for above the couch in her apartment (you can see that wall in my blog post, Open Studio and House Party). She liked the vertical piece below, so we decided on a horizontal triptych with a similar sky.
The pastel triptych.
And below, an installation shot of the finished piece.
A Change in Palette
During one of the shows that I had with Art Forms Gallery in Redbank, NJ before they closed several years ago, someone very much liked the postcard piece, “Autumn Seaside” which was already sold.
He was interested in a similar piece, a bit more horizontal, that had more greens in it, so I did a pastel like the above, working more greens into the areas that already have them.
THEN, it turned out that the collector wanted serious greens—as in a summer palette, so I did the pastel, below.
Finally, the finished piece.
It might look as if these commissioned pieces are a major part of my work (and there are quite a few more than these), but the examples I have discussed have been done over many years. Only once did I find the process difficult at a certain point, and understood that the collector was seeing me as a style and pair of hands to execute her vision. After that I became more careful to be clear that I make the necessary aesthetic decisions as I am painting, after the initial discussion has taken place—which most people assume, anyway.
I quite enjoy doing these collaborative pieces every so often, always making sure that the image that I am painting is something I would be interested in doing anyway.
Afterwards, I am happy to be back in my studio making choices in my usual fashion, following only the interior logic of my longstanding process.