24 May 2015

Commission! Part I

For the first time ever, I have been commissioned to do a piece of artwork. Not commissioned in the typical sense, i.e., I'm not getting paid, it's a favor for a friend. But my co-worker Daryl saw the paintings I had made and given to several of our mutual friends at the library, and asked me if I would paint something for him, too. Since I am looking to expand my skills and I enjoy a challenge, I said sure.

The difference here is, every time before this that I have given art to someone, it has been something I chose to paint and then gift to someone afterwards. Sometimes the paintings were for a specific person, but I always chose the subject matter and composition.

This time, however, I let Daryl request what he wanted--with some specific limits. Daryl is a big sci fi fan and wanted something thematic, but I told him: No superheroes, no Star Wars or Star Trek, and no copying of other people's artwork. I also told him that I'm much better at still life than I am at either portraits or landscapes. So within those parameters, we agreed that I would make him a Steampunk still life, and started looking at props.

The problem, however, with composing a still life from disparate elements that only exist in photograph form--elements that you don't own and therefore can't photograph for yourself--is that they aren't in the right scale to one another, they aren't in the same lighting on the same surface with the same cast shadows, and you can't move them around or look at them from different angles. So for instance, this mad scientist's "bubbler" Daryl liked is sitting on a table, lit by candlelight, with a neutral background:

while these goggles, being advertised for sale, are silhouetted on white, with no discernible surface or shadow...

...so combining various elements together, sitting on the same surface in relation to one another, is tricky. I puzzled over this for a while, and came up with what I thought was a brilliant solution: a tableau. Probably many people before me have used this method, but when I solved the problem for myself, I was pleased!

I went around my house looking for things that were approximately the same size and shape as the items I wanted to combine. I assembled them on a table whose surface I liked, in front of a wall, in the composition in which I wanted them to appear in the final painting, and I photographed them.

Some items were easy--I had a box the approximate size of the "bubbler," and I placed cardboard toilet paper tubes on top of it to simulate the height and proximity of the glass tubes. I laid my reading glasses on the table as a stand-in for the goggles. I used real books, but with the intention of changing the titles, style, and lettering of the spines. I added in a cool metal candlestick from my collection. For a lab beaker, I substituted a glass pitcher--they aren't identical, but I can extrapolate size and positioning.

I probably crossed a line, however, with my search for a stand-in for the human skull. I went to Trader Joe's and poked around in the selection of gourds for sale. I finally found one that had not only the approximate size and heft, but also somewhat mimicked the shape of a human head. But I wasn't absolutely sure this was "the one," so I stopped a "crew member" in the aisle and asked him to stand still while I held the gourd up next to his head, so I could see if it was the right size to correspond to a skull. If there is a secret "do not help" list at the Encino TJ's, I am now on it!

The bottom line is that there is no substitute for working from life. I now had the sizes and shapes of all the items, laid out in the correct proximity, on a surface I liked, with the shared lights and shadows they would present if they were grouped together. I make rough outlines of the shapes, and then refer to the internet resources to refine my drawings for the specifics of the individual objects.

Here is the refined drawing I made today:

The original top on the "bubbler" was way too tall/out of proportion for the rest of the picture, which is decidedly horizontal, so I chopped off the top and moved the pressure dial down--I hope it works for Daryl.

I'm thinking of giving this painting further depth and complexity by also making up some striped wallpaper for the background, just for some added vertical interest. It would also give it more of a Victorian feel. I could mask for stripes, and then maybe paint a vine pattern into the broad ones. Too busy? Not sure. Maybe I will wait until everything else is painted and see.

I'm hoping to paint this tomorrow, but it may take a few evenings this week as well. More to come!

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