Putting the Custom Back in Customer - Part 1 of 6 / by VH McKenzie

Commissioned works always un-nerve me. Always. 

Every time I accept a commission, half-way through I tell myself that I just won't accept another. The fear of letting down a customer, not meeting their expectations, always fills me with dread. I become a nervous wreck.

Then I push my way through it and all is well with the world. And I accept another commission, the cycle repeats…

I thought it would be interesting to share the process of my latest commission with you -- it was a big one and took a good deal of time (much longer than I'd anticipated) but I documented every step. 

Earlier this year a customer contacted me to see if I would consider  taking on a rather daunting project:  a series of paintings based upon a variety of travel photos she and her husband took while in Italy, Hawaii and Japan.  After a few emails back and forth and the forwarding of several potential photos from which to choose, we agreed upon 6 final images. Three were to be recreated as pen and ink drawings and 3 would be completed with ink and full color watercolor. All would be 9"x12" in their final size.


Here are the 6 photos we settled upon as sources:



After further discussion, we agreed that the 3 on the left would be the sources for the color paintings and the 3 on the right would be the sources for the pen and ink drawings. I de-saturated the 3 on the right in Photoshop, so I would see them only in terms of their value (levels of black-to-white) rather than be distracted by their color:


Let's walk through the steps I took for each - I approached this project differently than I would if I were doing a painting on my own from my own sketches or photo references. I tend to be much more irreverent with my source material and improvise more when creating my own paintings, for example, such as this one:



I'm sure you know that these leaves were not, in reality, purple and turquoise and coral and magenta, right? This is much more of an impressionistic or expressionistic version of the broad green leaves that were sitting before me.

BUT, I feel that when I take on a commission, from someone else's vision or photos, I feel like I need adhere more to what is before me, to be more loyal to the source if the aim is to please someone other than myself.

That being said, I was much more cautious with my preparation than I might have been if I were painting on my own, riffing as it were on the source material. I was MUCH more exacting in my process so that I would be more true to the photos submitted.

Let's go with each painting from start to finish. I'll focus on just one painting per post. First up was the Hawaii black and white. As I said, I stripped the color from the photo, scaled and cropped it to 9"x12" and drew a 1" square grid over the top. I prepped my drawing paper (Arches Cold Pressed Watercolor block) with a similar, lightly penciled grid, so I could create the image on the paper in the proper proportion:



There's a lot going on in this image - whew. I then decided to tweak the levels in Photoshop so I could see more detail in the dark areas. I wasn't quite sure what I was looking at in some places. The "Levels" adjustment let me see more:


I was off to a ripping-good start, as I drew fairly free hand on the paper and then began to add in some ink washes, to create volume and contrast:



And then, I'm sorry to say, I inadvertently my cat, Goose, in my studio for a full day. Of course, he chose to punish me by making himself comfortable on the drawing-in-progress and also, well, who knows exactly what happened here, but he ruined the piece. I'm sparing you the graphic evidence and just sharing this black and white photo of his vandalism: the large stain along the bottom.


Argh!!! It was ruined. I had to scrap it and go back to the drawing board. So a new piece of paper, with new pencil grid lines and re-create the scene. This time I remembered to take a photo BEFORE I began adding any shading. This is the new the pen-and-ink line drawing:


Still a lot going on in this drawing. Whew. But adding some ink washes, in varying levels (dark to light) I was able to bring some more clarity and contrast to the scene:


And here is the final scan, trimmed to 9"x 12" - note that this scan is more true to the actual warmer color of the ink than the photo above:



Ok, one down and 5 to go. And no more feline mishaps, I'm happy to report! I'll be back with the Hawaii color painting progression tomorrow…..