One Way to Paint a Commissioned Portrait (in 7 easy steps!)

I am one hell of a lucky guy.

CB005298Not just because I have my health (which is for some reason stellar), or a fabulous wife (even stellarer), or even that I have so far avoided many of the miserable pitfalls that ruin so many good people (addiction, divorce, “American Idol”). I’m really lucky because I manage to do something I love and which I’m [arguably] good at, and people give me money for it. And that, bub, is lucky.

One of my loyal patrons in Texas recently asked me to paint a portrait of him and his wife. He’d already bought a couple of my originals and prints, so I pretty much knew what kind of style to work in. What was surprising was the scale. I suggested a respectable 3-feet by 3-feet, but he wanted bigger. This is an oil guy in Texas after all. In the end, it was over 5-feet by 4-feet. That’s a pretty good size, worthy of the Lone Star State.

Anyway, he sent me a photo from which to work. I then scanned it and manipulated it in Photoshop, using the “posterize” function (to divide it into distinct shades) and vertically distorting it a little, not unlike some other art of mine that the client had previously bought. (see: “August 69”, a colorful retro version of Playboy‘s Miss August 1969 which I lovingly and gently stretched, in order to, you know… give her that funkadelic, Fillmore-poster look). Anyway, here you see how we went from the photo to the prototype design for the painting.

client photo

client photo

b/w prototype for painting

b/w prototype for painting

Now I had to embiggen it, and get it up onto canvas. To do this, I turned to my trusty companion. My partner. My best artistic friend since I first discovered it in high school: the mighty Buhl overhead projector:

the Buhl overhead projector

the Buhl overhead projector

This big boy weighs in at just over 2,000 pounds (or so it seems when I have to move it any distance, flipping the bird to the hernia-gods), and it’s worth it. Though now they make little-bitty digital projectors, I’ve had this one for years, and I like it. This thing earns its bacon as much as any piece of art equipment I have. I can sketch a drawing that’s only five inches across and blow it up to five feet across with Herr Buhl up there, without sacrificing the integrity of the original sketch or going through the hassle of “graphing it out” on the final canvas. That not only takes forever, but it’s very hard to get exactly right. I know, I know: art is all about happy mistakes and all that crap. Not for me. In the sketchbook, yeah, sure, I’ll buy that; but once I’m working on canvas, it’s all left brain. I want it done and done RIGHT, and the mighty Buhl is the tool for the job.

my studio, aka: "The Smile Factory"

my studio, aka: "The Smile Factory"

Okay, so I go to the studio (where the magic happens), fire up the Buhl, and project the image onto a large, unmounted piece of canvas. Why unmounted? Why not already stretched? Would YOU want to pay for the shipping of a box over five feet wide and over four feet tall? I thought not. Neither did I. Nor the client. This is why we agreed to do it on loose canvas which I could then roll up and ship in a big tube. This probably cut the shipping cost by 50-60%, and the client easily found someone in Texas to stretch and mount it. [that sounds dirty ] At any rate, here’s the way the design looked once projected onto the canvas, which I’d simply thumb-tacked to the wall of the studio:


lights on

lights off

lights off

Then I simply traced the lines that defined each of the colors I would paint the portrait. I’d decided to do about five colors, earthy ones, but was not sure exactly which colors at this point. I went with a burnt sienna background (it seemed Texas-y to me) and greens for the subjects. I just love green. I’ve done that for other portraits before and it worked so well, I figured “Let’s do it again!”

nice background color

nice background color

Now it’s just a matter of doing the work and filling in the colors. It all comes together once the black is added. Good Gawd, how about just not filling in the eyes and sending it to the client like that? “Whaaaat? I thought I’d make you guys look more MYSTERIOUS, with no EYEBALLS. It’s a STATEMENT!” Yeah, the statement would be: this artist is an ass.

getting the greens right

getting the greens right

adding the black

adding the black...

The final result (below), and I love it. So did the client. Thank you Jeff and Alice! You guys are great.



Filed under original art, pop art, portraits

3 responses to “One Way to Paint a Commissioned Portrait (in 7 easy steps!)

  1. Rob Das

    John, You ain’t gonna believe this, but my dad used similar techniques in 3 of the 4 known paintings he did. (Who knew a psychiatrist could paint) The burning barge, the Avenue des Champs-Elysees, and the portrait of mom were probably started using a Kodachrome slide and a carousel projector. The portrait of mom was stored in a closet and seldom seen. She hated it.

  2. jtebeau

    I had no idea (or at least recollection) that he painted! It’s a killer method, to me and your dad, anyway.

  3. ebiesuwa gbotemi

    The method & the artwork is amazing & great

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