I really couldn’t help thinking, as I sat down before the blank canvas, “Well I may have to start over, but I’ll try it anyway.” I mean, I’ve been making art for about 20 years. And I tell you, I thought, “I wonder if Van Gogh thought that about his work.” If he had that kind of attitude. And if he did, then maybe that contributed to his success. No one’s standard or aesthetic but his own.
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And so I say, with Van Gogh in mind, I embarked on a commissioned painting. It was dreamed up by my client, Jennifer. Her parents just bought a new home in Seattle and their wedding anniversary was soon to follow. Jennifer wanted a piece to celebrate both the new space and her fond childhood memories, as her parents moved out of state. She chose the lyrics to a Rod Stewart song titled, “Have I Told You Lately” because she used to sing it with her mother. She also wanted “little fat birds” because her parents like birds.
The canvas I chose to work with was 24″ x 36″. I kept it as a landscape orientation because the intended space has a low ceiling. I wanted the painting to fit with the proportions of the room to draw the eye downward and back into the space. With that in mind, I began to sketch out calligraphy for the piece to a 2:3 scale for logical transfer to the larger working area. I chose a variation of a script called Engrosser’s. It is a very concise slanted script based on ovals but I wanted the letters to be a bit more open and free, more like handwriting. I kept it reined in though, because I didn’t want the letters to be so carefree that they weren’t legible.
I also began to sketch warblers from photos I found in books and online. I may or may not have used “little fat birds” as a search term to eventually narrow down the subject to warblers. Not being very familiar with drawing birds at all, I sketched them from any different angle I found a photo of. I wasn’t sure where the birds would be in the final design, so I wanted to have many options to choose from. I also needed to train my eye to how the birds should be proportioned. Once you have a good basis of what they should generally look like — how the weight is distributed, the proportions of the body, and the placement of the legs, eyes, and beak — you can start to play with size and shape while maintaining the integrity of the subject. In this case, I kept it simple with the birds just sitting on a branch and facing one another. I added that sketch to the bottom right-hand corner of the calligraphy to complete the design.
As the composition came together, so did the colors. The photo of the room Jennifer’s mother happened to send her as we were planning this piece (!) showed light walls and blue furniture. From there, I decided that the birds should be blue as an accent color, the words a nice chocolate brown to offset the blue birds and beige walls, and the background of the canvas a faux finish type mix of cream, dark brown, and light brown.
I started the painting by mixing up white, brown, and a little yellow for the background. After making what I hoped was a big enough batch for the whole canvas and mixing it well, I added dots of cream and dark brown through the palette but didn’t mix it. That way, I could pick up a few colors with my large brush and they would blend together naturally on the canvas. Luckily, I mixed enough to cover the canvas with enough left for touch-ups.
LETTERS ON THE CANVAS
The next step was to get the calligraphy enlarged and sketched onto the canvas. After some trial and error, I finally used sumi ink and a pointed nib to trace the final draft onto a piece of glass. I then used a lamp to project the calligraphy onto the canvas and trace the letters out. Next time, I will definitely letter directly onto the support. With that said and done, on a bright sunny morning, I used a small brush and some watered down brown acrylic paint to flesh out the letters. I went over that a few times to get that nice rich brown I had in mind.
I painted them in simply with a medium to dark blue just to establish a basic color. I added darker blue for the feathers of the wings and left the head and abdomen of each bird light blue. I picked up an even lighter blue and spots of white with my small round brush to make the feathers that appear where the wings of the birds meet their bodies. It was important to me to have the variance in range between highlights and shadows because I needed the viewer to be able to differentiate the feathers from each other and from the other parts of the bird. Finally, I added the eyes with highlights, the beaks, and the feet.
The painting needed a lighter color to balance the density of the birds and the depth of the letters, and to bring out the light parts of the background. I mixed up a light cream and with a stiff square brush, I created leaves around the birds and around the lettering. This also gave the painting depth and a better setting. After everything was dry, I sealed the painting with 2 coats of a varnish for acrylic paint to even out and protect the surface from dust, damage, and sunshine. Lastly, I installed hanging hardware so that the happy couple could get it up on the wall without hesitation!