Russell Johnson Grand Canyon artist

“Majestic Morning” – a commission painting process

When approached with a request for a commission painting, it comes with much excitement and anticipation for a fresh challenge. I have developed a process that works for me and also allows for client feedback. This process is also rewarding for both parties involved! I will describe my process in this blog and share photographs of progress shots and the final painting.

The interest in a commission painting came from a certain collector, a couple who appreciates my loose painterly style. The request first came as an inquiry and a few months later became a possibility. First questions were what size, what paintings do you like of mine, and what other home decor colors and styles can we match. The clients had a niche to fill over the mantle of a fireplace. They shared photos of the space, things they like about their decor, and other paintings that will share the same room. And most importantly, they provided the finished size the would like the framed painting to be. The piece would measure 24×44 inches. (click on images for full size view):

I took notes of colors they liked from a painting they chose on my website. The commission painting will be a vertical piece so I found a similar painting I had done previously. Everything was all to their liking! Even so, I like to be sure of everything and not leave anything to chance. The next step was to write a contract to agree to a commission painting. I wrote down the particulars and details from our conversation in the contract, including the two paintings I will reference and also created a photoshopped “mock-up” of how the painting could look in their space. All was to agreeable, we both signed copies of the contract and I could begin the work. For any artists reading this, I highly recommend getting a deposit at this point to guarantee commitment and to fund the project you are taking on in terms of time and materials needed.

One important step is to create a small scale version of the commission painting to give a chance for client feedback. This study painting becomes a guide for the final painting. I am sure to communicate that the final painting will not be identical to the study and will take on a life of it’s own due to my impressionistic approach to painting. After arriving at a composition considering requests from the client, I completed a 8×14 inch oil painting.

I met with the client to review the study and hear any feedback before enlarging it. They approved of the colors and I emphasized that I would be adding more detail to the large painting. So, now the fun begins! I devised an grid system to keep proportions and scale accurate by using black yarn on the study painting. Then, adding the same grid in pencil to the canvas board (primed canvas mounted to 1/2″ gator board). I prefer a rigid surface to paint on, since I will be using a palette knife to paint. With all the texture created, I want to be sure it is stable and won’t crack years later. I chose to do a grid in halves and thirds. Artists know about the rule of thirds, it’s good to select a spot where these third lines meet for a focal point for the painting. The focal point in this piece is the sun struck yellow rocks.

The next step in a large painting is what I call “roughing it in.” I use a large brush to paint the composition in blocks, not worried about details but placement of shapes and the structure of values. I think of atmospheric perspective, where colors further in the distance are bluer and grayer. I prefer to use Gamblin’s fast matte oil paints for this, they dry quickly and I can get to the final paint application by the next week’s studio day.

Now for the final painting step with the palette knife! During this point in my painting process, I will have spent some time analyzing the roughed in painting and comparing it to the study. I take mental notes of where I will make some changes. I start by working on sections with knife work, liking to work wet-on-wet or alla prima. This way, if I don’t have adequate time to complete a section, I don’t have to fight the textures I’ve created when re-working that area. I make sure to refer to the study and look at the original photograph for some extra details. I chose to add a stronger foreground on this painting by adding a desert bush next to a boulder. Once I feel confident that the piece is ready, I arrange to show it to the client before varnishing. This gives one last oppurtunity for feedback and for any last minute changes. We also choose a frame during this meeting. It’s a big perk that I also work at The Frame & I in Prescott, AZ and have a lot of amazing frame choices at my finger tips. We choose a charcoal gray burlwood with a copper inset. Here is the finished product:

The clients sent pictures of it hung in it’s feature spot above the mantle. I was very pleased with the results. This project was a joy to work on start to finish!

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