Recently I created a painting that was my largest single artwork ever. It was a commission work, so only a few people got to see it in person, but I thought I’d like to write about the process and share the painting with you.
Valerie and I met in 2009 when I exhibited at the Toronto Outdoor Art Exhibition. Since then, I have not returned to the TOAE, but Valerie and I have been in touch by email and I have done some commission work for her before. She has also visited my studio while in B.C., but mainly we work together virtually.
It’s always a joy to work with Valerie as she brings a lot of enthusiasm and very few restrictions. She determines the size and then we discuss which existing paintings she likes, and a very general colour scheme. Not surprisingly, we both love the same colours: brights especially pinks and purply blues.
When I work on a commission, it’s a bit stressful, because I’m constantly worried about whether the client will like the final artwork. It’s impossible to put yourself in someone else’s head, and my process is very unpredictable. Since this panel was 40” x 80”, it was even more daunting. So for the first time, I did an actual maquette on a tiny scale.
Directionally, Valerie told me she really liked my new jellyfish paintings, but she was looking for a more abstracted drawing. I had a vision in my head of a painting that used all the resin colours I have. I did this trial piece on two 6” x 6” panels, at a time when we were still deciding whether to do one large piece or diptych. It was a good starting point, as Valerie decided she preferred a single panel and she didn’t like all the red.
Next step was prepping the panel. I apply gesso, let it dry, and then sand. Repeat ten times (at least) until I get a beautifully smooth surface. It feels so nice to apply ink to a satiny surface.
Here’s the ink drawing. I loved the idea of a more abstracted jellyfish, and I think I will move into this direction. It’s an idea of movement rather than replicating the actual jellyfish. This is one way that doing something new, like a commission or a painting for a themed show, can change your painting direction. I also loved the scale here, it inspires me to do even bigger panels.
I showed Valerie the ink drawing, and once I saw it on the computer screen, we agreed it needed more black. I added that and then the fear set in. Once I added resin, it would be final. I would have to start all over with a new panel if I screwed up. For three days, I had the panel up on the wall, eying it as I did other work until I got up the courage to complete it!
And things did go wrong. Mixing large quantities of coloured resin is actually impossible, since they start to cure right in the containers as I’m working! I ended up moving a smoking container of green resin off the table at the beginning of the process. My overactive imagination had me setting the studio on fire, and becoming the building pariah. In the end, I managed to mix up proper quantities of non-flaming resin and achieve the effects I had in my head.
Since resin has toxic fumes, I have to leave the studio before I can see the final result. I returned the next morning to check on the painting and prep it for final curing. When I hung it on the wall, I felt breathless. The painting was so beautiful! I wanted to share it with someone, so I went out in the hall, but at 7:30 am, there aren't a lot of artists even awake. Luckily, Morley, our wonderful building manager, was in and he agreed to come to my studio for a peek. ("Usually people only want me to come in if a pipe is leaking or something," he said happily.) And he was sweetly appreciative. I also took photos so I could show my family. We were leaving that day for Ontario, so I couldn't bring anyone else in.
One unique thing about Valerie is that she likes a surprise. So I while I keep her informed during the process—especially the parts I can change—once I do the resin that’s it. I have the painting packed and shipped and she doesn’t see it until she uncrates it in Toronto. I don’t know how she feels during the waiting time, but I’m always nervous until I hear back from her!
The happy ending: she loved it. Here it is in her home—with the giant bear friend of her two sons. I think they were in camp when the painting arrived, but I hope they like it too. I miss the painting! But the good thing about creating amazing new work is that it inspires us to new heights.