Painting a Commissioned Work

In the February 2008 issue of  Watercolor Artist, urban landscape artist Marlene Steele takes you inside the healthy client-artist relationship. Follow along here as she walks you through the process of painting her commission, Mother of God Church.

Painting Process for Mother of God Church Commission

The drawing was sketched in non-repro blue pencil. I also masked the clock faces on both spires. I mixed and tested a generous strong puddle of the cerulean and the salmon color of the church and using a clean natural sponge, I wet the entire sheet completely. I started with the large sky shape working wet-into-wet. I floated the pale cadmium yellow and a hint of red in the area to the right of the spires. At this point, I knew my sponge could pick up or adjust anything I needed to change. I washed in the blue value using a big-headed squirrel mop—one of my favorite brushes—and I ran a little pigment around the store sign and into the lower street shapes. These vertical brush movements were performed one at a time. Using another SS mop, I added the salmon color in shapes that corresponded loosely as reflections of the light and shadows on the buildings. I also brushed in the ground color on the drug store working around the window shapes. When this was dry, I put the sheet between 2 clean full size blotters and under weight until the next session.

Part of the success of this image was the impact derived from the strong contrast of interesting shapes: the profile of the drugstore, the turreted building on the right and the vertical thrust of the double-spire church. In the next stage, I wanted to develop these 3 characters. I planed and tested my washes for controlled saturation of pigment on a side sheet. Pre-visiting a shape with a slightly less saturated wash helped formulate what I wanted the final shape to do. Some considerations I made were: where will the edges be soft or crisp? If the edge is soft, will it bleed to another color? This pre-visiting action also allowed me to layer a “shape within the shape” when I overlaid the next wash, which was more saturated in pigment. An example in this image is the left edge of the drugstore building. I wanted to plan an interesting edge that would attractively transition into the building shape, but would not distract from the focus in the center of the composition. The layered and progressively saturated washes on the brick contrasted with how the other side of the building read, silhouetted against the sky with the occasional nick to break the line.

On the turreted building, I began with a lighter blue and Payne’s gray washes that didn’t completely fill the shape with color. (I always try to choose interest over accuracy in shape and line.) The spires appeared washed out in my detail photos. I wanted to use an eye catching “cool green” that would complement the brick tones and contrast well with the light sky area. That’s why I beefed up the green wash and used it also on the storefront windows. The window darks are in the palette of the turreted building—smaller shapes that relate to a larger shape—thus relating the two sides of the picture. I augmented shape interest by dropping in stronger pigment while the surface was satin wet; value range within a shape adds interest.

It was important in this work to pay special attention to the drugstore, so I added the final features with care. I like to use a good series 9 finepoint ArtSign brush, and a No. 8 and No. 1 Kolinsky sable. I have several ?-inch synthetics that make good small shapes as long as they keep their edges together. They also make good “lifters” because of their stiffness.

Marlene Steele is a native of northern Kentucky and a graduate of the Art Academy of Cincinnati. In addition to urban landscapes, she also does figurative and portrait work in watercolor, oil and pastel. She teaches workshops in her studio and at the Art Academy of Cincinnati and will be conducting a workshop in Italy in April 2008.

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