Making the house the centerpiece

This painting is my second attempt at a landscape including someone’s house.

I tried to rush the original painting, since the (well-meaning) client kept asking, “Is it done yet?” and the pressure was driving me up the wall. Heavy hints hadn’t deterred the client from being pushy. Saying, outright, “That’s not helpful,” seemed to get lost in the conversation.

The result: Great colors and a truly terrible composition.

After struggling with this work for months, and watching the painting get progressively worse following each comment from the client, I took out a utility knife one night and cut up the canvas.

(I also photographed the pieces, tacked on the wall, as an installation.  It felt very satisfying, though HT was horrified until I explained what I was doing.)

Those pieces are waiting to be turned into something craftsy.  The colors were gorgeous, so I’ll probably use the shredded canvas as beads or dimensional art.

Several weeks later, I could distance myself from the steady pings by the homeowner. That’s when I realized I needed to make the house the centerpiece. It did the setting a disservice, to focus on it as an architectural rendering.

If the painting was about the setting of the house — as if the house was a gem — the imagery might work.

Then, I spent most of a day on site, creating two plein air sketches of the house and its setting.  I began to understand the importance of painting lyrically.

Feeling a sense of relief and accomplishment, I gave those two canvases to the client.  I was pleased with them; I’m still not sure if she was.

(My experience has been: When I simply give art to someone, there’s less than a 50/50 chance they’ll express obvious appreciation of it.  That’s okay.  I’ll continue to give art to people because… well, that’s what I do, sometimes.)

Then, I spent several days photographing the landscape from a variety of viewpoints, near & far, at ground level and from some nearby elevations.  That gave me a broader context for the painting.

northwood1aSo far, so good.  The initial composition worked — laid in with cadmium red paint — and it was building gradually but well.

The photo at left shows the work, as it was a couple of weeks ago.  Several of the red composition lines were still visible at that point.

Though the blue-gray area at the front is supposed to represent a road, I wanted it to connect with the water feature near the house.  So far, that’s not quite working.

Each layer of paint adds more features.  The background is (I think) mostly completed, though I may need to simplify & soften it for perspective.

northwood1Now, I’m working on the foreground.  Every layer and color is being added with the idea of how it will look underneath a later layer.

The photo at right shows its current level of completion.  The red in the foreground will be mostly concealed, later.

Also, I’m altering the road-like proportions so it’s not quite such an echo of the golden area to its immediate right.

(When two areas of a painting are too similar, it can make the finished work less interesting.)

However, I’m rapidly approaching completion on this painting.  Well… as “rapidly” as one can, waiting three weeks or so between layers of paint.  (The thicker the paint and the more white in it, the more time required to dry fully.)

In November, I predicted three or four more layers of paint, with a completion date in late January or during February.

The house will probably remain just a suggestion, with only a few more details than you see now.  It’s the centerpiece, of course, but the painting is about the setting that makes the house dazzling.

I’m eager to see where this painting goes, next!

Update: In mid-February, shortly before my mother died, the client said some truly thoughtless things. Basically, she said, “Oh, your mother’s decline is nothing. Let me tell you what my family went through, so you’ll see what really bad is like.”

Umm… no.  I’d only mentioned my mom’s condition to explain why I was being extra careful to keep my distress out of the painting.

The next day, I realized it was time to stop being tyrannized by that client.  The painting was nearly completed.  I decided that — however it looked at 5 p.m.  — the painting would be declared completed. I am not posting a photo of the completed work because it might clearly identify the client.

However, I was pleased with the work.  It wasn’t my best work, ever, but it was a good painting. And really, the client had only wanted “a painting of the house to fill that spot on the wall.”  It wasn’t quite like what some of us call “motel art,” but the client was more concerned with the subject and painting dimensions (and colors to match her furniture) than the quality of the art.

I never heard from the client again.  Her custom-built home went into foreclosure a few weeks after I’d delivered the painting, and I heard that she and her husband separated.  That helped me understand why the client had behaved so inappropriately.

Further update: I summarized the conclusion in Art as Collaborative Energy.

I will not accept a commission again; it dilutes the energy.  As Seth Godin says in his book, Linchpin, “‘Do this and I’ll pay you’ is a contract, not a way of creating art.”

Now I’m pleased, relieved, and glad to move on to projects with more creative vision and delight!


  1. Architectural Rendering
    Dec 15, 2009 @ 16:34:29

    Hmmm cute pictures. Painting made by a child, looks so.

  2. Eileen
    Dec 16, 2009 @ 10:51:15

    A. R. –

    Thanks for your comment. Since similar things were said during the early Impressionist era, about Monet’s work, et al — albeit as criticism — I’ll take that as a compliment.

    No doubt, you recognized the cadmium red as one of Monet’s techniques, as well.

    Though my medium is paint, not music, I identify with Debussy’s commment, “I wanted from music a freedom which it possesses perhaps to a greater degree than any other art, not being tied to a more or less exact reproduction of Nature but to the mysterious correspondences between Nature and Imagination.”

    Among my contemporary influences are Madeleine Lemire (whom I admire for simplicity and a similar reference to Monet’s genius) and Dave McKean (for color & texture).

    In my own work, I first lay in the design, then the general colors (sometimes an underpainting of the opposite color, for that “glow” in the finished work), then more progressively specific areas of color and details, until the piece is completed.

    If the work conveys childlike innocence, I’ve already accomplished one of my goals. Thank you!

    — Eileen

Leave a Reply