Past Commission: The McKenzie Portrait – SOLD

The McKenzie Portrait Commission

The McKenzie Portrait Commission
30″ x 24″ Oil on Linen Panel
© 2015 Anthony Sell – All Rights Reserved.


About six months ago, I was approached by one of my former patrons to paint a portrait of his two daughters. This was to be a gift for his wife at the end of the year. Since this took upwards of 150 hours to complete, I thought I would talk about the process involved.

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Past Commission: Old St. Mary’s Parrish

Old St. Mary's Parrish

Old St. Mary’s Parrish
Commissioned Painting
11″ x 14″ Oil on Panel
© 2014 Anthony Sell – All Rights Reserved.


This was the reference photo I used for the painting.  I had a photo gig that morning on the East side of town.  I stopped by around 9am, and the church was largely backlit.  I decided a more monochromatic approach would be best for this piece.

This was the reference photo I used for the painting. I had a photo gig that morning on the East side of town. I stopped by around 9am, and the church was largely backlit. I decided a more monochromatic approach would be best for this piece.

This painting was requested via Craigslist. Apparently I beat out many other artists. The painting is a wedding anniversary gift for the patron’s wife. This is a nostalgia piece, capturing the church in which they were married.

After doing some reference photography, I suggested we set the clocks on the steeple to the time at which they were married. This was a well received idea. Just one more way to personalize a painting.

I opted to do this on a heavy canvas with a deep texture to the weave. I am sort of kicking myself for not doing this larger, as at 11″ x 14″ this was really pushing the limit of what sort of detail I could resolve. Some of these shapes are very tiny, and had to be painted and repainted. The hardest part was the texture, it just ate up the paint, which lends itself towards nice scumbling, but for fine architectural details, not so great. Either way, it took some time to get to the point of coverage, where the entire surface was covered, and I could begin to work into the paint. Ultimately the painting took 3 sessions, about 3-4 hours each session.

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Past Commission: Bergman Commission, Wedding Portrait (Gift) – SOLD

Past Commission: Bergman Commission, Wedding Portrait (Gift) - SOLD

2013 Bergman Commission, Wedding Portrait
11″ x 14″ Oil on Panel
© 2013 Anthony Sell – All Rights Reserved.

Reference photo for the Bergman Commissioned Wedding Portrait

One of several reference photos sent. This one included the State Capital building that would appear in the final image.

This painting was an interesting portrait commission. I was contacted in July by Mrs. Bergman who initially wanted me to do a painting live at the wedding ceremony. I explained to her that anything painted in so short a time would necessarily be very small and rather loose in appearance, given that an average wedding ceremony lasts only an hour. (I’m fast, but I’m not that fast). Adding to that the logistics of setting up in a church setting, and this was not my first choice. I offered to work from photographs, that she could send me. We decided that the couple would look for the ideal image among some of the candid shots taken at the event.

Several months passed, the wedding came and went, then the honeymoon, then time to look through the images taken. The couple decided on two images, one of them kissing, but they preferred to have the State Capital building in the background, instead of the red building that was in the original photo. Once I got the images in a large enough resolution, I began working in Photoshop to swap out the backgrounds and frame the composition appropriately for the 11″x14″ format they chose.


This is the second reference photo for the Bergman Wedding Portrait Commission

This is the second reference photo for the Bergman Wedding Portrait Commission. The couple wanted the red building in the background replaced with the State Capital building.

The trick was to recreate the transparency with the veil, and to somehow define the shapes and elements that were ambiguously defined in the reference photos.

Once I had the background masked out, I had to scale and correct the perspective in the image of the State Capital building, then place that in such a way that the perspective and size relative to the couple in the foreground made sense. From this I created three composite images. The first was a black and white image of the layout. Working with a black and white copy, I can make sure that the values are accurate as I paint. Since my lay in is usually in monochrome using Asphaltum, this works well.


Reference photo for the Bergman Commissioned Wedding Portrait

The grid overlay helps me accurately place the elements in the painting, and insures that everything will be scaled to fit the size and format of the panel I am using.

Reference photo for the Bergman Commissioned Wedding Portrait

This was the color composite image reference photo used for the final painting to insure accurate color.

The next reference photo was the black and white version of the composite with a brightly colored grid overlay. This allowed me to take the reference photo and insure that the elements in it were placed accurately on the panel. This also helped me insure the reference photo would be the same size and format as the final painting. Allowances were made for rabbet — the edge of the frame that would cover the painting when installed.

The last reference photo was a full color version of the composite image, that would be used to capture an accurate likeness and proper skin tones. While painting, I also had this image on a monitor next to the painting, which allowed me to zoom in from time to time to see smaller details as the painting progressed. Monitors also have greater luminescence, offering more accurate color.

The lay in process that I often use can be referred to as the stain and wipe method, where I use a dark robust, but quick drying reddish umber pigment in thin washes to place the drawing, mass in the major mid tone and dark areas. I then use a paper towel to wipe out the major light and white areas, using a stiff bristle brush with odorless mineral spirits to remove areas of paint to get back to the ground. By identifying the lightest whites and the darkest darks, the value structure quickly comes together. I don’t get too detailed in this step, as there is a lot of room for correction. It’s a forgiving process.


Bergman Commissioned Wedding Portrait - Stage 1

Stage 1 – Basic placement & lay in.

Once I have things relatively well placed on the panel, I take awhile to begin mixing colors. Throughout this painting I used the following: Grumbacher Titanium White (Soft formula), Winsor-Newton Blue Black and Green Gold, Gamblin Cadmium Yellow Medium and Pale, Viridian, Asphaltum, Perylene Red, Raw Sienna (in only a couple of places), and Utrecht’s Iron Oxide Red.

Asphaltum is probably the most useful of those colors. I mixed this with the blue black for the darkest darks, with white for more purplish skin tones, and with iron oxide red for undertones in the hair. The architecture was largely blue black with white, as was the suit and the dress. The greens and yellows factored into the foliage and trees.


Bergman Commissioned Wedding Portrait - Session 2

Stage 2 – After the second session, skin tones, undertones for the foliage, more development into the dress and suit.

I had several skin tones, some had more yellow, others more iron oxide red, others more perylene red. For each there were three values to start. I had some cool skin tones as well, with perhaps two initial values for those.

With the skintones, I began with the major planes and also put in a very saturated pink for the hands, anticipating that I would knock this down in value and saturation as I progressed. At this point I also began to find the proper silhouette for the figures, looking as much at the negative space as the positive. I also allowed some of the skin tones to go past the edge of the silhouette, knowing that I would be blending and softening the edges in places when I painted in the background. There would be a lot of back and forth with determining the edges.


Bergman Commissioned Wedding Portrait - Session 3

Stage 3 – Developing the building in the background, finding the right values and placement.

In the next session I spent more time on the background, trying to develop the architecture. This involved careful placement of the details such as the windows, railings and columns. I had to determine the values I wanted to use so that the background would read correctly for the light in the scene, and have so much contrast that it would compete with the focal point of the figures. I also began to consider ways to define the transparency of the billowing veil.

Once you have the important things in place, painting a portrait is often a matter of moving on to the next thing that bothers you most, then fixing that. Bit by bit, the image you intend comes into focus. It’s also true that it’s better to do the easier parts first, as once those are in the right place, the right size, value, color, etc., it will be easier to judge against those elements to determine the harder elements (such as the likeness of each face).


Bergman Commissioned Wedding Portrait - Session 4

Stage 4 – Further refining of the building elements in the background.

The next session I spent determining the lower section of the building, the stairs leading to it. That was a tricky area, as the lines could not be crooked and the values should not compete with the rest of the painting, yet the regular and repetitive nature of those shapes made that almost inevitable. On the left side, I could afford to be more loose with these elements, as most of that would be covered by the foliage in the final image. Up to this point, each session was between 1-3 hours in duration. Part of that was due to how packed my schedule was.


Bergman Commissioned Wedding Portrait - Session 5

Stage 5 – Foliage, further refinement of skin tones, architectural elements.

The foliage was a problem. The reference photo really didn’t have enough information to give you an idea of what type of plants these were, and they were so sporadic in the original photo that it would have been more distracting to try to replicate that. I also found the large garden vase to be distracting in shape and in color, and so chose to omit it.

I decided to imply a hedge between the figures and the building in the background. For this I drew upon my extensive landscape painting experience to create credible shapes, and an impression of the light surrounding the figures. This involved a good deal of layering, with the brightest and most intense colors being painted quite thickly.


Bergman Commissioned Wedding Portrait - Session 6

Stage 6 – Further refinement of the skin tones, hair, suit, lapel flower.

This was a shorter session, but importantly, I was able to make more refinements to the skin tones and the hair texture and color. I worked more on the suit and began to define the collar of his shirt and the flower in his lapel.

I also made some minor corrections to the background, particularly the space between the figures. I also went back over the windows, the tree and leaves above. At this point it was getting close, so I sent the patron an update. She said that his head needed work and I agreed. Back to the easel.


Bergman Commissioned Wedding Portrait - Sessions 7-9

Final Stage – Correcting the likeness and final touches.

This next bit was done over a long weekend. Although the changes were significant, I also took a lot of time between them, carefully comparing the painting to my references. This is the critical stage, where you don’t want to make mistakes and have to redo things. I did notice a few important things however, which required scraping down and repainting. The hands were a bit small, the placement of his head needed work, and I finally zeroed in on the proper silhouette of the figures. Once this was done, I took a shot of the painting in the frame and sent it off to the patron. She was pleased.

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