Monday, 17 October 2011

My biggest painting challenge so far...

Here is a painting I completed for a commission a few months ago. It was commissioned from a whole family to be a birthday present for their mother/grandmother. The brief was to have a painting of the whole family together on a Nord Sea beach in Belgium.

Une après midi à la mer du Nord    18"x14"   oil on board

I called it a challenge for many reasons: first I'm not particularly familiar with portraits/figures as 90% of my work is landscape. Secondly this was done from photograph and I've never met most of the people in the painting so it's was a challenge to include 5 adults, 4 kids, a dog and a horse (!) in the same painting and get them all right... Finally this particular scene as such never happened which means I didn't have one photograph to work from, but instead around 50 different photographs/portraits of everybody in various positions/lights/clothing so I had to come up with a suitable composition.

Here is how I did it:

Step1: composition
Before I could even dream of picking up my brushes, I had to come up with a concept, a composition that would enable me to display everybody in positions as natural as possible but still without showing anybody from behind. Being a Graphic Designer in my full time job, I thought I could make good use of my skills and do a photoshop montage using various pictures (some even from google for the background and objects), cutting out people and moving them around until I'm happy with it.

Photoshop composition

Step2: photoshop filter
To test the quality of the composition, get the essence of the light and structure and to erase all the montage imperfections, I applied an artistic filter in photoshop. That enabled me to get a feel if this would work or not as a painting and could see it going somewhere.

Photoshop artistic effects

Step3: sketch
Afterwards I did a quick sketch to place the characters properly.

First sketch

Step4: oil background
Then I started painting the background of the painting (that's the easy bit).

Background painting

Step5: sketch with grid
Then I did an other sketch of the outlines of the drawing and applied a grid to it.

Sketch with grid 

Step6: sketch and grid on the painting
I then traced the same grid on my painting to enable me to easily reproduce the drawing.

Paintting with grid and sketch

Step7: colour blocking
I then started to gradually apply the colours and shapes of the people (and animals!) but I had to keep in mind where the light was coming from and keep it unified as the photographs on the photoshop composition were all from different lighting/colour etc...

Building up the figures

Step8: painting the faces
The trickiest part was probably to get all the faces right and make them recognisable. I kept referring to various pictures on my laptop  while painting to try to get the correct expressions and features.

Adding details with the photo references

I wanted to only suggest the faces but still get them clear enough to be identifiable.


Step6: final touches
Here is the final painting. I added various objects and tried to unify the shadows and light effect.

The final painting

The family was  really happy with it (what a relief!) and I've just heard that the mother/grandmother was really happy too and moved when she received it. I've been told, when she received it, she kept repeating "I love it, I love it, it's beautiful."

So, it was a tough challenge but I'm so glad I did it!


  1. This is a really amazing painting. I can imagine what a challenge it was and thus understand why you are so proud of it. It turned out so well and I know it will be an heirloom that all the members of that family will treasure for generations. I like the softness of your brushwork especially in how you handled the people and animals. You achieved what is to me the hardest thing,capturing enough detail without overworking. Of course your color harmony is beautiful too.

  2. Amazing Painting. Thanks for sharing.

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  3. Hi Valerie.
    A challenge you say? I would say it was an impossible task, but you did it valerie, and brilliantly at that. Your explanations and photographs were brilliant also. Full marks here my friend. All the best.

  4. Thanks Douglas, Seo and Vic! Your comments are much appreciated!

  5. sure took on a challenge... and made a very good job of it. I think it's important to focus on what the client wants when doing a commission. If the family were happy, it was a success, even if it took you slightly out of your comfort zone. Interested to see you using Photoshop filters. I also use the 'cutout' filter which I find very useful for seeing tonal groups.

  6. C'est très intéressant de suivre ton processus de peinture, Valérie, et c'est périlleux d'assembler tant d'éléments séparés, à l'origine! bravo!

  7. Thanks Ian for the comment and the photoshop tip, I need to try that filter. Really like your recent posts by the way, it seems those studio pieces are going very well.

    Merci Sylviane pour le gentil commentaire et contente que l'explication du processus soit utile et intéressante.