I’ve talking around this painting for months now, since last September when it was first mooted but now its time to tell you all about it. I hope you’re sitting comfortably…..
The brief wasn’t one I’d had before. Normally the person who commissions a painting from me is the one who pays for it. But the twist in this one was that the woman who was paying for it, wouldn’t know what it was, only what the end price would be. The man and woman commissioning it wouldn’t know what amount was being spent on it, but they had the conceptual ideas behind the painting. The younger woman paying for it is the daughter of the woman commissioning it, and had some work done by me a couple of years ago so she knows the standard of work I do, and I think (as does her mother) that its a wonderful gift that she has given her mother on her wedding day- a painting of her choice painted especially for her new marriage.
I received the call from the daughter early last September asking if I would be happy to take on the commission, and I was delighted to accept. Since the wedding isn’t until April of this year, I didn’t expect to hear from the mother until early in the new year, but what I hadn’t considered was how excited the mother was at the prospect of this painting. She enthusiastically rang me later that day to arrange to come and see me along with her man two days from then leaving me wondering what the subject matter would be. It could have been absolutely anything, and I was intrigued….
They arrived as arranged and for the first hour Peter and Miranda threw various excited ideas around regarding this painting they wanted. They are middle aged and vastly interested in various things, particularly history. They love Medieval history, Charles II reign and the Stuarts, the Pre-Raphaelites, the Victorian era and the British Empire. They felt that they wanted the background of this painting to mean something to them specifically, perhaps with a feeling of the Pre-Raphaelites, something symbolic, and it needed to look old, and dark and forbidding. As the visit wore on, the ideas became more focused, and they decided on then discarded various ideas before finalising on what they wanted.
The painting was to be of the two of them standing in the churchyard of the church they are to be married in. Whilst they are not religious people they have a strong connection to this church since some of Peters ancestors are buried there. Miranda wanted to be depicted in a simple deep red Medieval gown with a long train swirling on the floor and a gold belt at the waist coming to a vee, tendrils of her hair waving in the breeze. Peter was to be in the black suit and white open necked shirt that he is getting married in, and passing a single white Calla lily to Miranda. This funeral lily symbolises their jobs since they both work in the medical profession and see death on a daily basis. They consider death as being part of life itself. Miranda wanted her black and white cat Rory to be cheekily sitting on the train of her dress as cats are wont to do, and there was to be a lit church candle somewhere within the painting. Peter also wanted me to hide a particular skull and cross bones design that he loved within the picture adding to the death theme. They wanted their faces to have a muted Pre-Raphaelite look to them, with the colours being subdued ochres, greys, dull dark blues, and white, with pale flesh colours. And to my delight they wanted the whole thing to be set at night, in moonlight, with the moon partly visible through scudding clouds. The whole thing definitely had a strong Gothic feel to it.
The first thing to do was to take photos of them, which I did whilst they were with me in my lounge. They were both dressed casually, Miranda in a dress and long cardigan, Peter in an open necked blue shirt and dark trousers and I needed them to be in the pose they were to be in for the painting and since I didn’t have a single Calla lily stem to hand, I used the next nearest thing – a ball point pen!
The day after they’d gone I started with ideas and over the next few days emailed my ideas to them for the working drawing. Peter and Miranda requested a few small changes, and then I could start drawing out the painting. The more observant amongst you are wondering why the snowy owl has disappeared. It originally was part of the painting but they decided that it wasn’t as important to them as the other features so it was removed from the painting. After agreeing the working drawing I drew out the same image onto a 24 x 18 inches canvas, then gave it a first undercoat of acrylic to seal the canvas and give a stronger depth of colour to the oils. I just blocked in strong base colours at this point not overly concerned about the details. The acrylics soon dried and then I could start on the exciting part, the oils! The first coat of oils duplicated the acrylics in tone and colour but that then gave me the basis of the subsequent coats of paint as I built up the shades and hues, the details of their faces, their clothes, the church and background, starting with the sky and working into the background black silhouettes of the trees, the church tower, the grass and gravestones, the couple, the cat and candle. As it was in oils I had to wait for various parts to dry before I could move on to the next layer of colour, but each time it became more and more detailed particularly in the important parts being the faces.
In the painting they are in clothes I haven’t seen them in, although they sent photos of of Peter in his black suit and white shirt for me to use. Miranda and I both love the same style of Medieval gowns, but she sent me some photos for me to understand fully her preference. I spent a few hours searching through the pictures on the internet for suitable dresses as the basis of her dress. They also sent photos of the churchyard leaving it to me to decide which of the angles was the best for the painting. I knew they wanted the church above and behind them so opted for the one where the church was in the top right hand corner, with the moon in the top left corner shining on it. I particularly liked the shape of some of the gravestones, and used them exactly as they are within the graveyard, the monument with the obelisk making a lovely strong negative shape between it and the church tower. All the photos were taken during the day though, so I had to put them in the moonlit setting. I created the church candle without needing source material, but found a lovely single stem Calla lily on the internet to include in the painting. Since there was a standing gravestone at the forefront of the photo I was working from, I decided to incorporate the skull and crossbones design into that rather than hiding it elsewhere with the lit candle gently illuminating it. Then came a big decision, and not one that is obvious when you look at the painting. And this is where I put my own symbolism into the painting. Whether to have lights on in the church, or leave the interior of the church in darkness. If I had put the lights on in the church it would have portrayed Peter and Miranda as religious people, and they aren’t. If I had left the church in darkness then it would have looked empty and dead, and this church is important to them, but they aren’t religious. MMm…… yes, only one option left then, and that is to show the windows reflecting the moonlight, so the church doesn’t look dead but it doesn’t look religious either!
But the biggest problem of all was Rory the cat. I knew what pose I wanted him in, but I hadn’t met him in real life and had to rely on Miranda and Peter taking photos of him. And would he pose for the camera? No, he would not. They valiantly took many photos of him, sitting on chairs, sitting on the floor, lying on the bed, awaiting his dinner in the kitchen, and after many attempts we eventually found a photo of him that was ideal so I could place him where he should be, on the train of the dress, looking cheeky.
So, this painting is of two people who are in clothes I’ve not seen them in, in a setting I’ve not seen them in or been to, at a time of day I’ve invented, with him passing her something that he hasn’t held in his hands or she in hers, with her cat placed somewhere he’s never been, the whole thing lit by a candle that has never existed.
But it works. And it works beautifully. I’m so pleased with this painting, and what it conveys. Miranda and Peter are delighted with it, and she told me that she was more excited about this painting than the wedding itself, and that says a lot. It is symbolic to them, and captures their lives together.
Here is the finished painting after many hours work on it, in oils, and varnished with a matt varnish. The title is “Peter and Miranda, past, present, and future” since it depicts them in the present but with the graveyard past around them, but is given to them as they start their future together as man and wife.