An Unconventional Family Portrait: A Journey into the Creative Process

May 27, 2017

I was commissioned by Taunia, a chemist and mother of three, to paint a family portrait. This commissioned painting was her and her husband Mike’s Christmas gift to each other, and something they’ve been considering for a while. I have known the family for a few years (their kids are students of mine) and they have an awesome family dynamic that is quirky and unique. I wanted to capture their family spirit in a painting different than the traditional family portrait.



Initial Creative Meeting


When we first met to chat about the art commission and initial ideas, the whole family came to visit my art studio. We discussed the approach, colours, overall feeling, and I was granted full creative license to go nuts and explore! This was the first sign of a great client — someone who trusts your expertise and grants you the freedom to push your creative boundaries. I envisioned a portrait with a dynamic perspective, lots of colour, and vibrant symbolism. I tasked Taunia to send me a photo of the family in a cool perspective, with the camera pointing down on them. She sent me this photo, which I thought had a pretty great POV:


Photo 1 - Taken by Taunia’s brother at a recent family gathering. Although his dog made a terrific photobomb, he didn't make the portrait.



Ideas & Composition Studies

In my sketchbook, I played around with some initial ideas for the family portrait painting, exploring the concept of unity/family and the stamp of the digital age. I sent Taunia some rough pencil sketches of initial ideas:

1) A "Photobooth pileup" that shows the family together. It has an unstaged, "awkward selfie" look that is a perfect reflection of the digital age.


2) A “classical family portrait” pose (based on the photo) with a loose mishmash of abstracted shapes and colours, symbolic of the unique family spirit.


3) “Family Circle” -- a unified composition in a bird's eye view with dynamic perspective.


After discussing it as a family, they were torn between the photobooth pileup and the classical family portrait. In the end, they agreed on the classical family composition.



Imagining the Possibilities

I envisioned a colourful, magical, and lively painting with loose, mystical elements as well as natural ones like mountains, trees, snow, and stars. I pictured all the faces in the portrait as realistic, but the background would be abstract and mysterious, with floating elements that told the family story. Inspired by the visual music of Wassily Kandinsky, I sent Taunia some images to help them imagine a style and colour palette:


Both paintings above are works of Kandinsky, painted 30 years apart. Kandinsky had a rare but harmless condition called synaesthesia that let him see some sounds as shapes and colour, and he captured those visions in his masterpieces. He was also known to say he could hear his paintbox hiss as he mixed colours in it!


The first painting is looser and more representational, defined as "post impressionist" while the painting on the right is completely abstract. Both are perfectly orchestrated, balanced with rhythm and colour. Although I'm not usually a fan of abstract art, a reproduction of the second painting hangs in my living room, as it inspires me to interpret the world differently every day. It has an uplifting spirit that cheers me up... somehow the painting feels like a birthday party to me.



Interviewing the Family


Along with the sketch, I sent Taunia a survey to help me get to know the family better. Some of the questions included:


What is everyone’s favourite colour?
What is your favourite place in the world, and as a family?
What animal or mythical creature does each person relate to?

If you could have a magical power, what would it be?

Their answers have me lots of insight and smiles. Being huge Harry Potter fans like myself, I learned that Taunia is a Slytherin, William (son) is a Ravenclaw like me, Darby (youngest daughter) is a Gryffindor, Lydia (far left, older daughter) a Hufflepuff, and Mike (dad) is a muggle...whose preferred magic is computer science. Mike also compares himself to an ogre, while Darby uses her magical powers to transform into a unicorn.
What an awesome way to inspire an artist! 



A Detailed Drawing


With this information, I worked on a more refined drawing: 

I saw the foreground having a magical northern-lights inspired glow with abstracted objects floating around that represent their family spirit….math, science, art, space, and all things nerdy. I made sure to include a sparkly pink unicorn horn in the mix.


In this sketch, everyone is wearing wizard robes….except Mike, who is donning muggle garb. In the background is a crisp, starry night with wispy blue trees and mountains.

Approval & Feedback

About a week later, Taunia responded with her family’s approval and feedback. In the final painting, everyone agreed that they’d prefer muggle clothing over wizard garb. I can appreciate the family's decision to appear dressed like humans. Even though we no longer burn witches, and Harry Potter is now a pop culture icon, I can't imagine what the reaction would be if we were in 17th century or if JK Rowling didn't exist... 

The clothing change was simple, especially since lots of magical symbols were already present. They asked if I could also add the Zelda triforce symbol (favourite family video game) and an Erlenmeyer flask, Taunia’s favourite glassware.


I liked both the symbol and the unique shape of the flask, and agreed to include an interpretation of them. Here is how they appear in the final painting:





The next phase of the project was to capture some photos of the family with better lighting. They came into the studio for a casual photoshoot while I snapped some pictures of everyone, as well as each person, hoping to catch their “signature” expression. I rigged some lights and stood on a chair to match the POV as best as possible. Below is the main image I selected for reference. I still preferred Mike’s expression in the initial photo (more ogre-like).

Photo 2 - Taken by me at the studio (same pose, different POV) with Mike from Photo 1  


Starting the Painting


After the approved sketch, I projected my final drawing onto a canvas, and started laying in flat tones of colour. I usually paint portraits in oil, but this time I decided to use acrylic (which is faster to dry and less messy). I really dislike the flatness of acrylic, so I used some heavy gel medium to give it thicker, visible brushstrokes. I also added a few drops of retarder to the gel medium to keep the paint wet longer for ease of blending. I kept an easel of references on the right with pictures, sketches, and notes. Here is the beginning of the process and a picture of the first day after I transferred the image:


I first toned the canvas with a wash of burnt sienna to give it base, then brushed on some other colours. I used the first phase of the painting to experiment with different colour schemes. In the survey, I asked for each family member’s favourite colour, and used that to decide the colour scheme of the background.



Progress after 7 hours of painting



About 3 sittings later, I was able to get a good likeness on Lydia (far left), and a good start to Mike and Darby (left, middle), but I really struggled with the likeness of William and Taunia (far right).


If I started to feel frustration or fatigue, I just moved on to another part of the painting I was excited about, like the abstracted magical glow in front, or the family spirit. I was looking forward to experimenting with abstraction -- putting the references down and setting my imagination loose. From tetris pieces to bubbles, dragons to pokemon, I had a blast hiding lots of abstracted clues on the canvas.




The 80-20 rule applies to art.


The first 80% of the painting took about 20% of the time. At 20% progress, I had people asking me if it was done already…but it was nowhere near finished! I figured they probably weren’t looking closely enough. The bulk of the time (80%) was spent on the details and finesse, and that list can get pretty long. I spent a lot of time standing back, squinting, giving the piece an honest critique, and adjusting a face over and over until it felt right.


I spent hours unifying the colour throughout the piece and the figuring out the imagined colour of reflected light on everyone’s face. Then, more time went into blurring some edges and sharpening others to create the sense of depth. I could paint for 5 hours, and most of the time no one would even notice a significant difference except for me.

I spent the most time painting and repainting William's face. 


Six snapshots of each stage of the process.

It took 8 times as long to paint William than Darby, and 5 times as long to paint Taunia than Lydia. It someone X-rayed the painting, they would see all the faces shift, changing multiple times, over many layers!



Spot the differences?


In the initial drawing, Lydia is casting a spell with a paintbrush, creating the sparks of colourful light. As the painting progressed, I painted out her hand to leave the source of magic more mysterious and less literal. The brush-shaped wand is still there, representing the magic of art for Lydia, who is an aspiring young artist herself.



I digress...with memories of Art Camp


Lydia and William, her older brother, attended my art camp in 2014-15, and I had the pleasure of working with the both of them on a variety of projects. Here are some of their creations based on the theme “amazing pop culture mashups” -- do you recognize what famous paintings they are spoofing?


William and Lydia at PA Day Painting Camp, 2015


Lydia at Oil Painting Summer Art Camp in 2016.


Lydia has also painted a portrait of me based on a wedding picture -- which I absolutely adore for its simplicity, colour, texture, and natural style. I had the advantage of actually knowing and spending time my subjects -- which is invaluable and rare.



Chaos Fuels Creativity


I’ll admit I’m a pretty chaotic painter. I have a method and a plan, but I’ll paint everything at once and jump around to work on different areas of the piece. Some artists paint section by section, but I will take my brush to whatever I’m inspired to paint...I find it keeps things fresh and the random intuition leads to new ideas and better energy. I was itching to paint the abstracted elements, but I set little goals for myself, like "finish Darby's face and then you can paint the unicorn horn!" or "paint the invisible owl and then come back to William's nose!" It kept me motivated and on task.



The Finished Painting….


After all the tweaking and finessing, I finally declared this family portrait finished. The background hue shifts to reflect each person's favourite colour. The magic flame incorporates some of those colours too, and hold the elements that make the family unique. It was very hard to stop, but it’s possible to ruin a painting by overworking it.

Paul Gardner said it best: "A painting is never finished -- it simply stops at interesting places." I stopped when I was satisfied with the level of finish, the details, and everyone’s likeness. Taunia and Mike came to see it in person before I sealed it with two coats of Liquitex UV Varnish to protect the canvas from sun and water damage.



Final Thoughts


This family portrait took over 3.5 months to complete from the idea phase to finish. It was an amazing project, and I learned a lot from the process. Experimenting with a different medium, exploring abstraction, and connecting deeper with my subjects helped me discover new ways to enjoy painting. 

A week later, I got this picture in an email which brought me profound joy…


Finished painting in the home, with the kids!


Thanks again to Taunia and Mike for giving me such a wonderful project that helped me push my creative boundaries!








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