The making of Winter in Old Town Alexandria, Commission Painting

I was hired for a commission painting of Old Town Alexandria by a former resident of the city. Mark and his family went back there during the winter for a vacation, and he wanted me to paint a scene from his trip as a memory of their wonderful vacation. Here is the process for this commission oil painting.

Mark sent me a few dozen of his favorite photos that he had taken of King Street, the main part of Old Town Alexandria. He let me use my discretion and choose the ones that would make the best painting, and together we narrowed it down to this shot:

It’s a nice shot of the city, but there many obvious problems that I had to deal with when creating this painting. When using a photo, much of the color and value information is lost, so I had to accurately recreate that information with oil paint. Mark also wanted there to be fewer cars on the street, and a few more people walking around the sidewalks. We also decided to illuminate the street lamps to give it a little more charm.

One more personal detail Mark wanted to add to the painting was his children. He wanted them in the painting somewhere, so we decided to have them sitting on a bench on the sidewalk to the left. It would be subtle, and only he would know who the children in the painting were, but it would add just that personal touch to really make it a memory for Mark and his family. This is something I specialize in when doing a commission oil painting, is making it uniquely your own by adding little touches like this. Using my art direction (all over email, we never met in person for this project), I had Mark take a photo of his children on a bench at the correct angle. Here is the photo of his kids that he took for me to use as a reference:

Now that we have a place to start from, let’s get started. I always begin my paintings with a charcoal sketch to be used as a value study, and also a run-through for the drawing of the piece. I can solve many problems early on during this stage, and it makes for a much smoother painting experience later. Also when doing a commission, it is vital to work with my customer and show them the early stages of the piece to make sure we’re on the right track.

The final painting would be 30×40″, but this charcoal sketch was maybe 8×10″. He loved the sketch, so I moved on to oil painting. Here is the first undertone of color on the full-size canvas:

I do this initial wash of tone to indicate some values, but mainly color temperature. I want the temperature to shift from the light source down to the masses of buildings on either side of the street. And yes, this scene was an overcast day, very cool light, however I often still start with a very warm under painting because those colors will show through and add much more depth of color. I then do a quick line drawing to make sure my large masses are in the right place:

As you can see from the initial photo that Mark gave me, the scene is quite complicated. And being able to group the entire scene into a few large shapes will make the painting come together so much easier. The major shapes are the groups of buildings on the left and right, the street, and the sky. That’s it. If you can get those major shapes in correct drawing from the beginning, the painting will come together very easily.

Here I’ve started to lay in my darkest values. Right now I’m using a minimal color palette of yellow ochre, cadmium red deep, and black.

And here, while the painting is still wet, I’ve added my lightest values into the painting by wiping away wet paint with a paper towel. This painting process is almost identical to the charcoal value study I started with, with the only addition being some color temperatures. The initial color washes I lay down here will affect the subsequent layers of paint, because oil paint is translucent.

And now I begin with my opaque paint. My full color palette is as follows: titanium white, cadmium yellow deep, yellow ochre, cadmium red deep, alizarin crimson, ultramarine blue, and ivory black. I paint in the traditional landscape order of back-to-front. So I started with the sky and clouds.

Here was one of the problems I encountered when using Mark’s photo: the sky was completely white in the photo. It’s likely that, in person, the sky and clouds had some more interesting details, but those were lost in the photo. So I had to invent some subtlety there to keep things interesting.

I then did the distant hills and river, then started working my way up along the buildings on either side.

I then finished all the buildings on either side. Adding all those details is tough, because you still have to be true to linear perspective. And to make things more difficult, this street seemed to slope down a tad until it leveled out at the river, so the perspective changes as it goes down the street.

I also decided to add some subtle reflections on the ground, perhaps as if it had just rained. This kind of detail can add charm to a scene that may feel incomplete for some reason.

And now it was time to add Mark’s personal touch: his children sitting on a bench outside one of the shops. I used the photo he took for me and added them in. Here’s a closeup:

And below is the finished painting:

Mark was really thrilled with his painting when he got it. I think this painting was a success in many ways. It was much more interesting than just the photo, because when painting you can add a lovely feeling of light that may not have been present in the photo. It also adds an organic feel that makes the scene come alive with motion. I was also able to change the scene in some very personal ways to make the memory more poignant.

Contact me today to commission your own custom oil painting of anything you can think of.

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