Here is the making of my most challenging commission painting yet. I was asked by my good friend and art patron Karen to repaint an old painting her grandmother had when she was a little girl. It was a painting of a beautiful gypsy woman dancing around a campfire, with all kinds of people in the scene. She told me how much she loved just staring at this beautiful dancing woman. While she was still little, the painting was heired to another relative in another state, and she hadn’t seen it since. She was telling me this story, and I said that if she could get me a photo of the painting, I could recreate it for her. She was thrilled with the idea, and had her cousin take several photos of the painting and send them over. After spending a deal of time compositing all these photos (which was a feat in itself), here is what we saw:
It’s a painting done in the 1920s by an artist named A. Gelff. I have found no record of this painting or the artist online anywhere. Karen hadn’t seen this painting since she was little. Nostalgia aside, there were a few things she decided she wanted to change about it. She wanted to remove a few people, most notably the guy laying on his stomach, showing us a perfect view of his butt. We nicknamed him “butt guy”. We decided to redo those wagons in the top right corner, because they were just terribly drawn. She remembered the fire being much brighter and more fiery, so we’d fix that. She also wanted to make the gypsy dancing woman the center focus of the painting.
With this new information, I decided to sketch a new layout of the painting:
With this sketch approved by Karen, I really had my work cut out for me. The original photo I had as a reference was blurry in most parts, so I had to reinvent a lot of the details. Many of the figures weren’t particularly well-drawn, so I had to rework them. And I had to rework the lightening for lots of things, since I was moving people to the other side of the campfire. And design a new wagon.
I decided to use a very simple color palette, which I believe was pretty close to what the original artist used, based on what I know about painting during that time, and the colors I could see in the painting. I used white, cadmium yellow, yellow ochre, cadmium red, pthalo blue, and black. I paint with this very simple palette often, and I was happy to use it here to recreate this antique look.
Here’s the initial wash of colors, mainly focusing on color temperatures the way I thought they should be distributed around the painting. That’s one thing I thought the original lacked also, was a coherent motif of color temperature. In the original, they just seemed to be scattered about in strange places. I decided to have my piece go from warm to cool, right to left, with the exception of the campfire as the main source of warm light.
Here’s the line drawing of all the figures and such in the piece:
And now I fill in the darkest values in large groups:
And here I remove paint to expose the bare white of the canvas. This lets me paint in my lightest values without using white paint.
The painting is really starting to look promising, which it should even at this early of a stage. Master painter Richard Schmid says that your painting should look great at every stage, in case you croak halfway through the painting. At least you’ll be leaving behind something that still looks brilliant, even though it’s half-finished.
Now I’m starting to use opaque paint for the finishing painting. In traditional landscape painting order, I start back-to-front. So I painted the sky and distant trees first, and I’ll work my way forward. Notice how my trees go from warmer reds on the right (where I imagine the sun may be setting in the distance) and they go cooler and deeper green to the left. I’m sticking with my original motif that I established with my very first washes of oil paint.
Now I add more details to the trees and paint the distant trees/bushes on the ground. I keep the colors less saturated and the value contrast down to imply distance. This is an example of aerial perspective.
Now I do the closer bushes and the fun details in that main tree. Many people used the word “magical” to describe that tree, and I totally agree.
I then painted the entire ground underneath everyone. That way I could paint the figures right on top of it, and the paint layering would look right.
Then I finished that wagon, which was tricky. I found some photo references for horse-drawn wagons, but none of them even came close to matching the lighting that I needed. So I designed the lighting so the wagon would fit in m scene. Lots of warm light from the fire, and then darker, cooler light on the right where the evening blue sky would be reflecting down.
Then one by one, I went through each group of figures and painted them out. I started with the three figures by the wagon.
I then did the band. Oh that’s another thing Karen want to change. In the original, there was a fat guy in a blue coat to the left of the band. She wanted to change it to a girl playing the tambourine, so I had to invent her and paint her in there correctly.
Then I did the two guys playing cards off to the side. They were originally in the foreground, so by moving them to the other side of the fire, I had to rework the lighting to match the rest of the scene.
Then the people in the very foreground, and last-but-not-least, the famous Gypsy Woman herself.
Finishing with the fire, and adding some bushes in the foreground to round out that corner of the scene, and I was done. Phew! This painting was a serious challenge!
Thanks Karen for giving me this incredible challenge, and I know you will cherish this painting for many years.
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