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I recently created a photo calendar (photos I took of doors of historic homes in my neighborhood) that’s being carried in a few retail stores in downtown Portsmouth, New Hampshire. The process of creating, producing, and finding retailers for the calendar opened my eyes to the world of art retail. So I had the thought of showing a few of my sketchbook paintings to one of my calendar retailers,  Kennedy Gallery. I showed Wendy, the owner, a few of my urban scenes:

Since Portsmouth attracts a lot of tourists in the summer, Wendy said that they’re always looking for work from new artists, especially on Portsmouth scenes.  She thought there was a lot of “energy” in my work—how exciting! So I decided to set out on a mission to paint 8-10 quintessential scenes within historic Portsmouth. My first attempt was a few Sundays ago. It was a crisp, sunny fall day — perfect for hanging out with my paints downtown. Adding to the ambiance, I was accompanied by a crooning mandolin player (and check out those window boxes!):

First, I did an initial composition sketch before tackling the actual painting. I drew in lines to mark off the vertical and horizontal thirds and then laid out the scene in such a way as to place the high-interest areas at the thirds (e.g. the corner of the building at the left third line, the street light at the right third line, the top of the building at the top third line, and the awning at the bottom third line).

Instead of using my Moleskine sketchbook, I cut an 8×10 piece from a sheet of 140# Kilimanjaro paper. I taped the sheet to a plastic board, and sketched with the board in my lap. Setting up the painting this way (using high quality paper, sketching it out first, etc.) somehow seemed more “professional,” and therefore increased the perceived stakes (as in, “You’ve got to get this one right!”), and I found myself being more careful and less loose than I am when painting in my sketchbook.

The sketch took a couple of hours. Another artist (Beaman Cole) had set up an easel across the street, and he came over to chat at one point — giving me the sense of being part of a local artist community. I’m still growing into this sense of being an artist, so that was a boon. Before packing up I clicked a set of snapshots to capture the scene. Back at home, I compiled them into a collage and used this as a reference when I added paint.

Here’s the painting in draft and final form.


This draft was scanned using my 3-in-1 desktop scanner. Kennedy Gallery recommended that I scan rather than photograph, but I don’t think the colors came out very well. But more than that, there were four areas that seemed a little off: the sky, the background trees on the left, the cast vertical shadow on the front of the building, and the horse and buggy.

Sky: I tried to do a sky similar to the sky in one of my Lithuania sketches (Old University), but it didn’t turn out quite like I’d wanted. In the Lithuania sketch I laid down a light wash of ultramarine blue, and then after it had dried I “wandered” with a very wet brush of ultramarine blue to create soft and hard edges of darker blue. It didn’t give me the desired effect in this painting—somehow I ended up with blue blobs that were in the shape of clouds, causing the eye to perceive the blue blobs as clouds. Ellen said that she couldn’t get her eye to see the white as clouds. So I wet the paper along the edges of the darker blue blobs and, using a stiff brush, I scrubbed out some blue to blend it with the lighter areas. This resulted in a less severe version of a cloudy sky. This highlights the difficulty in watercolor of painting negative space (i.e. painting clouds by NOT painting clouds).

Background trees: I liked the effect of sunlight on fall trees in the background, but it just didn’t turn out quite right. The intensity of the colors drew my eye to the left, off the painting. To keep the effect but lose the strength of the color, I lifted out the paint until I was left with more of a faint, distant glow that blends with the sky. Ellen thinks the final version looks like a sunrise coming from the left of the building…

Cast vertical shadow: The front of the building had a shadow that was cast by another building. But when I showed the sketch to one of my watercolor workshop instructors (Joan Gessner), she pointed out that, while technically accurate, the building that cast the shadow is not in the painting, so the shadow looks a little out of place. I lifted out the shadow and did my best to blend.

Horse and buggy: Ellen pointed out that the horse is too small for its position in the painting. Given the size of the people in the crosswalk and the couple walking away in the background, the horse and buggy should technically be a bit larger. I think I paid more attention in the sketch to capturing the horse’s shape and movement than getting the right size. I could have redrawn them, but I really liked how the horse turned out, so I left it. Wendy (at Kennedy Gallery) said this was something that a painter might notice and care about, but that few others would. Plus, in my cropped versions (see Part II off this post), the  horse and buggy are nowhere to be found.

Additionally, I added some paint to the left side of the building to increase the intensity of the shadowed side of the building (and chimneys).

Final Version:

The final version was scanned using a local print shop rather than by my desktop scanner. I think the colors turned out better and I’m satisfied with how crisp the image is. I’m still working on getting a better scan (some of the lightest colors in the sky are lost). Any thoughts on how to get the best digital version of a painting are welcome!

Thanks for your feedback! And stay tuned for further thoughts on creating art for sale — Part II, signing the painting; and Part III, cropping the painting.