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Emma’s Workshop: process and finished piece

by Theo on December 29th, 2010
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At the beginning of this month, a couple of friends from Ravelry approached me about commissioning a custom piece of art for their daughter, Emma. They wanted it to be a portrait of her, based on the steampunk outfit she’d worn for her senior photos. The outfit kicked a helluva lot of ass – motorcycle goggles, a leather vest, clompy boots, and the most amazing full-length red coat. Oh, and a GIANT WRENCH. (Yes, for real. And yes, I’m totally jealous.)  Combine that with the general awesomeness of the people requesting the commission and it was an easy “Yes,” even on a close deadline.

I started by taking a few of Emma’s senior photo shots and sketching her. I’m always a little nervous when I start work on a portrait, so doing a few pressure-free sketches to get to know the subject’s features and expressions helps. Portraits are tricky. I think the key to getting them right is making sure the expression and overall mood of the piece fit the subject. Having multiple photos is so helpful – they provide not only more reference for drawing but a more complete sense of how the person likes to present herself.

In this case, the photos showed me a confident young woman with swagger and an infectious grin.

I went through a lot of completely-illegible-to-other-people thumbnail drawings (not pictured) before deciding on a pose that would reflect Emma’s personality. Her parents said her steampunk persona might be something along the lines of an inventor, so on the final bristol board sketch, I put her in a workshop with trinkets, tools, and books befitting a tinkerer. The spaces on the shelves were later taken up by some objects Emma owns in reality, to add another personal touch.

Next came a lot of very careful erasing to clean up the pencil outlines. Then: watercolor! I went over everything in browns first to make it a sort of sepia tone, then added touches of bolder colors.

The last step was inking. I’ve started doing ink last lately because it keeps the lines sharp and forces me to pay more attention to the colors I’m putting down, rather than treating them as an afterthought. Inking is easily my favorite step in the process, probably because I love my brush pen with a level of heart-eyed adoration usually reserved for things like Jared Padalecki and Nutella. With this new process, inking also marks the piece as finished.

I’m very proud of how this turned out. It was probably the most fun commission I’ve had to date – a detailed little slice of another world with a fantastic subject at the center of it. I imagine the Emma in this portrait spends her days piecing together odd flying contraptions in her workshop and racing them over the conservatory lawn.

This piece also marks the first significant commission of original art I’ve gotten since I started aiming to treat art as a side business instead of just a hobby. The process of working with patrons to get them exactly what they wanted, when they needed it, was an incredibly positive experience. I’ve had a run of extraordinarily good luck with selling my art lately, but this was the piece that convinced me I can be happy making art a permanent part of my living.

Especially since Emma’s dad posted her reaction to unwrapping the finished piece on her birthday.

If something I draw can get a grin like that every once in a while, then the tricky parts of trying to make money off  my art are absolutely worth it.

Holly and Patrick, thank you again (and again and again). It was such a pleasure.

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8 Comments
  1. 'Lista permalink

    Amazing! Stupendous! Remarkable! Terrific! I could go on all day, but I won’t!

  2. Once again, a wonderful wonderful job!!! Now that Keith and I are settled (again) I really need to get our portrait (and Bobble’s) framed and hung. You are fantastic!!!!

    • Nicole permalink

      Thank you! Ooh, will you show off pics once it’s framed and hung?

  3. Knitterotica permalink

    Dang it. I cried when she opened it, because she was so happy. Now, I’m crying again because the whole thing made you happy.

    Also, have the mister get a close-up of the frame for you. It’ll make you laugh.

    • Nicole permalink

      And now I’m tearing up, and it’s become a CYCLE OF HAPPY CRYING.

      All in all, one of the better kinds of vicious cycles!

  4. Knitterotica permalink

    Oh, and I forgot to mention… The strong inking made framing the piece a dream.

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