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Working with Clients – Portrait Commissions

I haven’t done a process post in a while, so here goes. This piece is for a client of mine who has commissioned a few paintings over the years. She always sends me high quality photos, which I appreciate. Blurry or low resolution photos always make my job more difficult.

tinas-grandkids-mock-upIn any case, I started with this photo here. I took it into Photoshop for a little pre-treatment. The first order of business was to crop the photo to the size of the final painting, making sure I was pleased with the placement of the boys within the frame. I then blurred out the background so that they really stood out.


Once I completed this mock up and got approval from my client, I sketched in the figures. Next, I went to work on the background. In order to simulate the blur effect in Photoshop, I utilized the wet on wet technique. With a brush loaded with clean water, I soaked the whole background area. Then I got some pigment on the brush and started dropping in color. Because the paper was already wet, the colors began to run into one another, causing them to blend smoothly.

After I was satisfied with the background, I moved to the foreground. You may have noticed this ugly greenish-grey on the boys’ shirts and hat. That is masking fluid, used to preserve the white of the paper. It also allows me to freely paint large areas of color without having to paint around small details. I built up the folds of the shirts to my satisfaction before removing the fluid.

Although white, there are still some shadows in the numbers and logos on their shirts, so I added these with some bluish-grey. I have also done some significant work on the older boy’s face.


When I got close to done, I sent a photo of the painting to my client. She felt that the legs in the background were distracting, so I got rid of them. I darkened the background while I was at it, using the darkness to cut out the younger boy’s hair. I sent a photo to the client again and she pointed out that I had aged the older boy too much with heavy shadowing on his nose and around his mouth.img_20161122_153522

Back in Photoshop, I applied a black and white filter to the original photo. This helped me to examine the shapes more closely and discover where I had gone awry. I changed the nose and adjusted the mouth while I was at it and sent it off to the client. This time she loved it.

This is how I work with all my clients. I take pains to make sure they end up with the painting they want. The process is fastest when the reference is clear. If you would like to commission a portrait for the holidays, place your order by December 13th. If you live outside of Denver, allow time for shipping. Click here to order.




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The Dream Client

Many freelancers like to talk about their nightmare clients, those people who seem not to know exactly what they want but will happily tell you that you’re doing everything wrong. These folks have little respect for the time and effort you are exerting on their behalf. They ask for re-dos and redesigns of work you both approved but balk at the extra fees you charge for that extra time.

That’s one end of the spectrum. The other end is the Dream Client. The Dream Client knows exactly what she wants and communicates  it well. She is open to your input, but will not blindly follow or reject your suggestions. If, during the creation process, she sees something she doesn’t like, she lets you know and is specific about her needs. This client has great respect for your time and for your skill. She won’t haggle over the price of your work or drag her feet when it’s time to pay.

Best of all, Dream Clients come back for more.  Not only do they purchase from you again and again, they tell their friends and bring you more business. I am so grateful for all of the Dream Clients I have so far. I hope to find many more.

If you are interested in becoming one of my Dream Clients, I am taking orders for the Holidays. Be aware, if you or your loved one lives outside of the state of Colorado, allow for shipping and place your order before December 6th. If you are in the Denver Metro area, you have until the 12th to order.

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Katherine Johnson

I’ve been so busy getting ready for this show, I’ve forgotten to post my last few paintings. Time to rectify that little oversight.

This painting is of Katherine Johnson.

Who is she?

Katherine Johnson was a computer for NASA, back when it was a job description, not a machine. She and a number of other Black women answered the call when NASA was looking for women to work in their fledgling space program.

What did she do?

One of the West Area Computers, Katherine Johnson did the calculations that astronauts relied on for some of America’s earliest space travel. She was so good at her job, even after the electronic computer had been invented, astronaut John Glenn requested that Johnson personally check the machine’s calculations before he took off for his mission on Friendship 7.

Why does that matter?

Katherine Johnson and other pioneers in her field are living proof that women have a place in science and technology. Without her efforts, American astronauts would not have left this planet when they did, and humanity would not know as much about Earth’s place in the universe.

I pushed myself a bit further on this one. I even managed to hunt down a toy space shuttle to indicate Johnson’s importance to the Space Program. I’m enjoying the 3D elements and will definitely be playing with that more in future paintings.

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How I Do What I Do – Part 1

So, there are going to be a number of these because if you are familiar with my Facebook page and my Instagram profile, you have seen that I post my step by step, work in progress pictures. Sometimes I’ll tell you what’s in my head while I’m working, but often enough, I only post the photo. Here, I’ll give you a little insight into what I’m thinking while I work.

Let’s start with my Ray Charles piece. With this one, I actually started with a black and white image. I wanted to challenge myself to build up color while focusing on value. By value,I mean light and dark.

You can see in the first image, that I don’t have any color information to work with, but that’s alright. I used the other reference images, here, to get what I wanted. I only needed a baseline of his complexion to get me where I was going.

From there, I started to work up the tones. Because I was only looking at the black and white image for much of my painting time (I was in the park and didn’t want to carry too many things) I started by thinking like a screen printer and built up the contrast in the lightest color first, my yellow ocher. You can see in the image below that it’s pretty rough. That’s because I was using a large, flat brush to get my color onto my paper. I was intentionally fast and loose and was only thinking in terms of light and shadow. I did not allow myself to blend at all at this stage.

Watercolor portrait of Ray Charles created by me, Adrienne Norris
Ray Charles Yellow

Next, I added my Cadmium Red Hue and started refining the shape the color was taking on. I wanted to be sure that I blended where I wanted a mid tone, but left some of the yellow and white as highlights. You can see that I am much more careful with my color placement and the painting is starting to feel more like Ray. I’m still working with a pretty large brush, but toward the end, have switched to a smaller one. I LOVE Chinese calligraphy brushes for watercolor painting. I love the way they hold water and pigment and transfer it smoothly to the page, and I especially love how sharp a point I can get with them, allowing me to go quickly from thick to thin lines in a single stroke. I can usually get by with one or two brushes at this stage in the painting.

Watercolor portrait of Ray Charles created by me, Adrienne Norris
Ray Charles Red

After the red layer, where I have built up the majority of the complexion, I add the blue layer. This I use much more sparingly, only really hitting the deeper shadow areas. One thing I should mention is that I don’t only apply blue at this stage. I actually start mixing it with my red and yellow to create varying shades of brown. I also mix in two types of blue, Prussian Blue, which has a more greenish tone, and Cobalt Blue, which leans a little bit toward purple. These two, plus the red and yellow, help me achieve the level of darkness I want in the deeper shadow areas. I try to avoid using black directly, as it flattens my paintings. On the rare occasions I do use it, I have mixed it with Prussian Blue and Cadmium Red.

Watercolor portrait of Ray Charles created by me, Adrienne Norris
Ray Charles with Blue

This next step is where I start building up the skin texture. Mr Charles was an old man by the time the original photo was taken, so I didn’t want to give him baby smooth skin. I went in with the smaller of my calligraphy brushes and started putting in marks that both built up the richness in his complexion, bringing back in deeper reds and yellows, and gave the impression of wrinkles, bumps and uneven skin tone without having to actually paint in those things. I also started defining his hair and figuring out what colors I wanted in his shirt, since I didn’t have a color reference for it.

Watercolor portrait of Ray Charles created by me, Adrienne Norris
Ray Charles, textured

Finally, I tightened up the details, added some white scribbles in his hair with a gel pen, darkened all the darks and threw in some colored splotches and swirls in the background to contrast against his skin. I really wanted to emphasize that highlight on his forehead, so I couldn’t leave the paper white. Taking similar browns from his skin tone and leaving a space for the light to live really makes the piece pop, in my mind, and makes him feel like he’s there in 3D, not just a bunch of strategically placed colored marks.

Watercolor portrait of Ray Charles created by me, Adrienne Norris
Ray Charles, almost done

And here is the final. I had it professionally photographed so that it is ready for reproduction. I am VERY proud of how this piece turned out and it definitely served as a turning point for how I approach a portrait. I hope you have enjoyed the story of my Ray Charles painting. I will be posting more of these in the future. Thank you for taking the time to read this. And if you are interested in a print of this or any of my other pieces, please feel free to contact me. I will soon have them available to order on this site.

Watercolor portrait of Ray Charles created by me, Adrienne Norris
Ray Charles




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Father’s Day Portrait Special

With Father’s Day around the corner, I was all set to put out my Father’s Day promotion of $250 for an 8×10 portrait of your favorite dad. I’m still gonna do that, but looking around at my friends’ profiles, I see a lot of new babies, so I’m adding an extra bonus for new dads with a $200 painting of your new bundle of joy. The first 15 to respond get this deal, so make some moves!

Here’s what one Mom got this month:

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The wife and son of a good friend of mine. She absolutely loved the painting when she got it.