This piece was commissioned by my friends Joe and Lisa. Joe, retired from both the Federal government and the Air Force, now supports his mother-in-law’s cattle ranch in Georgia. Mike is a family friend who helps Joe care for the cows and maintain the property.
Joe had taken this photo of Mike as he was out standing in the field among the cows, heifers, and steers – no bull! Joe was captivated by how happy Mike was and wanted to gift that back to Mike as a symbol of their friendship. Joe and I had a few video sessions discussing what he thought were the important factors and me asking him for additional details. Now, here’s your peek behind the curtain of our process.
When looking at the original image, the first thing that struck me was that I was pretty sure I didn’t want two cow butts front and center. Cropping out those cow butts, though, meant that Mike got cut off at the knees. Not good for him. But it’s just a photo, and I’m an artist. (Similarly, I was able to recreate legs for my dad in Rich Memories.) However, those cow butts took up more than a full third of the lower part of the image. I also intended to focus in much closer on Mike which would mean eliminating the sky and much of the trees in the background.
These crops left the image with a very strong horizontal aspect. And that’s fine, except Mike was still a small part of this herd. Using PhotoShop, I cropped out the two black cows on the left. Now the beige cow was facing away, so I flipped her around to face toward the center of the picture. The little white bull calf is hers, so he stayed right next to her. However, the black cows on the right were moved closer together and further back. This improved the focus on Mike and maintained the context of the environment that was bringing him such joy.
The most prominent color in this scene is green. Yet, it is not the focus. Finding golden yellow on the cow tags and in the flowers, I chose to exploit that by changing Mike’s bright green shirt to the same yellow. I also added a few patches of those same yellow flowers.
The other accent color I chose was the violet from the tag on the black cow on the far right. This is perfect because on the color wheel, purple is the natural complement of yellow. Using complementary colors – or any type of contrast – helps to energize the image. I also integrated purple into the “swamp” in the background, Mike’s cap, and all three cows. (Now you can’t say you’ve never seen a purple cow!)
Now that I’d designed the composition and colors, it was time to fill in the missing details. First on the list was Mike’s calves – his legs, not his bovine companions. Joe provided me with a few photos of Mike in photos where his jeans – but especially his boots – were visible. Another major area where I needed additional references was the beige cow. Because I turned her around, I was unsure what her right side looked like in real life. So, a photo clarified that. A couple of minor references I sought were the numbers on the cow tags and what the flowers looked like.
While I worked from references, there were a few departures from the reference photos. One thing that I had to modify was Mike’s stance. The photo was taken when he was in mid-stride which is fine for a photo but looks a little awkward in art. I tried to give him a more stable but still animated pose.
Also, the original photos looks as though it was taken when it was slightly overcast. I added the illusion of a sunny day by adding shadows onto the grass. There were two other minor changes to the ear tags. For the beige cow, we moved the yellow ear tag from her left to her right ear so that it was visible. We also added a yellow tag to the bull calf.
The surface on which Outstanding in the Field was created was a light grey PastelMat. This is a highly textured paper often used for – you guessed it – pastels. And I did start with a base of PanPastels as it speeds up laying color onto the surface. After that, though, the colored pencils came out! I used two types, both from Caran D’Ache: Luminance and Pablo.
The composition on this piece had many elements, so I thought a simpler framing would be the better option. Every piece I frame is at least double matted. In this case, we just used the off-white color twice. For the frame itself, I wanted a wood that looked like it could be a barnwood.
The other critical part is the glass. For this — and all my commissions — I use glass with an ultraviolet coating designed to protect the colors from fading.
Outstanding in the Field is a good example of how an artist can combine and revise a variety of elements. This is a great way to use happy memories as inspiration for custom artwork for your home. You’ll smile every time you look at it. Were you surprised by the number of changes that were made in developing this artwork? Did this story help you understand how an artist creates from photos?