I am starting preparatory work for an oil painting of Mt. Rainier, a commission from a Seattle collector of my work. In preparation for work on the canvas itself, I have spent time studying the mountain every time there has been a break in the weather for the past six weeks. This is one of the half dozen small watercolors I've completed in that time, from different angles, distances, points of view, in an effort to figure out what I want to say about the peak, as well as give the collector some idea of what I might do.
This commission is an exciting but daunting task for at least a couple of reasons. First, Mt. Rainier is an icon here in the Pacific Northwest, just as Denali (Mt. McKinley) is in Alaska. I lived in Alaska for twenty-five years before I painted Denali for the first time, and I probably would have waited longer if my friend, the writer Frank Soos, hadn't more or less challenged me to do so in an essay he wrote in a museum catalog of my work. Saying something not just different from what others have said, but something personal, about an icon is a task not to be taken lightly. The last thing I want to do is add to the surfeit of picturesque, stereotyped images of this magnificent peak. Like Denali in Alaska, Mt. Rainier is a lofty, powerful presence in this region, visible for hundreds of miles, awe-inspiring in its mass, dominating the surrounding landscape. I want to do something that honors it properly, and I want to make sure I engage its presence personally.
In addition to taking on an icon, there is also the nature of a commission. Each commission is in a way a collaboration between the artist and person who commissions the work. I always want to know as much as I can about what that individual wants, and it's often hard to tease out that information. Most people commissioning a painting are concerned about being too prescriptive, about squelching my creativity, about limiting my options. It's always hard for me to convince them that I can't do anything other than what I want to do, and what I would do anyway, given time. I can only paint the way I paint, and take on subjects I want to take on. I just want to know as much as possible about what they most respond to in my work, and what they envision when they ask me to do something for them. I know that no matter how much they insist they're completely open, they always have a vision. I've never felt boxed in by knowing what the collector wants, and the inevitable anxiety of having an audience of one is somewhat lessened by knowing as much as I can about what he or she thinks and wants.
It will probably be a month or six weeks before this painting is done. I'll spend more time with the both the collector and the mountain before taking on the painting itself, and then see where it leads me.