You can imagine my excitement when I received the request from a patron in Texas for a new Madonna for his private residence. As you know, portraiture is a love of mine. And whose portrait would I rather attempt than that of my heavenly Lady, the Mother of God! For a Catholic artist, this is an honor and a dream. I have depicted the Virgin Mary before, but never had such an opportunity to focus on a Madonna painting and produce to the best of my ability in her honor.
The intention was to execute this painting this spring. Coordinating was a bit of a challenge (much like all endeavors these days), with no ability to make advanced plans and everything uncertain. Fortunately, I was able to work with a local model and the other artist friend joining me in the studio is very close by as well — so when the moment arose that all parties were available, we were able to act quickly! The model’s time was very limited and I was under deadline on my latest children’s book illustrations, but we managed to squeeze in a good number of hours in the studio in one week’s time.
My patron had indicated a desire for something along the lines of the Italian baroque images below. The goal was also to capture a Mary with a very youthful look.
A makeshift canopy-type structure from cardboard served so that the shadows would be intense behind her while also allowing the natural light from my window to fall directly on her face, causing a strong compositional contrast and highlight. With this in place, I was able simply and immediately to achieve one of the main elements of these reference paintings: a deep background and very light foreground.
On the Saturday before the modeling week, we all gathered in the studio to set up and Deirdre came to help drape the model so I could set the style for our Marian pose. With the above paintings as my inspiration, I was looking for a color palette and style that was both rich and simple, while also working with the very fair skin tone of the model.
We landed on the combination of white and red with the traditional blue mantle. The white wimple is a fine, beautiful linen-wool blend fabric — the same blend (as we learned from the friend who loaned the fabric to us for this purpose) that would have been reserved for priests’ temple rituals in the ancient Jewish tradition.
After the week’s worth of work with the live model, the halo was the final touch still lacking. After considering a fine, tilted gold ring for the halo, I ultimately landed upon this glow to gently emphasize the holiness of the Virgin. A few subtle changes to the face served to idealize and distance the image from the model’s actual look.
Altogether, the process was rapid-fire due to the constraints of working in the midst of cultural crisis! But all went very smoothly. It was an absolute honor to do this work.
From the beginning of the project, my patron and I had discussed back and forth about the right frame style for this image. That conversation concluded, the choice was a vintage gold frame which arrived here just days ago and with which I’ll be finalizing the painting this coming week before it ships to its final destination.
So, without further ado, I offer you my Morning Star Madonna, an initial contribution to the massive and venerable tradition of Marian oil paintings. My profound thanks to the collector who made this endeavor possible by his patronage! I hope it will be a significant enrichment of his home.
Please stay tuned as I will be offering a very limited number of giclée prints of this image in the coming weeks, exclusively to my newsletter subscribers. It will be my great pleasure to be able to offer high-quality reproductions to a few purchasers so that we can further spread the work enabled by this commission.
Last summer I received a message via Instagram from a woman who comes from a family which, I have since gathered, takes gift-giving very seriously. Mary had a concept in mind for a Christmas gift painting for her mother and wanted me to execute it. It was my honor to do so and the result is Ex Calibur.
The driving meaning of this painting is the long and loving marriage of Mary's parents. Deirdre and I had the pleasure of visiting with Mary when she took a mini road trip to my studio in order to hand-deliver these objects which are of great sentimental value to her and her family, especially her mother. During that visit, she shared with us about the pieces and their significance.
In the painting you see an unusual sculpture that consists of two parts: a cut Steuben glass orb (if you will) and a beautifully crafted sword. The glass represents the Stone of legend and the sword is Arthur's famous weapon, Ex Calibur. Mary explained to me that this sculpture is a treasured possession and meant a lot to her parents (her father has passed away). The couple had discovered it in a shop many, many years previous but it had been outside their budget, so they kept it in mind and saved up for it while raising a large and busy family. They finally purchased it as a celebration of their 50th wedding anniversary. To Mary, seeing it is a reminder of the virtue of patience -- not to be stressed when something takes time or has to be budgeted for, since her parents waited 50 years for this gift!
The rings are her father’s Notre Dame ring and a miniature that he had made for her mother - very important to them as a dedicated ND family! (You know I appreciated this, being class of '08, myself.)
The cards are postcards which Mary and I agreed should be included in the painting. They are souvenirs from the Shrine of St. Anne in Quebec and represent the devotion Mary’s mother has to St. Anne (the mother of the Virgin Mary). Mary noted that her mother enjoys the fact that the feast of that saint falls on July 26 and that she herself also has twenty-six grandchildren.
Working on this painting was an absolute delight, as Mary was an ideal patron. She was excited to share her story and to hand off the vision while also very kindly entrusting the composition and execution to me. We had a great time communicating with her throughout the process and then hearing about how the gift had gone over at Christmastime. She told us that reflecting on the painting has even been a reminder to some of the grandchildren to visit the grave of their beloved grandfather. On a technical level, it was an interesting challenge to communicate the metal and the glass in the medium of oil paint.
It is my hope that this work will prove for many years to be a worthy tribute to a long and devoted marriage and the loving family it yielded. This world needs steadfast marriages and I was very glad to celebrate one this way.
Visit my Commissions page and read Mary’s kind testimonial here.
Perhaps you’ve noted the two coins in the center of the painting, which were my addition (with Mary’s approval). I can tell you what their significance is, but first I’d love to know what your guess is as to their meaning -- tell me your guess in the comments below!
"It's the best gift we've ever given him." A painting commission for Harvard's winningest football coach
Guest post by Deirdre M. Folley
What Christmas gift to get for the winningest football coach in Harvard college history? What if that man is your dad, marking his 25th season and having just enjoyed an exciting win against the prime rival (Yale) at no other location than Fenway park?
This question is what led Molly Murphy to get in touch with us and inquire about commissioning John to produce a painting for her father. The timeline was tight, as Christmas was only a matter of weeks away. But I knew that John - a dedicated football fan - would absolutely love to take this painting on. We decided he could squeeze it into his studio schedule before the holiday.
Molly provided John with an inspiration photo and some other resources (including this video which gives a flavor of that gameday). She and her siblings were requesting a painting that would capture the drama of the football game at Fenway park as well as the details of their father, Coach Tim Murphy, working from the sidelines with his players around him. They decided on a custom size that would fit handsomely above a mantlepiece.
John provided Molly a concept sketch (above) for her approval, and then it was full steam ahead on the canvas.
John on his creative process:
"I was really excited by this commission, both as a football fan and as an artist. I loved the pictures from the game and the great accomplishment that it represented, but as I was thinking through the composition I knew I wanted to have the painting be more dramatic and more active than any of the photos that I had access to. I altered the perspective and composition to give more of that epic and immersive feel that I was looking for. There is nothing quite like being at a football game live and going to college games with my father has been a very special part of my life since childhood. I wanted this painting to embody that excitement and energy."
Although time was tight, John worked quickly to complete the painting and had it framed and ready to hang, available for pick-up, just before the family went away to celebrate Christmas together.
Early in the new year, I had a chance to talk to Molly about how the gift had gone over. She had these kind words to share about the experience:
I was absolutely blown away by my experience working with John and Deirdre. The whole process was so easy, it was so pleasant to communicate with them, and the sketches were so helpful... John's work is just stunning and I couldn't have imagined it going better, from start to finish.
My dad doesn't get emotional easily, but he was so moved when we presented the painting to him on Christmas morning. He could not believe it. It's the best gift we've ever given him.
We would definitely reach out again on another occasion. I think that this is such a meaningful purchase and overall it was an amazing experience!
What a thoughtful gift idea on the part of Molly and her siblings! It was clear to us that they love their dad and are extremely proud of him.
We’re so delighted that Coach Murphy was pleased with his Christmas morning surprise and that he is currently enjoying the painting in his office. John had a fantastic time with this commission and was honored to have a part in celebrating and commemorating a great moment in college sports.
Guest post by Deirdre M. Folley,
John and I were so excited when we received an inquiry late last year from a potential patron with a vision.
The email was from Jessica (name changed for privacy), who was finalizing plans for the renovation of her new home with her interior designer and needed just the right piece for the focal point of the dining room/living room area. Because the piece she had in mind was inspired by Masters like Caravaggio and de Ring, she needed someone with expertise in classical painting; and with a whole list of sacramental symbols in mind as subjects for the painting, she needed someone with an understanding of and appreciation for Christian imagery. Jessica had heard about John from a mutual friend.
For an artist, there's nothing like getting a request for exactly the type of material he'd love to be doing in his own time!
In a recent newsletter, respondents let us know you'd like to hear more about John's commissioned work. So here's an insider's account of the process behind this painting:
I connected with Jessica over the phone and we discussed the size, the budget for the painting, general expectations about the timing of the project, and how John's process works. She told me that she and her husband wanted a painting that would be a beautiful feature for their living space and also an image that would foster reflection and provoke conversation about the beauty of their Christian faith. Clearly, this was going to be a great fit!
We agreed that he would work closely with Jessica to determine the composition and that he'd put a still life arrangement together for her approval. After a few phone calls and email exchanges, the process was underway! Early in the new year, John got to meet Jessica and her husband Tom at Tom's corporate opening event for which they hired him to do Live Painting. Soon after that, the hunt was on in earnest for just the right components of the composition.
John worked closely with Jessica to hone in the objects that were going to come together to harmonize into the perfect arrangement for this still life. John took a long list of ideas (broken bread, a goblet of wine, grapes, nails, certain types of wood, a fish, coins, olives, a shell... among many other potential items) and scouted out various resources, primarily local antique stores, to find the right items. He had to balance having the particulars that were so meaningful to Jessica and her family with also gathering certain key visual elements that were going to give the composition structure and unity. Since Jessica was communicating from Florida, all of the collaboration on this happened at a distance. The two worked patiently together to come up with a final selection, which John then arranged. After discussing photos of that arrangement with Jessica and Tom, they were able to pare down to the most beautiful and essential elements. As part of John's process in laying out the still life, he completed a brown paper sketch to consider the values:
By late winter, John's patrons had moved into their new home and, with developments from the interior designer, we finalized the exact size of the painting: a grand, 33x39" masterpiece to hang in the living room. John ordered his canvas and stretchers and finally got to dig in on the actual painting process. This has been the main focus of his in-studio work for the past few months and we're finally on the home stretch of the commission.
One note of interest is that the arrangement features a few food items, which had to be real to get the right visual quality. Working with real food adds an element of logistics to the careful planning of the painting. Can you identify the items and guess about the process?
The final painting is just a matter of weeks away, and we can't wait to see it settled in Jessica & Tom's home.
We're happy to answer questions about the process, below! Stay tuned for the final product!
Hello there, I'm John H. Folley. Thanks for visiting the Beauty Advocacy Blog, where it's my job to help you become a more discerning art appreciator.
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