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  • Jennifer Gillen

Creating aTribute Painting


Watercolor painting using ashes
This is the finished tribute painting.

It was close to Christmas when a friend contacted me about a very special commissioned art project. At first it seemed like a simple request, a botanical painting depicting a specific flower. As we discussed the project, I grew to understand how special this painting would be. It would be a tribute to her father and her special Christmas gift to herself. Her father enjoyed Strelitzia reginae (aka. bird of paradise) flowers before he passed away. I began to imagine a special composition with multiple blooms on a mystical background.


Then came the challenge: my friend asked if I would be okay with adding some of his ashes to the painting. This challenged me in several ways. I wasn’t sure if ash could be incorporated into a watercolor painting. It seemed like once the painting dried, the ashes might fall out of the painted surface. Experimenting with his ashes was a thought I never entertained. I knew that the process I used had to work the first time.


Another challenge was more psychological and spiritual. Working with human ashes is like having the person in the studio, actually becoming part of the painting. Could my painting be a calm and solid resting place? Could I reverently handle the ashes? Having never worked with ashes, I wondered about the best way to invite the deceased into my studio. It seemed to me that my mindset needed very careful adjustments before starting the painting.


I took on the project after experimenting with salt in thick paint. Salt dissolves when added to water and ash does not. It wasn’t a perfect experiment but it helped me to imagine how thick the paint needed to be. In my experiments, the paint was thick enough that the salt dried into the paint. This showed me how rough the texture of the final painting would be. It was pretty rough. This helped me understand that it was only appropriate to apply the ashes in areas lacking fine details. It also helped in choosing the right kind of paper--cold pressed to provide tiny wells for the ashes to rest.


On the day that I painted with the ashes, it seemed important to create a quiet environment. I eliminated all distractions (phone, pet needs, etc.) and lit a few candles. The atmosphere in my studio was calm and serene. After a few meditations, I started mixing the ashes into the paint. The process flowed smoothly and naturally. Using a shallow bowl kept the ashes suspended in the paint. In a single session, they were completely incorporated into the background of the painting and in some of the leaves. It felt like a quiet, special ceremony.


Commissioned art is always a challenge because I want to paint what the client sees in their mind. And it’s pretty difficult to read minds! But with practice, I have learned to ask the right questions and trust my own vision. Creating this painting was a complete honor and a very special experience.


Do you have a project in mind for a commission? Click here to learn how it works!





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