There are many reasons why one might commission a portrait-- to celebrate a wedding or anniversary, to honor a community leader, as a dignified addition to one's interior-- or in Joseph Baxley's case, as a gift of great love and gratitude. When Joseph brought me the above snapshot of his grandparents, asking for a portrait to give them this Christmas, I knew that I was being presented with both an incredible challenge and a chance to do something truly meaningful for the Baxley family. The picture and the story of the people in it had an iconic quality-- the word "All-American" came to mind instantly.
He, Eugene, one of ten siblings growing up in rural Oklahoma during the Depression, lied about his age in order to join the Marines at 15 in 1945. He later enlisted in the Navy the year this photo was taken, 1950, and served a full tour. During the time he spent in the Navy, he was a tailgunner and flew reconnaissance missions over Formosa. After that, by this point married with two childen, he went to college, majored in mathematics, and was able to support and better the lives of his family members by working for the government and at one point even teaching mathematics. Joseph describes him as humorous, hard-working, strong-willed, and still "fiery".
As far as the painting itself is concerned, I have worked with vintage photos and postcards in the past, but usually with more fanciful intentions. With this project, it was imperative, despite the small size of the main reference photo, that the figures look fairly "real" and that the resemblance be strong. With the help of a few other photos and Joseph's feedback at each stage of the process, I was able to re-create the scene with only minimal changes to improve the composition or reduce the "squinting" look of the eyes in harsh sunlight. Since I did not have photos large or crisp enough for a completely traditional rendering, I took a pastel-toned, semi-impressionistic approach, hoping to achieve the warmth of a colorized photo and a style that would evoke the late 40's and early 50's. The finished result is the 24X30 water-based oil on canvas below.
The original photo was taken on the 24th of December in 1950; when Joseph brings it to his grandparents for Christmas this year, it will be 62 years to the day that the picture was taken. It was an honor to be able to do this painting, and I hope that it will bring joy to the wonderful people for whom it was painted!