Yeah, the best part of war is getting home. When I got home I made a complete drawing, full-size, of Sarah and it was on brown paper. I had the painting [Sarah in the Summertime] started within six months after my return from the war, but I didn't finish it until about two years later. I think on the back it has Sarah's age and where it was painted and when. It's dated 1947. I would work on it in between [jobs] I was doing for Life – they were still paying me as a staff member – and commercial things that would come along where I could make some money. The painting was based on a little Kodak photograph taken in the backyard of our house there at 1520 Raynolds Boulevard. I carried it in my wallet all during the war, and when I came back, I decided to set it up again and have Sarah pose. And that's how the portrait grew; [it] is mainly from that pose and that kind of backlight in our backyard when the sun was coming over Mount Franklin. It was a wonderful thing to be able to recreate the image I carried in my wallet, that sort of distant worship.
Tom Lea speaking to Adair Margo, published in Tom Lea, An Oral History,
El Paso, Texas: Texas Western Press, p. 97
I had a snapshot of Sarah which I carried in my wallet during the whole war. It was a good picture of her, taken in the sunlight in our back yard on Raynolds Boulevard. I looked at it, homesick, all over the world. When the war was over, the first painting I began was a full-length life size portrait of Sarah in the same dress, the same pose, the same light as the little snapshot.
It was a painter's votive offering made in the gladness of being home.
I worked a long time making a preliminary drawing in charcoal and chalk, designing the glow of light and the placement of the figure against a clearness of blue sky, the mountains like Mount Franklin, the leafy trees and green grass in summer sunlight, before I transferred the drawing to the canvas. It was a detailed and precisely measured drawing. For instance, Sarah's height of five feet six inches in high heels was drawn on the canvas exactly five feet six.
The painting was done with devotion and without haste, first the back-ground, then the figure, and finally the head. I remember that I worked twenty-six days painting the pattern of all the little flowers on the dress. The canvas would stand in the studio untouched during intervals when other work made immediate demands, but I went back to the portrait each time with an interest that grew rather than diminished. Though I used oils, it was something like painting a fresco: the design was firmly established beforehand, the painting itself was executed area by area within predetermined contours. Two years after I began work on it, longer than any other painting ever took me, I signed it, framed it, and gave it to Sarah. I see it every day in our living room, and I see Sarah…"Sarah in the Summertime" means more to me than I could ever put on canvas.
Tom Lea, A Picture Gallery, Boston: Little Brown and Company, p. 98.