Surprising Sadie, Done

Sadie greyhound portrait
8″ x 10″ Acrylic on Claybord panel
© Xan Blackburn 2014

Wow.  Well, once I got rolling, this just went like a flash!  Isn’t it funny, ha ha, that the painting part of this portrait actually went quickly, but all the hair-pulling, sketching, sighing and laying in bed at night imagining the painting took days!  I should be used to that, but there ya go.

I have to show you some details, as I really enjoy how there’s both opaque and translucent layers, strokes showing over/under strokes.  I like the life, the potential for motion, the undiluted immediacy of the overall effect.

Sadie (eye detail)
Sadie (detail)
Sadie (detail - muzzle)
Sadie (detail)

Okay, I know I didn’t invent impressionistic painting, but it’s always seemed oddly out of my reach ’til now.  Allow me my moment of rejoicing, eh?

Well, now that Sadie is done, and the Portrait Marathon doesn’t start for 5 whole days, what will I do with myself??

I do have a few donations I need to be doing.  Okay, a whole truck-load of donations!  One is a graphic illustrating the different sighthound shapes for easier identification by non-sighthound-savvy rescue volunteers (for Team Inch).  That should be interesting.  Then, there’s the Hope for Hounds collar design for 2014.  And a top-secret project for Kindred Hearts Transport Connection.

So, yeah, no problem with idle hands, here!

The Surprising Portrait of Sadie

How to go from a gorgeous photo to a painting worth the effort?

Sadie reference photo
Sadie, first round reference photo, altered slightly in Photoshop

When I (oh, so rarely!) get a reference photo as nice as this, I’m stuck with an odd quandary.

Usually, the challenge is how to take a vague series (if I’m lucky) of photos and seek out the truth, the soul of the subject/s, and transfer that to the painting in a way that offers an emotional reality.  For me, that generally seems to happen with lots of detail, as I seek out the small features that define the subject as a whole.

In the rare case where the photo is already a portrait, a work of art in its own right, what to do?  Reproduce all the detail already in the photo?  What’s the point of that?  I’m in the weird and liberating position to actually remove detail in order to create the emotional reality.

But, it took me awhile to figure that out.  I started Sadie’s portrait as I usually do.  Take the best reference photo into Photoshop to work out some questions of composition, light direction and color balance, optimize the tonal (light/dark) variation for best effect, and get an idea for the background I’ll be using.  Once that’s ready, I transfer the drawing to the surface, and start with an underpainting.

Sadie portrait work in progress #1
Sadie, work in progress stage 1. Underpainting begun in the normal way on a toned background.

Using just darks on a light background, and adding the layers of color and highlight only once the tones are set, the process is like coloring a black and white photograph with transparent colors.  That’s where I was headed with Sadie’s portrait.  Just like usual.  And, yaa-aawn.  I just wasn’t feeling it.

Feeling frustrated, and concerned that her dark back would make me lose her dark nose, I took the reference photo back to the computer, this time opening it with ArtRage, which is a painting program.

Sadie's photo, altered in ArtRage
Sadie’s photo, altered in ArtRage

I painted out some of her collar, which I felt was too distracting, and her back, reducing her to her head, neck and upper shoulders.  Better.  Excited by a bit of magic that happened with Roheen’s portrait, I tried using Sadie’s eye color in the background.  Oh!  Now that’s better.  That’s exciting.  Back to real paint.

 To cover up her dark back where it was already painted on the panel, I needed to go thick and opaque.  I mixed up a range of colors, grabbed a 1″ wide brush, and dove in.  With acrylic, you have to work quickly if you’re trying to blend, before the paint dries to a sticky glue or an impervious film.

Sadie greyhound portrait in progress
Sadie, in progress, stage 2 and wow! lookit what’s happening!

Now, that’s exciting (read: scary) for me.  (I may have mentioned a few times in my blog that I am cautious and timid a lot!)  Yee-haw.  I’m also cheap, and there was leftover paint on the pallet that would dry soon, so I picked up a slightly smaller brush, and dove into Sadie herself.  Such wild abandon!  I was getting an attack of the scared-to-deaths about her busy and important nose and ears, but after a bout of quivering, grabbed my brush back up and laid back into these details.  I had to stop there for the evening, but kept sneaking back to look, and feel the surprise of seeing this type of painting on MY table.

Sadie portrait work in progress #3
Sadie – work in progress, stage 3 (scanned)

Okay, we’re up to date (and my blog ate the first version of this post, so I’ve spent way too much time on all this for the day).  Back to actual painting!  To be continued.

Portrait Marathon: Iker, #18

acrylic on canvas, 5 x 5
© Xan Blackburn

Iker!  This loooong face belongs to a galgo, a Spanish greyhound, rescued from unhappy circumstances and brought to Canada to live the life of love and luxury provided by his new mom and shared with his canine housemate, Treasure.  

His frightening history has left him feeling like the world is a very dangerous and untrustworthy place, but he’s made huge strides since coming to N. America.  I imagined him coming into the light here.  Even if it sort of knocks him a bit sideways!  😉  
Last but not least in the Marathon is Darlene’s Mosa, who’s smiling face is a real opposite to Iker’s!
Iker – in progress
© Xan Blackburn

Portrait Marathon: #2 Darcy

Acrylic on canvas, 5 x 5
© Xan Blackburn 2012

Alrighty!  Darcy swam up out of a clear blue lake, or anyway, that was my experience of painting her!  Watch the animation to see what I mean.

Darcy’s mom calls her a “heart healer”.  At almost 12 years old, with this sweet face, you can just see her wisdom and compassion.

Next up is Riley, a handsome whippet guy with serious bedroom eyes!

Darcy in progress
© Xan Blackburn 2012

FPM: Faye Oops Portrait Completed!

Faye Oops portrait catching some side-light
© Xan Blackburn 2011

Fall Portrait Marathon, Painting #5: Faye Oops

Faye Oops left her family broken-hearted last week.  While her passing was gentle, with her loved ones present, it is never easy to lose the ones we love.

Even though so much of my work is to give a lasting memory of a pet who has already moved on, it still gets to me.  I got stalled out very close to finishing, finding it hard to give the portrait the right feel of quiet contentment, rather than mourning.

While I stepped back to catch my breath, I received a surprise foster, who has proceeded to distract me entirely for a few days.  A young borzoi rescued from S. Korea last summer, Coco is timidly making progress with us and our two greyhounds.  You can read more about her here.

I got back to my painting yesterday afternoon, getting it right up to the finish line, then gave it those final touches this morning.

Faye Oops, work in progress
© Xan Blackburn 2011

I’d taken the painting quite a ways since my last post.

Faye Oops where we left off last post
© Xan Blackburn 2011

Here’s where I picked up the thread yesterday (the larger image on the right).  Lots of additional darks, and more color in the cushions and on her collar.  We’re nearly there.  But, you can see that her muzzle above her dark nose leather is too dark, making her muzzle look short, and what’s with the blue under her chin?  Details, details!

Taking my finest brush (I need a new small brush!  😛 ), I pursued the tiny hairs and minor details that all add up to the final product.  I’m just going to rush up to the finish line here, so I can get Miss Faye Oops into the spotlight, then into the mail, and me on to the next person in line!  So, without further ado, here she is, Miss FPM #5 herself, the lovely, the Mona Lisa of greyhounds, the much-loved Faye Oops!

Faye Oops
5″ x 5″ acrylic on deep-sided canvas
© Xan Blackburn 2011

FPM Painting #5: Faye Oops!

Fall Portrait Marathon, Painting #5: Faye Oops
Okay, not exactly “legal” to take a break during a marathon, but, there was Thanksgiving, and I had a sick dog (now much better, and bugging me to play with him), and then there was a lot of communications going on about some rescue dogs coming from Seoul, one of whom I may or may not get to foster, or at least give a ride to.  *update* Nope.  I don’t even get to give her a ride.  🙁  But, I wish her well in the next phase, and congratulate her foster mom for all that she’s done for  Coco so far!

But anyway!  Back to the marathon!

Faye Oops reference photo

Faye Oops, Laura tells me, came to them as a 10 year old bounce last year, and new right away she was in her forever home.  When she was diagnosed with osteosarcoma last month, it made that final horizon look awfully close.  Laura and Faye Oops know each other’s souls.  She’s “the ultimate cuddle hound”, and loves to lay her head up on a pillow as in the picture we’re using as reference.

This is the photo, already cropped and the eyes repaired from their flash-bulb blot-out.  I also colored her collar to the royal blue Laura asked for.  I like how her face is a little squished against the pillow.  It’s so relaxed and un-posed!

I got started in the usual way, transferring my drawing using pastel.  This time, rather than try to glaze over the whole drawing, I went over it carefully with Payne’s gray glaze, since that’s what I’d be doing in the next step anyway.  That worked just fine.  I don’t know why I make extra work for myself!

Faye Oops – work in progress
© Xan Blackburn 2011

I didn’t take any progress pictures between blank canvas and this point, ’cause I was just on a roll!  I had some classic rock going, and I just kept going to the next bit and the next bit.

You can see a bit of the blue pastel has become part of the early paint layers.  That’s quite alright.  I picked that color to work anyway.

I’ve used three colors so far; the Payne’s gray, a raw sienna (the pale tan of the couch, and the first layer of color in the eyes) and some red mixed with the payne’s and the sienna glazed into the areas where there’s a little pink showing, in her nose, lip, ear and the corners of her eyes.  Also glazed some of that mix into her eye color.

I decided to do some of that pattern in the pillow to give some dimension to the pillow, but also to introduce a sort of natural element (the leaves), and because I just felt there needed to be some more action in that large area of canvas.  I plan to keep it subtle, as in the original pillow in the photo.  I plan to add more shading to the couch and pillow, to keep the focus on Faye Oops’ intimate gaze.  Camera flashes tend to flatten shadows out, and make everything the same level of importance, but with ART, we can do what we want!  (Saw that in a gallery years ago, and instantly took that as my mantra!)

Most of the underpainting is established.  Now it’s all detail; layering up subtle color, stroking in individual hairs for focus, building up both shading and highlights.

Off we go!

FPM Painting #4: Spencer is Done!

Acrylic on canvas, 5″ x 5″
© Xan Blackburn 2011

Fall Portrait Marathon, Painting #4: Spencer

I finished Spencer’s portrait the evening before Thanksgiving, but, well, you know, I got busy and didn’t post about it right away.  But, hey, you were busy too, right?

Sleepy boy Spencer evolved from looking like a blonde guy with lipstick to this in the usual pattern of layers of color and detail, highlights and shadow, color washes and then some softening, to bring back that feeling of kitty fluffy fur.
Spencer – work in progress
© Xan Blackburn 2011
Let’s see it in stages.  When we saw him last post, this is where we left him.  Blonde guy with lipstick.  
Spencer – work in progress
Acrylic on canvas, 5″ x 5″
© Xan Blackburn 2011
The next thing I wanted to do was to layer in more color in to his colored areas, and really deepen the darks in the stripes.  I used both raw umber and Payne’s gray to deepen the stripes and other darkest details, and just Payne’s gray to continue to wash in more general shading, even in the white fur, and in the background. I wanted a sense of a soft warm light coming across the corner of the couch to fall on his face, and just glance off his outstretched paw.  Cat fur is so soft that it carries light through it in an almost fog-like way, creating softer shadows than you’d find on, say, a chair or a greyhound.  Shadows filled with soft light.  The area to our right of his muzzle is a good example of this.  I also corrected the shape of the ear on the left a bit, and started shading the background.
Spencer – work in progress
Acrylic on canvas, 5″ x 5″
© Xan Blackburn 2011
This stage may only look subtly different, but the difference between “okay” and “That’s my boy!” is often apparently minor.  I’ve started refining the couch fabric a bit here, but it’s still fairly crude.  I’ve added in some higher whites on the areas I want the light to play on most; the triangular zone of his face, a touch on his shoulder, a haze on his foreleg.  In glazing in some white on his nose, I’ve softened it to more of a real nose than a rough red patch.  I’ve started adding in tiny white details, like some particular swatches of white fur under his eye on the left, and above it, as well.  I’ve been working on the tone of the colored fur areas, where in some places the background tone is deeper or lighter, with various glazes of raw sienna and raw umber.  Might have been some Naples in there.  
After that, I moved in with glazes of white mixed with a touch of Naples yellow, to warm up that critical triangle, and continued with detailing overall.  Below is a detail shot of Spencer’s face in the finished painting, giving some idea of the overall look of the layering and detailing.  Cute little wink, Spencer!
Spencer – Detail
Acrylic on canvas, 5″ x 5″
© Xan Blackburn 2011

I hope this little painting gives Lisa joy in the years to come.  It was a joy to spend a few days lost in his gentle spirit.

The next portrait in the marathon is another sleepy couch potato.  This one is a sweet-faced black greyhound girl, and the apple of her dog-mom’s eye, Faye Oops.  Gotta love that name!