“Alex”: A Christmas Story

"Alex" 8" x 10", acrylic on panel, © Xan Blackburn
“Alex” 8″ x 10″, acrylic on panel, © Xan Blackburn

Steve and Gayle are artists in their own right.  I’ve been honored to be asked by their friends to do two memorial portraits for them (Sadie, and Katie), so when their daughter, Rachel, asked me to do another of the legendary Alex, I was thrilled.  I had a crush on him that was tragic: I never knew about him during his lifetime, only later from his legacy in Steve’s photography, and presence on the greyhound forum, Greytalk.

It always starts with a photo.Alex © Steve UyeharaAlex © Steve Uyehara

As it was taken by a pro, I had little to do to make it paintable except to crop it, and get started interpreting it in paint, so I was off and running.

"Alex" (work in progress) 8" x 10", acrylic on panel, © Xan Blackburn
“Alex” (work in progress) 8″ x 10″, acrylic on panel, © Xan Blackburn

So, that was a bold move, eh?  Starting with that intense yellow?  Yeah.  I can’t remember now why I thought that was such a great idea, but I really like the complexity it lends to the final portrait. This stage shows that I approached the underpainting differently than I usually do (starting with a monochromatic painting establishing the form and shadows, then glazing color layers on top of that).  I like how this looks even at this stage.  Kind of ghostly and loose, but with all the elements in their proper places.

"Alex" (work in progress) 8" x 10", acrylic on panel, © Xan Blackburn
“Alex” (work in progress) 8″ x 10″, acrylic on panel, © Xan Blackburn

I started layering in the background so I could make sure I got the contrasts between the dark green foliage and the mostly-white dog right.  I don’t know if you can tell, but I was using a lot of violet tones to tame the yellow, as they are complementary colors (opposites on the color wheel).

"Alex" (work in progress) 8" x 10", acrylic on panel, © Xan Blackburn
“Alex” (work in progress) 8″ x 10″, acrylic on panel, © Xan Blackburn

Getting closer. Adding blues to the foliage and into Alex’s mid-range shadow areas, and continuing to refine throughout the painting.

"Alex" 8" x 10", acrylic on panel, © Xan Blackburn
“Alex” 8″ x 10″, acrylic on panel, © Xan Blackburn

And done!  You can still see that yellow warming the shadow side, and glowing through the foliage like summer sun.  I hope they enjoy the portrait for many years to come.

I’ve also been working on some secret projects not yet ready for public viewing.  Watch this space for the reveals!

#12 2014 Portrait Marathon: Feyd the Silken Windhound

Continue reading #12 2014 Portrait Marathon: Feyd the Silken Windhound

Timber, completed. #10 in the Spring Portrait Marathon

Timber (borzoi) 8
Timber (borzoi)
8″ x 10″ acrylic on canvas panel
© Xan Blackburn 2014

Continue reading Timber, completed. #10 in the Spring Portrait Marathon

Timber in progress: #10 in the Portrait Marathon

  • Timber (work in progress, 1)
  • Timber (work in progress, 2)
  • Timber (work in progress, 3)
  • Timber (work in progress, 4)
  • Timber (work in progress, 5)
  • Timber (work in progress, 6)
  • Timber (work in progress, 7)

Continue reading Timber in progress: #10 in the Portrait Marathon

Cole (greyhound), #9 in the 2014 Portrait Marathon

“Cole”

(greyhound) 8″ x 10″ acrylic on panel, © Xan Blackburn

Continue reading Cole (greyhound), #9 in the 2014 Portrait Marathon

Scooby the Dachshund: #7 in the Spring Portrait Marathon

Scooby (Dachshund) Acrylic on Panel, 10

Scooby
(Dachshund)
Acrylic on Panel, 10″ x 8″,
© Xan Blackburn

Ah, Scooby!  People, you have no idea the weirdness that’s been going on in my studio lately.  Scooby’s big, liquid eyes have seen a lot in here.  Yes, we’ve been through a lot, Scooby and I.  Let’s get to it.

Samara tells me that Scooby was her father’s cherished best buddy.  A prickly guy , he nonetheless carved out a place in his family’s hearts, where he lived for many years.  His recent passing really hit them hard, especially Sam’s dad.  As a gift of love, Sam commissioned this portrait for her parents.

So, what could be weird, right?  Adorable, lop-eared, big-eyed doxy gazing with houndy eyes up at us?  You may recall that I’ve been having some issues with my Muse about how to paint, right?  She’s decided, right in the midst of a Portrait Marathon, that it’s time for some shaking up, some changes, some growth, some transition … Freaking learning curve stuff, thank you very much.  NoT!  😛

I wasn’t going to show you this, but I think I have to.  Let me first just say I was as freaked out by this as you are about to be.  Please prepare yourself.  This is not pretty.

I began in the usual way: choose a reference photo, take it into Photoshop to work out composition, etc., get my drawing ready, transfer it to the panel.  The panel, in this case, was a very smooth Claybord panel.  I’ve been having trouble with these lately, and thought I’d figured out that the best way for me to use them is to gesso first, to seal the absorbent clay, then dive right in with a fully loaded brush, boldly lay in color, and then refine with details once the major tones and colors have been well established.  It worked with Puff and Sushi, anyway.  I felt my usual fear about those first brush strokes (I’m a huge scaredy-cat, seriously), but in I went.  Here’s where it gets shocking.  Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Please avert your eyes and protect young children

Did I not warn you?

Right.  So, with horror growing that I had lost all control of my paints, imagining myself doomed to trying to sneak my work into 8th grade county fair exhibits from now on, I soldiered on, hoping to be able to work it out somehow.

Please avert your eyes and protect young children

Oh, yeah.  Big improvement, there!

What to do??  What happened??  Did I have a stroke that only affects my ability to paint?

I got seriously stuck here.  I couldn’t face it for a couple days.

In the mean time, I worked on a logo which I’ll tell you about later, and researched some alternate grounds that I might use to rehabilitate these maddeningly smooth panels I still have to figure out how to paint on.  It’s the smooooothness that is suddenly driving me batty.  I used to love it.  Now I can’t figure out how to use it at all!

I had gone to an acrylics demonstration last weekend, and learned about some materials that I thought might help.  With a couple of the samples I’d been given, I tried right on Scooby’s ruined portrait to make a surface I could paint on.  It was that or burn it in the yard.  First I tried this Fiber Paste by Golden, which is supposed to give a sort of rough paper-like surface.  Okay, I could NOT get it consistent enough.  Very fiber-y.  I also had a sample tube of Coarse Modeling Paste.  Well named, that stuff is coarse, with largish grains of mica, giving it a rough, translucent, sandy sort of effect. It’s also very thick. I had a little better luck mixing it with gesso and GAC 900 to get a more workable consistency, matte, and more opaque.  I used a fine foam roller to apply, which worked fairly well.  With some sanding and re-gessoing, it gave me a surface full of personality.  So, while procrastinating facing Scooby’s wild glare, I prepped my remaining smooth panels with this combo.

textured panel

I had been saying to the hubs that, if I could still pull Scooby’s portrait out of the mess I’d made, that I would be a rock star.  Figuring I might as well conquer my remaining fear by re-surfacing Scooby’s panel, I just rolled right over it to start over.  I re-drew the sketch on the new surface, which was kind of a revelation in itself.  Drawing on something like white, coarse sandpaper with a mechanical pencil is pretty interesting.  But, onward.

Now, how to paint??  I decided I needed to go back to the underpainting + glazes method for this one.  My reference photos weren’t very good, so details were lacking, which suited this rough textured board pretty well.  I jumped in with my old pal, Payne’s gray.

Scooby - underpainting

Okay, that’s better.  The surface is uh-may-zing!!  Using a relatively dry brush, I could practically draw on the panel, buffing on paint exactly where and how I wanted it, with very organically soft edges.  This is fun!

Next, the first layer of color.  Starting with Raw Sienna, a warm golden brown, to warm the following layers.

Scooby - first color layer
Scooby, layering continues

This layer is mostly burnt sienna, which is a rich, red brown.

The final touches were playing back and forth between reclaiming some darks that got dulled by the color glazing, highlighting some lighter areas, and calming the red with glazes of burnt umber and even blue.  More blue was brushed into the background also, to set off Scooby’s warm tones.  The final painting is above, but here’s a detail view, so you can see a bit how the paint works with the rough surface.

Scooby, done: detail

The final effect is very soft, almost stippled, reminiscent of a grainy old photograph that’s been hand-colored.  I really like it, and hope Sam’s folks are pleased with it.

Scooby is #7 in the Marathon, and Sasha the Samoyed is up next.  A similar situation, actually.  A gift for parents, with less-than-perfect references.  I hope I can do her justice!