“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!

Scooby the Dachshund: #7 in the Spring Portrait Marathon

Scooby (Dachshund) Acrylic on Panel, 10

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!

Jilly Bean Memorial Portrait

Jilly Bean
acrylic on canvas panel, 8 x 10
© Xan Blackburn

A dear friend to many, a mascot to the greyhound community, a girl who has taught many foster hounds to respect little dogs, Judy and Mike’s little Jilly Bean passed away on Dec. 18.  That afternoon, a mutual friend asked if I’d be willing to quickly and quietly do a portrait for them, and I couldn’t resist, even though it was the day after wrapping the Portrait Marathon, and I had been looking forward to a rest (and a chance to do some christmas shopping!)  Jilly, small as she was, leaves a big hole in a lot of hearts.  She is missed.

Jilly Bean – in progress
© Xan Blackburn

Portrait Marathon: #11 – Hajime

Acrylic on canvas, 5 x 5
© Xan Blackburn

Hajime, or Haj, is a chow-husky mix, which you can see in his blue tongue and very direct glance (or, that’s what I see, anyway!)  He’s drop-dead gorgeous.  He is devoted to his mom.  This portrait is a gift from a friend, which is always so cool, to me!  Very sweet gift!

Tomorrow, I move on to … I’m not sure!  Guess I’ll find out tomorrow morning.

Hajime in progress
© Xan Blackburn

Portrait Marathon: Sign up TODAY

Sign-ups are open now for the Pre-Holiday Portrait Marathon!

If you missed it, here’s the run down.  For three weeks, starting Monday, Nov. 26, I’ll be busting through as many small portraits as I can get to, in the order you sign up.

As I start one portrait, I’ll email the next person in line a PayPal link to pay for your portrait.  Once your payment is in, your place is secure, and your portrait will be next.

The only thing different this time around is that you will now have a few choices!

  • 5″ x 5″, gallery-wrapped canvas for $80
  • 5″ x 5″ panel for $80
  • 8″ x 10″ panel for $150 specially priced for this marathon (that’s $110 off!)
Both the panels and the gallery-wrapped canvas all look great framed or unframed.

One pet (ANY SPECIES!) per painting, and one painting per person, to spread the loooove!

As I go, I’ll be showing you my progress on the blog.  I think it’s fun to share the paintings as they evolve, and the excitement building along through the marathon.

To sign up and get your name on the list, fill out the form below.
Good luck, and thanks for playing along with me!!  

Remember that “Mystery Portrait”?

I realized today that I never did give you the whole picture of this portrait from last November.  I gave lots of teasers over several posts because it was meant to be a surprise present, so I couldn’t give it away.

Well, the present was given and received, so I’m free to share it with you now.

16″ x 20″, acrylic on gessoed panel
©Xan Blackburn 2011

Bunny has a look much like my boy Brilly, so falling into those big brown eyes was easy and familiar.  

It was a fun challenge to paint this large.  
I finished Bunny right before I started my epic “Fall Portrait Marathon”, which I’m still working on.  More on handsome Matt later!
Stay tuned!

FPM Painting #4: Spencer gets started

Spencer-Reference photo

Fall Portrait Marathon, Painting #4: Spencer

Lisa’s kitty, Spencer, in his sleepy pose, is pretty inviting, eh?  Don’t you just want to snuggle your face into that soft warm fur?  Mmm.

Spencer was a Special Cat.  Lisa’s friend Jan told me some of his story.

The boy loved ice cream and popcorn, and catmint.  Lisa said the only way her DH could finish a bowl of ice cream was to hold the bowl over his head away from Spence!
When Spencer arrived at our vet’s office, our vet knew that Lisa’s house was The Place for him, despite of, or actually because of, his medical probs and life expectancy of ~6 mos.  Two+ years later, he was one happy boy who died in his sleep on a sunny afternoon. He was probably 17 or 18 years old. Spencer was a *greyt* cat – how many cats have their own veranda?  

Lisa told me this in her introductory notes:

We quickly learned his favorite place in the world was to be stretched out on your lap, where he spent many many hours during the two years we had with him. He left us two months ago, and we miss seeing his smile as he stretched that big white paw out in front of him.

Are you misty-eyed, yet?  sniff

Okay, let’s get to the portrait before we’re all shorting out our keyboards, here.

I cropped the photo, and lightened up some areas so we’d get a little more focus on his sweet sleepy face.

Spencer DETAIL – Work in progress
©Xan Blackburn 2011

This time, I decided to prep the canvas a bit, so I could count on a little more detail by having a smoother surface.  I sanded it with a fine-grit sandpaper, and wiped it with a damp microfiber cloth.  While it was still dampish, I transferred the drawing to the canvas using a blue conte crayon.  I then used some raw umber thinned a lot with medium to trace over the whole drawing, using the tip of a small brush.  I didn’t want to wash off the drawing again!

You can see how that worked in this detail.  Pretty well, actually!

Spencer – Work in progress
©Xan Blackburn 2011

That brings us to here.  Ready to get painting.

The scanner cut it off a bit, but his ear is visible just to the tip on the left.

Spencer – Work in progress
©Xan Blackburn 2011

I used some ultramarine blue to wash in the first layer of color in the couch, and set off the cool background from the warm kitty.  I did make a watery-thin excursion into Spencer, to cool the areas I intend to keep more shadowed.

Watch how the perspective on that paw reaching towards us develops.  Right now, it looks flat and odd, but shading and detail will put it in place as we go along.

Spencer – Work in progress
©Xan Blackburn 2011
Spencer – Work in progress
©Xan Blackburn 2011

Using Payne’s Gray, I started in with the darks, trying to keep a sense of the fur right from the start, as opposed to washing in looser areas.  You can see that better in this detail.

Already, I’m glad I did that sanding before painting!  I want to be able to do these fine strokes, and not have them blurred by a coarse surface.

Spencer – Work in progress
©Xan Blackburn 2011

Time to hit the color.

I mixed some Naples yellow and raw sienna to get a golden brown, and added medium to get my glaze.  I brushed that in in all the colored zones of Spencer’s fur to get a warm gold base.  Notice there’s a bit of that warmth washed into the paw under his chin, and on the paw reaching towards us.

Suddenly I’m aware that I was too timid (my usual failing) with the darks, and will need to really bump them up, particularly in the stripes.  I started adding some raw umber (very dark brown) to those areas, and to darker areas of the fur.

You will already have noticed, I’m sure, the PINK on the mouth and nose.  Fret not.  They’ll get toned towards where they belong as we go along.  The mouth will get a lot of white brushed over it, to define the little hairs all about the area, so that stronger pink will be necessary to stand out after that.

Lots still to do, but that’s where we are tonight.  Stay tuned!