Mystery portrait wraps up, and Marathon begins

I’ve been processing photos submitted for the Fall Portrait Marathon, wrapping up my big mystery commission (that ran over into Portrait Marathon time!  :rolleyes: ), communicating with the winners, and sketching up the first Fall Portrait Marathon (hereinafter referred to as FPM) painting.  

Digital painting, ©Xan Blackburn 2011
I did a quicky ArtRage painting to get the feel of an idea I’ve been playing with, and I kind of like the sketch, even though I don’t think that’s how I’ll end up doing the painting, exactly.    This is Christine’s Hailey (sketch!!!)

She made a special request to use this particular collar, which is really cute.  Don’t you love her ears, and that head tilt?  This is going to be fun.  

I’m having my usual difficulty transferring the drawing to the canvas.  Anyone have any fabulous ideas for that??  I use transfer paper, but the canvas flexes away from the pressure of the pen, which means that I don’t get a good transfer.  It’s a challenge, what can I say.  

But, let me sort of wrap up my mystery portrait’s progress.  (Sorry for the layout.  I realize it’s a mess.  I can’t seem to fix it!)  I still can’t give you the full reveal, but let me just give you a series of pictures to show bits of it as it evolved.
Monday 1
work in progress
©Xan Blackburn 2011
 Monday 1: This one shows a little progress since Friday.  This is where I picked it up on Monday morning.  A bit of highlighting, and some color in the eyes.
Monday 2
work in progress
©Xan Blackburn 2011

Monday 2: This one shows a little more detail going in.  Still no color.  Working in Payne’s Gray on the dilute Naples Yellow background.

Monday 3
work in progress
©Xan Blackburn 2011
Monday 3: More detail, some added whites …
Monday 4
work in progress
©Xan Blackburn 2011
Monday 4: Some color going in!  Basic underpainting is done …

Tuesday 1
work in progress
©Xan Blackburn 2011
Tuesday 1: Big jump here.  You can see I have all the basic colors in over the underpainting of darks and lights.  Details and more details will be layered on top of this stage.  

Mystery completed!
acrylic on Gessobord, 16″ x 20″
©Xan Blackburn 2011
Mystery Complete:  Well, not really, since it’s still a mystery, eh?

When the gift is officially handed over, I’ll show you the whole thing.  There were lots of challenges here, involving questionable colors that had to be shifted dramatically, many small heart attacks of the usual sort (I’m such a chicken!), but I think in the end I’m pleased with the final result.

Stay tuned for the FPM progress reports!  I’m so excited.  There are cats and greyhounds in the mix, and I can’t wait to get at them.  Wait ’til you see the stripy cats, and the quirky pups.  Oh yeah.  This is going to be fun.

Mystery Portrait: Friday

Mystery Portrait, work in progress
©Xan Blackburn 2011

I was working kind of slowly today.  My usual timidity, where I’m sure I’ve forgotten how to paint, and will just mess everything up if I dare to actually put visible amounts of paint on my brush. Nonetheless, I did make some progress with my underpainting.

In this bit, you can see how I’ve begun to be more specific with my darks, even suggesting fur a bit.  This eye is coming along, with plenty of room to get some depth even in the pupil.

A few hours later, I’ve reached this stage. You can see that I’ve added some white, which will begin to give the proper hair color in these areas, and also give the whites of the eyes that are so expressive.

There’s lot more work, but I can’t show it to you.  HA!  ‘Cause it’s such a big secret!  ;D

Just to remind you, the Fall Portrait Marathon sign-ups start at 9am PST (don’t forget to set your clocks back!)  Don’t dawdle: these always go fast!  😉

For all the details see here.

Mystery Portrait; shading begun

Mystery painting, shading begun

That looks so awkward, doesn’t it?  Well, I promise it makes more sense when you can see the whole thing together. 😉

I’m beginning to glaze in the shading using Payne’s Gray to keep the shadows cool.  My intent is to keep the focus tight and high-contrast only on the faces, letting the rest of the bodies to blur into the background.  At this point, it looks a bit like a watercolor painting, and is fairly loose and brush-marked, but it will start to look more like a black and white photo as I go along, later getting the color that will make it “real”.

I think I’m done for the day.  Catch you up tomorrow!

Fall Portrait Marathon: the simpler version

I’m getting some feedback that my first post about the marathon was maybe a bit confusing.  Let’s see if I can be a little more clear.

What: I will do ten 5″x 5″ portraits, acrylic on canvas, of ANY species for $80 +shipping
Why: As a benefit for Creatures Comfort, a feral cat rescue program, which will receive $20 for each portrait 
Who: The first ten people to send me an email ON MONDAY, NOV 7th, after 9:00am PST, with a clear photo of their pet
When: The painting work begins Tuesday, Nov. 8th, and you can watch it here on the blog.

  1. Choose ONE photo, clear and high-res, of any ONE pet (dog, cat, hamster, ferret …), attach it to an email.  (tip: If you have a really big photo file, but it’s of the entire pet, crop it down to just the head, down to the shoulders.)
  2. The email should have your name and your pet’s name as the subject.  
  3. Send the email to with 
    • your name and your pet’s name
    • any notes about your pet you want me to know, to help me choose a mood for the painting
subject: Humphrey Blackburn; Wabi  

message: Hi, Xan!
Wabi is a little thing, mischievous and cuddly. Her favorite thing to do is eat dandelions.  Attached is her photograph.  Can you put some dandelions in the painting, maybe?



   4.  I will send you a PayPal invoice.  When the payment goes through, and I’ve completed the portrait before yours, I’ll begin the portrait of YOUR pet!  😀  (If you’d prefer to send a paper check, we’ll work it out the details together.)


Better?  If you have any questions, don’t hesitate to ask.  Maybe someone else has the same one, and we can help them, too.  🙂

Hand-made blank books

Whew!  Well, it took some jiggering and figgering, but I worked out how to make my cards into truly neat little perfect-bound blank books!

I wanted to expand what I could do with my eco-friendly greeting cards, and expand my line at Stroke of Green.  I brain-stormed for months, and finally hit on these little guys.  But, how to make them books?

I studied up a bit on book-binding possibilities.  I knew I wanted to do it myself.  I explored various sewing options, and other binding possibilities, but they all cut into the images too much, or would mean buying job-specific tools and supplies, which I wanted to avoid, to keep the affordability in line, and the learning curve fairly easy.

Eventually, I wound my way around to perfect binding, which basically means clamping and glueing the books together.  That seems pretty straight-forward, right?  I looked around online to see how to make a binding jig, to clamp the books during glueing, and alerted H that he’d be helping me make this thing, and gave him this sketch.

The idea is to plonk all the pages and one side of the cover in against that right angle in the lower left corner, against two pieces of wood, to align them all nice and square.  Then you tighten the clamp down using the wing nuts (across the top), which leaves just about an eighth of an inch of page edges exposed so you can glue them.

In the end, that looked like this:

As you can see, we used bits of scrap that happened to be within reach in the shop, some Gorilla Glue, bolts and wing-nuts.

Now, of course, it’s not ever as easy as you think, right?

First I had to figure out how to size the books, based on available paper, source and order the paper, cut it and trim the covers, score and fold the covers, figure out how many pages, try various glues to see which one worked ……….

I ended up buying sugar cane paper (a.k.a. bagasse), which is made from a waste product of the sugar industry (sweet!) I ordered just one ream to begin with, and, after messing around unsuccessfully with my rotary paper cutter, I took it all to Kinko’s to use their guillotine cutters.  The helpful guy at the counter informed me he’d do the whole thing with his big machine for $4, so guess what I did?  Yeah.  That was the easiest part of the whole project!

I figured I’d need to trim both the cards and the paper to make 4″x5.5″ booklets, to get the most out of each.  I still had to trim the covers myself.  The rotary cutter worked alright for that.  Besides, each design is different, so I wanted to be able to trim so that the designs didn’t get important stuff cut off.  Then I needed to score the covers, so they’d fold neatly around the pages.  I tried this and that, and ended up making a simple jig on the edge of my cutting mat, like this.  –>>
I taped one trimmed card to the edge (very securely) so I can tuck the card to be scored under it just so,  place a piece of scrap paper over the cover, fold down the taped card, line up my ruler, flap back the taped card, and use a ball point pen to run along the ruler over the scrap paper and the cover.  Sound like a lot of steps?  Well, kind of!  But it keeps things consistent, and the scrap paper keeps the pen from marking up the cover, or tearing it.

Then there was the glue question.  I wanted to use Gorilla Glue, because it’s a little more earth-friendly.  Sadly, it also has the tendency to foam up and dry hard as rock, making bumpy edged, inflexible spines. No good.  Then I read that white glue (like Elmer’s) would work.  Well, not really.  Pages just popped out.  Then I read that contact cement should work, drying quickly and flexibly.  That worked!  My little books came out like “real” books!  Yeay!

It was during the glue experiments that I had to solve the mystery of why some pages wanted to pop out more than others.  I saw that, even machine-cut, all nicely stacked up, clamped page edges were not making a flat surface.  Can you see that in this really bad picture?  (Someday, I’ll figure out how to take decent pictures!)
Some websites talked about sanding the edges of the paper, to make it more receptive to the glue.  I had done that, with varying success, but I decided to sand them down ’til they were all flush.  That took a little elbow grease, but I need the exercise, so that’s alright.  Once they’re all sanded flush, dusted off, and then glued, everything comes together smoothly, and stays that way.

So; trimmed, scored, folded, stacked, clamped, sanded, and ready for glue.  I glob on the contact cement all along the page edges, and onto the spine of the cover.  The first layer, I really massage into the paper edges with the brush, and it pretty much absorbs.  Then I lay another layer on, nice and thick, which stays on the surface.  I let this cure for 15 minutes, then go back and take it carefully out of the jig.  Ever so carefully, I fold the spine down over the glued edges, knowing that if I get it wrong, that’s it, since you can’t un-stick it once it’s down.  Then I burnish the edge with the smooth side of a box cutter (it’s handy, what can I say!), and set it aside for a few hours.

Voila!  Easy as pie!

I’m really enchanted by these little books, I have to say.  And I made them all by myself!  They have a substantial feel, the covers are nice, colorful and smooth, all those blank pages are so inspiring … Yeah.  I now have one by my bed to take down those midnight inspirations or weird dreams, one in the kitchen to jot down cooking experiments that actually worked, or grocery lists, one on my computer desk for the never-ending notes I’m always needing to put somewhere right this second, and one in my purse for those many times I need a bit of paper, either to leave a note or make one for myself (inspiration tends to hit me at odd moments).  I’ve been stuck waiting, for planes or busses or whatever, and wished I’d had a journal to blab to.  Now I’m all set!

You can get your blank books for a tidy $10 at Stroke of Green.  Choose your own cover from my available cards (leave me a message in the order form if you want one I haven’t listed).  They make nice little gifts, too.  Hm!  Mother’s Day is coming soon, isn’t it?

What’s the Hold Up???

Some of you might be aware of the big holiday season of joy and gifting going on here in the states, and elsewhere, I’m told.  Yeah.  That one.  Well, what do artists without tons of ready cash do for gifts?  ART! If you happen to have grandkids (or grand nieces), it might be really fun!

This jaguar is for my grandson, Max, who’s room has a jungly theme.  My husband did an elephant.  Each on 6″ square canvasses.  Our styles are comPLETEly different, so they make an interesting pair.

I’m really pleased with how this turned out.  It was finished this afternoon, the merest minutes before having to be packed off to UPS.  In fact, we were in such a rush that I forgot to scan it, wrapped it up, H taped up the box, and had it in the car, and I had already jumped in the shower, when I started whining about how I really wanted it for scanning!  Good man, he went out and cut open the box, I jumped out half-showered, carefully un-wrapped it, scanned it, re-wrapped it, and jumped back in the shower while H re-taped up the box.  It was worth it.  I greedily want to keep at least the image for myself!

I didn’t take time to do progress pics on this, but I can go through it quickly for anyone that might be interested.  After finally settling on a sketch (that took about 3 weeks, and went through a frenzy of different takes yesterday before becoming this shape late in the afternoon), I transferred the drawing to the canvas (which I sanded smoother first; I like a smooth surface!) in a hot red.  I washed the whole canvas in a warm, pale yellow, and started working on the background.  I knew I wanted there to be lighter areas at the top, as if some sun might be working it’s way through in the distance, but quite dark and glowy in the foreground.  The big twisting tree trunk is many layers of green, gold, purple (yes, purple), payne’s grey, ultramarine, chrome green ….  Every new wash of yellow, gold, green or blue seemed to bring more depth and glow into the background.

By then, I was scared to work on the jaguar!  I started simply, to get over the fear hump.  Using a light wash of payne’s grey, I worked in some vague shading.  I wanted to keep a light touch, because there’s no strong light source to make strong shadows.  Then I washed on some naples yellow, which pretty much covered the shading altogether.  Naples is a pretty opaque color.  Okay, fine.  Have to do the shading over the yellows.  I used washes of naples, then a mix of chromium oxide green and raw sienna (green and red-brown) for a surprisingly appropriate tawny gold-like tone for the inside of the spots and for shading.  I really liked how it was looking, but hadn’t gotten any “black” on it, yet.  That’s a no-turning-back point, and I’m usually a bit timid with it to begin with.  But what’s a jaguar without spots??  So, bravely, I mixed a deep velvety dark from payne’s grey and thalo blue, and dove in, outlining the eyes, and defining the nose and mouth.  From there, it became fun to do the spots.  Jaguar spots are beautiful rosettes, each unique.  They work together to create a pattern similar to the diamonds on a snake, fitting together like a loose puzzle.   Stretching and compressing them to define the stretch and compression in the jaguar was really fun.  Exciting to see it becoming so graphic, with the black on the light gold, set in the jewel-like greens.  Once the “blacks” were in, I went back in with some more of my green-brown to shape a little more, then with some cadmium yellow medium (a sunny golden yellow), which really ramped up the fiery fur.  A few touches of white-white around the eye, ears and the paw playing with the tail, and that was that.

Being me, I would love to change a thing or two, but time constraints had their say.  I really wanted to add a vine, looping from just left of top center down across the right end of the jaguar and tree.  I think that would have added a lot of depth.  Maybe I’ll mess with it in photoshop to see if I was right.

When I have time!

Hope you enjoyed my digression from the Portrait Marathon.  I sure didn’t mean for the PM to run on this long!  I guess that’s what “marathon” means, though, huh?  But don’t worry, Sara!  I haven’t abandoned you!  😉