8″ x 10″ acrylic on canvas panel
© Xan Blackburn 2014
(greyhound) 8″ x 10″ acrylic on panel, © Xan Blackburn
“Sasha” 8″ x 10″, acrylic on Claybord, © Xan Blackburn
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
Sushi! Isn't sushi supposed to be something created quickly, from fresh ingredients, beautifully presented? Well, Sushi's portrait took me a whole week, but, I hope she presents well anyway. I'm pleased!
Sushi is a breed mixed to perfection for her active family. They take her on training runs for their marathons, to the dog park to play with her buddies, walks twice a day, and she still has a basket full of toys and the energy to play with them! Sushi's "grandma" commissioned this portrait for her daughter. I love being part of a gift like this!
But, why would such a lovely, happy girl give me such trouble? Well, it wasn't her fault, I assure you! She is inspiring! Maybe that was the problem. My muse has taken it into her squirrely head to change directions on my mid-marathon! Yeesh. Nice timing. My natural tendency for the last several years has been fairly detailed, fairly realistic paintings usually done in a very traditional method of underpainting and glazing. So Muse decides it's time to switch that up, and won't let me work that way! She is very taken with the bolder, more impressionistic mode I took in a few recent paintings (Puff, and Sadie). Okay, but I feel torn, because I think people are expecting me to be my old, detaily, traditional self. So, I got stuck. Here's how it went.
Here's my reference image. What a cutie, eh?
Starting out like usual, I fiddled with the reference photo, cropping and deciding what to do with the background, getting my drawing the way I wanted it, then transferred the drawing to the panel using vine charcoal.
Next (on the left), I started to sort of dab at the drawing with a warm gold that I thought I'd end up doing the underpainting with, or at least some of it. Or the background ... I was starting to lose touch already. This type of panel (Claybord) is very smooth, and very absorbent. That presents its own issues. If you paint thin and wet, as I tend to do in my underpaintings, each stroke gets sucked into the board, leaving the edges of the stroke apparent, and temporarily darkening, like wet paper, which is confusing to work with, and hard to overcome with more translucent layers, all showing each brush stroke. But I kept trying, laying in an undercoat for the envisioned background, as you see in the third photo on the left.
I went to the next step; starting to lay in some of the dark tones of her black fur. I was really getting frustrated with the effect of the strokes on the Claybord, and finally realized that I was not going to achieve what I wanted on that finish. I needed to seal the clay with a layer of gesso, so the paint would sit on top the way I wanted it to. So, I used a foam roller, and rolled on a thin layer of gesso. You can still see the underpainting beneath the gesso, in the fourth image on the left.
Frustrated and stymied, feeling this pull towards the more painterly style I'd been having such fun with, I went back to my computer, to experiment with ArtRage 4 (a painting program I've been enjoying for years now). Letting it all just flow, I came up with a really loose painting that brought me back to the inspired feeling I'd had when I first looked at Sushi's photos. (See the 5th image on the left.)
Ah! Okay, so now I needed to bring that back to the panel, and let loose there. No translucent layers: just dive in with a thickly loaded brush and paint what I see!
Sounds good, right? This is the next fight I had with my muse. Muse says, "Feel the abandon of the free-range artist!" Cautious self says, "My clients expect something different from me! They want what they expect. That's what they are paying me for!" *sigh* A couple days go by, stuff is happening, but it's not painting. A bit, but not much. (See image #5 image on the left.)
But then I just decide to let the muse take over for a bit. It can't be worse than standing still. This is a marathon, for pete's sake! So, I jammed along, and got to an enjoyable place by the last image you see on the left. I had the idea that I knew how to resolve the battle.
Friday morning, I knew what to do. I had found that I could approach this similar to how I had used gouache paint. In essence, lay in the larger areas of general color and value, then work on top of that to layer in the detail. It is a combination of the painterly style, in effect using it as the underpainting, and the glazing techniques to achieve the detail and final unification of the portrait. With gouache, which is water-based, the layers can be blended, or melted into each other to whatever extent you want, or laid on top opaquely. With acrylic, you can't blend into previously dry layers, but you can paint translucently, which helps to blend the layers visually. Here's a detail to show a little more what's going on.
So, now I have a game plan. I really loved painting like this. It marries both my desire for a passionate approach to the paint and subject with my need to refine the painting to reflect what I see more closely. I doubt it's a stopping place. Being an artist is like life - you just keep growing and changing, whether you mean to or not. Still, it gives me a real confident way to splurge on the paintings I have yet to do in the marathon. I'm all charged up now!
Tomorrow, I begin Samara's parents' dachshund, Scooby.