Xan’s Art: Blog

Sushi, #6 in the Portrait Marathon

"Sushi" 8" x 10" acrylic on Claybord, © Xan Blackburn
"Sushi" 8" x 10" acrylic on Claybord, © Xan Blackburn

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.

Sushi, drawing transferred to panel
Sushi, drawing transferred to panel
Fixing the drawing with a warm gold tone
Sushi: work in progress #2
Fixing the drawing with a warm gold tone
Beginning an underpainting ...
Sushi, work in progress #3
Beginning an underpainting ...
Sushi, work in progress #4
Sushi, work in progress #4
I've gessoed over the painting to get a better surface and a fresher start
Sushi - digital sketch
Sushi - digital sketch
Sushi, work in progress #5
Sushi, work in progress #5
Beginning to block in basic colors and values
Sushi, work in progress #6
Sushi, work in progress #6
Sushi, work in progress #7
Sushi, work in progress #7

Sushi Reference Photo
Sushi Reference Photo

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.

 

"Sushi" - detail
"Sushi" - detail
Notice both the bold strokes, and the fine laid on top to define details and focus

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.

#5 in my Portrait Marathon: Puff the kitteh

Puff 10" x 8" Acrylic on Claybord panel © Xan Blackburn
Puff
10" x 8"
Acrylic on Claybord panel
© Xan Blackburn

Eponymous Puff looks quite ... stern.  Laura says he was a fearless guy, despite the fluffy fur and name, who taught many the greyhound just what cats are all about.  Lived to a grand age of 19 1/2, too!  

Puff's portrait was based on a photo reference that was less than perfect.  It's a great picture, showing his true attitude, but lacked detail.  That's alright.  There's more than one way to ... Oh!  

Uh.  

Well, there is more than one approach to a portrait!  

Puff - work in progress, stage 1
Puff - work in progress, stage 1

I hadn't got very far along when I felt that I was going to get stuck figuring out his fluff, and losing sight of the gestalt of PUFF.  You can see in this first stage that I was already lost in his scowl.

Puff - work in progress, stage 2
Puff - work in progress, stage 2

Okay!  Now we're getting somewhere.  Trying to think about swatches of color and value, knowing I could refine later, I went in with boldness, knocking in the background in colors that would echo his eyes, and fur.  Or so I thought.  Getting a feel for where the darkest places are, which is like making markers to help me refer other features to, I jumped on in.

Puff (altered reference image)
Puff (altered reference image)

This is my alteration of the original reference image.  You can see (if you look closely) that it is a snap-shot, not clear in terms of eye-color, fur markings, or eye color.  Or, maybe you can't, because I altered it to enhance these things, based on other photos sent to me by his human, Laura.  It's very helpful to have alternate reference images when the one chosen for the pose is not clear.  

Puff - sketch in Artrage
Puff - sketch in Artrage

I decided to try to loosen up and get the feel of him in Artrage 4 (a computer painting program).  I felt that I needed to take a more impressionistic approach to his portrait, given that the information was limited.  It's a real lemons-into-lemonade solution.  This quicky sketch gave me a sense of how to get into Puff's portrait.

Puff - work in progress, stage 5
Puff - work in progress, stage 5

Moving along, uniting the background more, adding essential detail ...

Puff 10" x 8" Acrylic on Claybord panel © Xan Blackburn
Puff
10" x 8"
Acrylic on Claybord panel
© Xan Blackburn

And this is my take on Puff.  At least, that's how I feel tonight.  If I need to tweak it, I'll work on it more tomorrow, but if feels done.  I don't want to over-work it at this point.

#4: Cash’s Portrait

"Cash"  8" x 10"  acrylic on canvas panel © Xan Blackburn
"Cash"
8" x 10"
acrylic on canvas panel
© Xan Blackburn

Chris' greyhound, Cash, at age 10, is on her second life!  That's pretty good for a spooky grey, I'd say!  She had a bad reaction to routine shots, actually died, but was brought back to life - a modern-day miracle!  And, a gorgeous, blue-brindle gal, to boot.

Cash's portrait is painted on a canvas panel, which is a very big switch from the much smoother Aquabord panel I used on Red's portrait, right before this one.  The rougher texture was a nice change, though it makes getting good pictures tricky.   Let's see how we got to stage: Done!

Cash, original reference photo
Cash, original reference photo

Starting with this reference photo ...

Cash, work in progress stage 1
Cash, work in progress
stage 1

Once my drawing was ready, I dove in with Payne's gray for the underpainting.

Cash, stage 4 almost there ...
Cash, stage 4
almost there ...

This is where I left it last night, with some serious tweaks, and lots of fine-tuning to do, but generally close.  Notice the lighting changes between this and the final version, especially on the right side of her face.

Cash, altered reference
Cash, altered reference

I cropped, played with the lighting a little, made the bed a little more luxurious, but removed the pattern that I felt would compete with Cash's subtle stripes.

Cash, stage 3
Cash, stage 3

The underpainting is well under way, here.

Unfortunately, the photos I attempted of the early color phases just did not come out at all, so you'll have to content yourselves with a big jump here.

"Cash"  8" x 10"  acrylic on canvas panel © Xan Blackburn
"Cash"
8" x 10"
acrylic on canvas panel
© Xan Blackburn

Red the whippet: #3 in the Portrait Marathon

I think I'm done ... 8" x 10" acrylic on panel © Xan Blackburn
I think I’m done …
8″ x 10″
acrylic on panel
© Xan Blackburn

I’m pretty sure Red’s portrait is done.  I’ll sleep on it (not literally – that would not be comfortable at all!)  Since it’s almost 9:30 at night, and tomorrow is Chris’ greyhound, Cash’s turn at the Marathon, I’ll just give you a gallery of progress pictures to look at.

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PM #2: Stella – done!

Stella greyhound portrait
Stella
acrylic on Aquabord
8" x 10"
© Xan Blackburn

I think I'm done with Stella.  I hope Lynn agrees!

As it's Memorial Day weekend Saturday, my husband and dogs are all wanting dinner, and I'm rather hungry myself, I'll just show you some progress pics to show you how I got to this point.  Enjoy!

Stella, the Sleeping Beauty

Stella greyhound portrait in progress
Stella - work in progress, stage 3
acrylic on Aquabord
8" x 10"
© Xan Blackburn

Stella, the sleeping beauty!  Okay, she's not sleeping in this portrait, but her owner tells me that she sleeps a lot, and sent me several photos of her in that state.  Sounds like a greyhound to me!  (Contrary to popular belief, greyhounds sleep a lot more than they run.  A lot more.  Like, mostly, they sleep.)  But, I couldn't resist this pose, even though it shows her being awake.  At least with this portrait, her owners can imagine what she looks like standing up when the memory grows dim between naps.

The image above shows where her portrait stands at quitting time, Friday evening.  I'm seeing a pattern of slow starts, and quick finishes, so far.  My budget of 2 days/portrait for this marathon seems about right.  

The panel I'm using for this portrait is called Aquabord, which is an archival panel with a clay surface that has a texture and absorbent quality rather like watercolor paper.  I've used it before and really enjoyed it.  This time, it wanted to fight with me, but I've taken the upper hand.  It is too absorbent for what I wanted to do here, but once sealed with a layer of acrylic, it behaves much better.  I probably should have chosen one of the other panels, but ... oh well!

Stella's reference photo  cropped, and altered in photoshop slightly
Stella's reference photo
cropped, and altered in photoshop slightly

The reference image I chose had good lighting, and was well-focussed, showed her entire face, and gave a good sense of her (waking) expression.  You can see her dark brindle markings, and her glossy coat, as well as her deep burnt-orange eye color.  

Stella, reference photo, altered in photoshop
Stella, reference photo, altered in photoshop

As usual, in Photoshop, I decide what I want to do with the background, and alter the photo as necessary to make a good portrait in the proportions we're working in.  For Stella's rich, dark brindle, a mahogany-dark background really set her off nicely.

Stella - work in progress, stage 1
Stella - work in progress, stage 1
acrylic on panel
8" x 10"

This type of panel requires being flushed with water, to allow air bubbles trapped in the surface of the clay to escape, and to manage the absorbency a bit.  I almost forgot that, but they handily put a little "tip" sheet in the packaging, thank goodness.  Flushed, allowed to dry a bit, and the drawing transferred, I decided to start laying in the background, first.  I thought it would help me keep the balance of tonal contrast right if I had a good sense of the background while working.  It will take several layers, but I wanted to start with this raw sienna, to warm the later layers of burnt umber from within, rather like Stella's warm rusty stripes alternating with the almost-black stripes on her coat.  

Stella - work in progress, stage 2
Stella - work in progress, stage 2

Once I had a couple layers down in the background, I started in with her eyes, but the one on the right wasn't quite working, and the Payne's gray seemed too cool, so I left off for the moment, and started the underpainting in raw umber.  Beginning to layer up the shadows and darker tones.  

Once I switched to the raw umber instead of the Payne's gray, it started to come together better.  Plenty to do tomorrow, but we're off to the races, now.

Stella greyhound portrait in progress
Stella - work in progress, stage 3
acrylic on Aquabord
8" x 10"
© Xan Blackburn

I'm hoping for a view of the meteors tonight.  I hope you got a chance to see them, too.  Back to work tomorrow!  

PM – Luki’s portrait complete

Luki's portrait complete
Luki
acrylic on panel, 8" x 10"
© Xan Blackburn

Delicate Luki!  I really enjoyed building up these hot and cool layers to create this pup's portrait.  It feels like that may capture her personality, in a way, maybe echoing her own internal contrasts.  

I only took a couple pictures besides the final scan today, but I think you can see enough to give you an idea how it went.  I'll go with the tried and true, "a picture is worth a thousand words."

Tomorrow, Eliza is passing her turn to the next person ready to go (we'll get back to her soon), so attention Lynn!  😉