While we were in Florida last month, Brandon’s dad asked me to do a drawing based on a photo of two Boston terriers looking out a window. The terriers, Nimbus and Snidget, belonged to Brandon’s sister, and Nimbus had unfortunately passed away from cancer a few months earlier. Brandon’s dad had seen me sketching his own dogs, Ruger and Sierra, while we were visiting, so he asked me to draw her dogs as a present. Today we’ll take a look at that project.
This isn’t the first time I’ve done a pet portrait. A couple of years ago my parents asked me to draw their neighbor’s cat for her, and like this latest project, I used a photograph as my primary guide. While at the time I thought it came out pretty well, in retrospect I’ve gotten more critical of it. I put a lot of time into getting the details of the face right, but the background and was given minimal attention. The result to me isn’t that studied nonchalance that painters such as John Singer Sargent excelled at (and I’m nowhere near that level but hey, one can always strive, right?), but just lazy and lacking in creativity. For this portrait then, I decided to push myself artistically, striving for not only a great likeness, but a strong composition as well.
I started out with a lot of preliminary sketches. In addition to the photograph, I used the life sketches I’d done of Ruger and Sierra as guides. This was especially helpful for me because I’d drawn the dogs from different angles, giving me a better sense of their overall form and musculature. After getting the basic forms of the bodies down, I then did several sketches of each dog’s face, drawing them over and over until I could replicate their individual features repeatedly. Then I spent some time developing the overall composition. I kept the window because I liked the asymmetrical symmetry of the original photo, but I focused on the two dogs by zooming in on them and removing the other objects. Since the picture was taken at an angle, I also did perspectival studies, using twine to extend the vanishing point beyond the page.
For the actual painting, I opted for a mixed media approach. I started with a light pencil sketch, which I then went over with pen and ink. Rather than outline the entire pencil drawing though, I only selected certain lines. I wanted to let light and shadow itself define the forms as much as possible, both to challenge my own drawing practice and to alleviate some of the stiffness that can result from painting from photographs. Once my select outlines had dried, I erased the pencil.
Then it was time for the brush. Starting with ink wash, I gradually built up values, paying particular attention to the dogs’ faces and bodies. Once I had a strong ink wash study in place, I then went over the composition with acrylic paint watered down to resemble watercolor, matching the colors of the dogs’ coats. Once that dried, I added a few hatch lines to better define some details, but overall I used the pen minimally, letting the ink wash and paint instead do the visual work of defining forms.
After four hours of work on this piece, as well as several more hours of preparatory sketching, I had this finished painting:
Compared to the cat painting I did, I’m much more satisfied with this outcome. By taking this piece seriously as a creative challenge, I think I managed to come up with both an accurate likeness of the two dogs as well as a more dynamic, engaging composition. Most importantly, Brandon’s sister is happy, which is what really counts.