Wednesday, July 11, 2012

People in my Pet Portraits

In my last call for commissions, I made a point of offering to add humans to the mix.  I got some wonderful reference photos from several of you!  This is fairly new territory for me, at least in commissions, but I'm very excited (and anxious, and fascinated) to be here.

What I'm passionately interested in is how we humans relate to non-humans.

A guy and his cat
(I took this pic.
You can tell by how badly done it is)

Let's face it, it's complex.

A little girl and the family collie
(another of my lousy photos)
The relationships vary between any given person, and any other given animal, and at different times of our lives.  There was a time when we were little where maybe it was hard to distinguish between our stuffed toys and real live critters, where the toys could be imbued with a magical kind of life, and the live animals could be considered to be no more than toys.  Friendships, enmities and phobias form up, shaping the way we see the others in our world.  Many of us have wept, time and again, over the plight of animals we have never met, and also vowed to kick, hit or pepper-spray any dog that threatened to attack one of our own.  We've signed petitions, we've argued on various social media, we've volunteered, we've walked the talk, all with such strong emotions we have for these non-human animals.  Some of us will go to various kinds of war with our fellow humans over them.  Some will dump buckets of unwanted babies on the side of the road, drive off and never miss an hour's sleep over it.  That's a pretty wide range.
A popular guy seen at a parade

That area, that emotional territory, is what really drives me, and I hope it comes through in each of my portraits, even when you can't see the human (because you are that human, looking).  The inner world of the animal is a glorious and irresistible mystery, but I assume they have their own individual rich experiences and emotions which they bring to the mix as well.  It certainly looks and feels like it, anyway.  What is it, passing between us?  Or, how is the relationship different when we aren't paying any attention to the animals in our midst, and they seem not to be paying us any mind either?  

That's a whole 'nuther subject I plan to do a show around someday, but in the mean time, let's get back to portraits.

This portrait is of Dad and Lilly (not my dad; the pup's "dad"), and a moment they shared.  Here's the reference photo.  Let's take a moment to look at the relationships we can see.  Dad is gazing at Lilly.  He looks calm, he's close, he seems to be smiling gently, and his eyes are fixed on Lilly with what looks like total adoring absorption.

Lilly herself is looking at "us", at "Mom" (I think).  Her expression is harder to read.  She seems perfectly relaxed to have Dad so close.  Maybe they were just playing, which explains why her ear is turned over.  Maybe she's curious about what all the attention is about, or is about to spring up and plant a nose print on the camera lens.  Whatever is going on in her mind at this moment, she's not as focused on Dad as he is on her.  

There's a tension in that.  It fights with our desire for the perfect symmetry of sentimentality.  I like it.  It's honest.  It's a real moment.  It reflects what is probably a pretty common state of affairs: Dad adoring Lilly, while Lilly has any number of other things on her puppy mind.  I infer (because I'm human!) that Lilly is comfortable with Dad's love, and just doesn't need to confirm it right this second, when something unpredictable is going on.  

So, that's What the Painting is About, for me.  Let's move on to the progress of the painting itself.

I love all the reflected reds in the photo, and that will be a major theme. I'm not so keen on the busy blotch of color in the lower left. I'm going to do some fiddling.

There. That's a bit better.

I'm painting this on an 11 x 14 inch canvas with deep sides - 1 1/2" deep. As I discovered immediately, that means my home-made wrist-rest is nowhere near tall enough to clear the canvas, so I'm having to prop it up on some bars of acrylic that I had lying around. I transferred the drawing onto the canvas using a light orange pastel, to make sure the drawing would melt into the general warmth of the painting. Getting right down to business, I started laying in the underpainting in Payne's Gray.

As usual, I am terrified. It's almost reassuring that I'm no more afraid to do this larger portrait with two subjects - one a human - than I am when I do my small one-pet-face portraits. It's an old, familiar fear, and I know the only way through it is to sink into the magic zone of paint, light, shadow, color, texture, wet and dry that becomes so compelling once I've crossed the threshold.

My scanner isn't big enough to scan the whole painting at once, so I'll be taking photos with whatever comes to hand. In this case, my tablet! Not so great. But, here's a close up of Dad's face.
Dad - work in progress
© Xan Blackburn 2012
Very watercolory, at this stage, as usual. The warm tones you see are from the pastel bleeding into the pale washes of Payne's gray. The intense highlight on one side of his face creates the wonderful intense shadow at its border. Then his face picks up gradually more reflected light, revealing his features with intimate glowing tones. This is really going to be fun.

So, I'll get on with it, shall I?

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