pet portraits

A friend wondered if I could do a portrait of her dog. I wondered too, but it sounded like an interesting project. I didn’t realise that pet portraits were a thing until I went online and saw page after page of search results for pet portrait artists.

I’ve never met Cooper, a boxer mastiff cross. Everything was based on a collection of photos taken at different angles, including profile shots and various poses, that let me get some idea of the basic shape of his head.

Working in charcoal seemed the most flexible and natural method for me at the moment, but I really wanted to do an oil painting, just to see what I would come up with. I ended up doing two pieces, one in charcoal of Cooper as he is now (which didn’t quite work—I need to make another attempt), and this oil painting of him as a puppy.

For the puppy painting, I started with some warm-up charcoal and pencil drawings, then used a Polychromos pencil to do a more detailed sketch. I like the Polchromos pencils as they build up gently into darker tones, even though they don’t erase as easily as charcoal.

The pencil sketch was scanned and copied on to office paper and the back covered with old charcoal dust that I keep in a jar. The outlines and tones were transferred onto an A4 canvas mounted on aluminium composite by drawing over the sketch with a ballpoint pen.

The canvas ground was acrylic gesso covered with a layer of grey mud oil paint left over from a previous painting. Acrylic gesso can be very absorbant and suck the oil out of the upper layers, but this mud preparation acts as a barrier to the thirsty gesso and effectively creates an oil ground that is very pleasant to paint on.

I did about three passes on separate days to build up the painting, with a final pass to make some corrections to the background. I let the painting become touch dry before the next painting session.

I used ivory black in this painting and it’s not a pigment that I’m used to. I bought a tube to mix with titanium white and burnt umber to make neutral greys for reducing the chroma of colour mixes (following Paul Foxton’s method), but it was tempting to use this black instead of my usual mix of ultramarine blue and burnt umber for some of the darkest areas. A problem I’ve found with ivory black is that it sinks in really noticeably. It looks like a deep, silky black when wet but dries a lighter matt, almost like gouache. I don’t know if the oil is sinking in to lower layers or if the pigment itself is soaking up all the oil.

I oiled out the painting at the beginning of each pass, but eventually that thin linseed oil layer also sinks in. I was betting everything on a final varnish using Gamvar Gloss to even things out, which it seems to have done.

He looks cute in this picture. He’s grown up to be the size of a small horse.

 

sinking in

To varnish or not to varnish. Some painters don’t like the glare and shine of gloss varnish, preferring a matt or satin finish, or not varnishing at all. There are matt varnishes which contain a small amount of wax to take away some of the glare, but for paintings with dark areas this can seem like the worst of all worlds: there is still a sheen of glare (though not as much as with gloss) but the deep tones become cloudy due to the wax. Maybe it works well with high-key paintings.

Varnish is there to protect the surface (it’s a removable, replaceable clear layer) but it also brings out the depth and vibrancy of the original wet paint. It also evens out any patchy, sunken-in areas, which is where I find it most useful. Some pigments sink in more than others (ivory black and burnt umber seem to soak up all the oil) and mediums added to the mix can alter the final gloss. Thick impasto can have a glossy sheen next to paint thinly applied with a brush.

It’s a minefield of confusion which I attempted to clear with systematic testing, but like many of these experiments I ended up throwing various combinations of paint and varnish on the canvas in the vague hope that something useful would come out of it.

Here’s a painting of a rose (this was originally going to be a post about painting a rose from life, with the various challenges that presented) with a background that contains large areas of ivory black. It looked deep and dark when wet, but as you can see from the photo, it sinks in really noticeably to a dull matt finish. So much of the oil is soaked up that the paint doesn’t even feel particularly well bound to the canvas, as you can see from the top-right edge where the paint was lifted during oiling out.

I was going to go in to detail about all the various combinations of paint and the effects of thickness of application, oiling out, layering, and so on. But you’re spared all that and here’s a picture instead.

Click for a larger image.

The conclusion I reached: just apply a layer of gloss varnish at the end and all the problems are solved. Except for one: whilst sunken-in areas regain their depth, any areas that are already very glossy become even more glossy, so there’s still some unevenness. The portrait at the top of this post had glossy areas where I’d used stand oil in the paint mix. Adjacent areas were relatively matt. The gloss varnish evened things out a little but not completely. I tried applying a number of coats but they all seemed to dry with the same result. In the end, in a spirit of experimention and desparation, I poured a pool of varnish over the non-glossy areas, hoping for an evenly-glossy final painting. It didn’t work, but I quite like the photo.

Things to try in future experiments: lightly abrading the very glossy areas to take down the sheen before applying the final varnish.

Here’s Mark Carder with a video on how to varnish a painting. However, if you’re using Gamvar (as I did) the application needs to be thinner. See here for Gamblin’s varnishing instructions.

 

dark yellowing

This was a bit of a shock. I’d never come across this before. This is an old oil sketch I made back in 2014 on postcard-sized gessoed acrylic paper. It was kept for a good part of those four years in a stack of other similar oil sketches.

I took it out recently to find yellow-brown splotches all over the painting, and the whole picture had a colour cast. At first, I thought oil from the back of another ungessoed sketch had soaked through the paper on to the surface of this one.

I wasn’t particularly concerned about this painting—it was just an experiment to try things out—but if I’m using a technique that is flawed then I need to correct it.

It’s easy to get a bit obsessed with archival methods for making a painting, and as someone once said, there are paintings that will last a hundred years that should never have been painted. But, I would like to make objects that will be around for at least a few decades without falling apart.

I looked online and discovered the phenomenon of dark yellowing. As the name suggests, the linseed oil in paintings kept in low light or dark conditions can go yellow and darken dramatically. The cure, thankfully, is simply to expose them to light again.

I put the cloud sketch on the windowsill for a couple of days and the yellowing disappeared. If only all oil painting problems were as easily fixed.

[I remember this picture being hard to photograph when I was writing the post four years ago—the colours would shift with every shot I took. Preparing these photos was even more difficult as they were taken a few days apart with different lighting conditions. The top photo doesn’t quite convey just how noticeable the yellow splotches and colour cast appeared. It really did look as though the painting had decayed and deteriorated.]

 

fresh eyes

This one is a hybrid of charcoal on paper and digital painting. The reference photo was a portrait of the novelist Afua Hirsch taken by Richard Saker.

It started out as a quick generic head study using a stick of vine charcoal on cheap paper, with no real time being spent on measuring proportions or judging the relative positions of the features.

I continue to have major problems with basic proportion, making everything too wide or completely missing the scale and relationship of elements. I mean, look at the original charcoal sketch. As I was drawing it, I realised it wasn’t going to get a likeness, and I was aware the eye on the right was out of position a little, but maybe it would hold together with the other features to make a believable head.

It was only when I left the room and returned a few minutes later that the eye screamed out at me and showed its true position. How could I miss that? It’s half way down the face! This is up there with the repainting of Ecce Homo.

It’s so easy to work away on refining the details of something only to find the whole thing is in the wrong position. So I need to consciously walk away from a drawing, or use a mirror, or somehow get those essential fresh eyes.

As an experiment, I took it into Photoshop to move and rescale that eye, and then created a new blank layer to make further corrections and additions. I used an entry-level graphics tablet (Bamboo One) to do the refinement. I don’t have much knowledge of digital painting techniques, and everything was done with a default brush of varying softness and flow rate. The brush colour was sampled from the existing charcoal drawing. Some of the texture of the original charcoal remains but the default digital brushes have a tendency to make everything look too slick and airbrushed. There are no doubt techniques to avoid that plastic-wrapped appearance.

I still haven’t got a good likeness. A true likeness depends on a hundred and one subtle features to being just right. Somehow I’ve made her older and I can’t work out why. Have I made the face too wide? Is the forehead too short? I shortened the neck a little to more closely match the original reference. It’s still not her.

And again, I only have a digital file at the end of this. Will the endless opportunty for correction and revision that digital painting offers make me lazy? This process was fun, though. As Cynthia Sheppard shows us, there’s no one way to do this.

 

after Félix Thiollier

A copy of a photograph taken over a century ago by Félix Thiollier, possibly of his daughter, Emma. As far as I can tell from the translation of the French Wikipedia page, he developed his own prints and sometimes altered them using acid, or by drawing over them with ink or gouache.

This was a chance to just experiment with creating light effects using loose brush strokes and rough scraping with a palette knife. The cheap canvas surface was good resistance for the sharp corner of the knife and at times it felt like I was channelling Timothy Spall.

The original photograph has an unreal beauty and it’s hard to know how to add to it with paint. In being documentary, photography sometimes has the trump card over painting in that this moment actually happened. There’s a power to that which no amount of paint handling can recreate.

 

oil on charcoal

More experiments with aluminium composite panels, this time on the smaller A5 size. I wanted to see how a vine charcoal pencil would behave on the acrylic gesso surface. Sometimes it’s useful to draw using the precision of a sharp point. And sometimes it’s easier to draw with a pencil grip rather than holding a brush that can only be moved over the surface in certain ways. The question is how to transform that drawing in to a layer of oil paint.

Many people draw directly on canvas then use a spray fixative. Cesar Santos uses this method but has warned against using too much fixative as it creates a weak paint layer.

I found the charcoal draws quite well (albeit with a line tone effect due to the brush strokes in the gesso) and can be lifted off with a kneaded eraser. The paint can be applied directly over the charcoal, but to avoid the whole thing turning into a grey mess it’s necessary to work on only one area of tone at a time and to make sure those values are matched before moving on to the next area.

It’s a bit laborious to do it this way (without the fixative) so I’ll probably stick to using a transfer drawing for any precision areas or to get the overall composition placed correctly. After that, I’ll use a block-in with a brush directly on the canvas, or a wipe-out method for a more tonal drawing. But drawing in charcoal is so much fun, and this alone will make for a more dynamic picture.

 

live memory

The end of the Royal Crescent in Bath, painted in oils on the new aluminium composite panels.

This began as a pencil sketch made on location but was painted at home on the easel. I revisited the scene a couple more times at the same time of day to make further pencil sketches of details and light effects. The late autumn mid-afternoon light created some interesting edge lighting on the trees and columns.

Various sketch references and an acrylic colour study. The vine charcoal sketch below was useful for overall composition. The original pencil drawings and other notes are in the spiral-bound sketchbook. The aluminium composite panel was attached to the easel with tape and Blu Tack.


I took a reference photo which was useful for correcting proportions and details, but many of the important light effects in the scene were lost. The strange thing was that they were there in the photo, but somehow they had been flattened out and weren’t noticeable.

In the continuing debate about painting from life against painting from photo reference, I found this approach of doing both worked quite well. The most important thing I found was that drawing anything for any length of time has the effect of imprinting the scene on memory — not so much the overall composition, I still needed the sketch and photo for that, but the sense of depth, the subtle lighting effects and the overall atmosphere of the scene. For instance, there was a shift in the warmth of the stone between the crescent in the foreground and the buildings behind. And the road in the middle-ground has a steep camber which somehow added to the depth of the scene.

As I was making the first pencil sketch, leaning on the cast iron railings in front of the crescent, the late afternoon sun came out from behind the clouds and flooded the scene with golden light. The edges of the trees and buildings lit up, and everything else was plunged in to deep, warm shadow. It was a completely different scene and it only lasted a few seconds. It would have made for a more dramatic picture, and it certainly made me aware of how ‘light’ and ‘dark’ in our visual perception are relative to their surroundings.

All these memories played in my mind as I was painting, and it certainly made the process of painting much more interesting. Whether I can capture these perceptions using oil paint is another matter, but I certainly won’t be able to paint what I didn’t see in the first place.

 

portrait practice

Sometimes it’s useful to copy a photo as if it’s a Bargue drawing, paying close attention to proportion and accuracy. I found that copying Bargue’s schematic drawings makes me more aware of how the contours of the features have distinct directions and angles in relation to one another, and it is useful to look out for these basic shapes when observing the model. For instance, the structures of the eye (including the eyeball) slope backwards when seen in profile, and the stair-step of the mouth has its own distinct pattern of slopes, bulges and overhangs.

At the other extreme is full-on caricature, which is sometimes necessary to get the life and gesture back in to a drawing after too much chasing after accuracy. Court Jones has an excellent series of videos on this subject over at Proko.com.

Another benefit of caricature is that it emphasises the three-dimensional structure of the features, so the final picture becomes a construction of cylinders, blocks and eggs. This is the opposite of flattening what you see into an abstract collection of two-dimensional shapes, like the pieces of a jigsaw. Both these ways of seeing have their advantages, and I find it useful to flip from one method to another as I build up a drawing.

These pictures were made with charcoal or graphite except for the second one which was black and white Conté crayon on a background of gouache. Buried under that grey gouache background is a wiped-out attempt at a gouache portrait where I quickly found out how difficult it is to create smooth blends in that medium. It can be done but it requires some skill. James Gurney talks about it in this post, and has some general advice on using gouache here. Gouache is good for constructing forms from confident, distinct brush strokes. I find it much easier to build up forms with smooth blends and sharp edges using graphite or charcoal, especially when combined with a kneaded eraser.

Photo credits (including some very useful instructional videos):

On Air Video and Croquis Cafe Heads Up

Vincent Xeus

Bradwynn Jones Wake and Draw

Draw This

Alex John Beck

New Masters Academy

 

flat or round

When I’m drawing, I find I frequently change the way I interpret what I am seeing in order to get it down on paper. Sometimes, the scene is an abstract arrangement of flat shapes, and the drawing is an attempt to copy that collection of unidentified blobs and curves as accurately as possible. At other times, I see the object as a construction of primitive shapes, where an arm becomes a foreshortened cylinder or a torso becomes a rounded block.

The Betty Edwards classic Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain has a central message to draw what you see rather than what you know, and ignore the generic image of a cup, a tree, a face that we have stored in our minds and replace it with the collection of light and dark forms right there in front of you.

Of course, the labelling ‘left brain’ can have its uses, for instance to recognise that the eye is probably more important to get exactly right in a portrait rather than accurately drawing every last lock of hair. But once the important area has been identified, the ‘right brain’ can take over so that it is no longer ‘an eye’ but a collection of interlocking forms and shapes.

By contrast, using the construction method to draw takes what we see and transforms it in the virtual reality of our minds into a simple shape, and then we draw that shape.

One method isn’t necessarily better than another; they’re all useful tools to get an image down on a flat surface, and I find it useful to switch from one method to the other. So, as I draw, an abstract blob can turn in to ‘an arm curving around an elbow in to the forearm’, which in turn turns into a construction of cylinders, pyramids and elongated spheres leading in to the square block of the wrist. And as I draw that, the shadow shapes take over again.

[Photo credits for the three photos copied above: Martin Munkácsi, Neil Libbert, Pierre Parente via aucharbon.]

 

in search of the perfect panel

First layer of acrylic gesso on A4 aluminium composite panels.

I had been meaning to experiment with using aluminium composite as a support for some time as it has many useful properties:

  • It doesn’t warp much, even at fairly large sizes (up to at least a metre).
  • Takes up much less space than stretched canvas.
  • Doesn’t rot, split, degrade or otherwise fall apart (so I’m told).
  • Provides a solid surface (which I prefer) compared to the bounciness of stretched canvas.

A friend who works in a sign shop gave me an offcut to experiment with. This is 3mm aluminium composite (a sandwich of two thin sheets of aluminium with a polyethylene or polyurethane core). Some kind of polycarbonate surface is baked on at the factory and can come in a range of colours. It’s this surface rather than the aluminium itself which the painting ground will adhere to. Painting on bare aluminium can apparently lead to adhesion problems due to aluminium forming a thin (and crumbly) layer of oxide on its surface.

Preparation

I basically followed the instructions given by Kate Stone in her very useful post More Apocalypse-Surviving Panels which gives all the details about how to prepare these panels. I suggest you go there if you need step-by-step instructions. I went with the ‘acrylic dispersion ground’ option as I’m used to painting on acrylic ground and it seems to be the simplest method.

So the trick is to lightly abrade the coloured surface enough for a layer of acrylic gesso to form a mechanical bond. I used a medium grit sandpaper to create an even scuffing of the surface, enough to take the shine off the surface but not enough to wear through to the bare aluminium. I did try using a small electric sander but found it created hot-spots of bare aluminium, so doing it by hand is the way to go.

After sanding the surface and smoothing down any sharp edges, clean the surface with rubbing alcohol (I used a bit of Gamsol) to remove the dust and grease. Then build up thin layers of acrylic gesso using a house-painting brush. Four layers seems to give complete coverage (see the right-hand section of the test panel in the photo). Allow each layer to dry before applying the next and alternate the direction of the brush strokes for each layer. Many thin layers will be mechanically stronger than fewer thicker ones. Add a little water to the final layer for a super-smooth surface if desired, but I prefer a surface with a little more tooth provided by the ridges from the application brush.

Testing on an offcut of aluminium composite. Left: Canvas sheet attached with acrylic gesso; Middle: gesso over a base of GAC100; Right: four layers of acrylic gesso.

I also experimented with attaching a sheet of loose canvas to the panel using either PVA glue or GAC100 (a type of acrylic used for extending acrylic paint and for sealing surfaces). I didn’t find either was a particularly good adhesive in my limited experiments.

Compared to the other two, the best adhesive by far was, once again, acrylic gesso. I sanded and cleaned the panel surface as before, and added one thin layer of acrylic gesso which I allowed to dry. The second layer of gesso was a bit thicker as some of it would need to soak in to the weave of the canvas. After smoothing out the canvas with a brayer to remove any wrinkles or air bubbles, I put a layer of plastic wrap from some old packaging on top, then weighed the whole thing down with a flat board and anything heavy I could find.

There is one problem at this stage, which is that the wet acrylic gesso is effectively sandwiched in an airtight layer between the non-porous panel and the plastic protective sheet on top, making it slow to dry. I conducted these tests in a damp midwinter, so dryer, warmer conditions might help. Once or twice I would remove the weights and plastic for half an hour to let the surface breathe before weighing down again.

It seemed to work well. The canvas surface was very even. As a test I peeled back the canvas from the panel and, although it wasn’t welded on, it required a fair amount of pull to remove it, and it peeled back evenly with no bubbles or weak points, suggesting a good bond.

Canvas sheet adhesion test.

Panel abuse with screwdriver and palette knife.

I then attacked the plain gesso surface with a screwdriver. I gouged in a crosshatch of lines a few millimetres apart then stuck on some adhesive tape as firmly as possible before ripping it off. Next, I scraped away at the surface with some force using the edge of a metal palette knife. The results of all this abuse can be seen in the photo. The gouged squares did lose some of the paint from the corners where I repeated scraped at them, but this was limited to the corners where the screwdriver had already broken the surface right down to the aluminium. The whole square didn’t come away and nothing suggested that this was a weak or flaky surface.

So based on my limited testing, either a plain acrylic gesso surface or canvas glued to the panel with acrylic gesso will provide a solid ground for oil painting.

Suppliers

Aluminium composite comes under many trade names (one of the original manufacturers sells it as Dibond). Many brands are cheaper Chinese imports and I’ve heard they can vary in the thickness of the aluminium layers and in the material used in the central core. It’s not always clear exactly which brand you’re buying, and some suppliers advertise as Dibond but say they may substitute for an equivalent brand. For our purposes, we just need a panel that won’t warp or dent too easily.

Some people buy large panels and cut them to size using a table saw, or even cut the panel with a craft knife and some determination. (See Amanda Teicher’s video on cutting panels by hand, which contains useful advice on preparing Dibond in general).

I shopped online for a supplier who would cut panels to any size. The single-sided panels are much cheaper (the reverse side is bare aluminium) but only come in white; a coloured surface would make it easier to ensure an even coverage of gesso. After including delivery costs and VAT, it worked out at roughly £1.70 for an A4 panel and £3.40 for A3. By comparison, the cheapest uncradled gessoboard found online costs around £5 for a 20 x 30 cm panel (roughly equivalent to A4 size) and around £9 for 30 x 40 cm (roughly A3). Of course, there’s still the time and effort needed to prepare the aluminium panels and the cost of a tub of acrylic gesso, but it’s certainly affordable.

On delivery, I found that the aluminium sheets in the composite sandwich were slightly thinner than the sample I had been working with. It felt slightly less rigid but was still almost free of any warp at A2 size (420 x 594 mm), and being non-porous there is less concern about the effects of primers or water-based grounds causing warping. So no need for sealing, or priming both sides, or bracing, which might be necessary for wood-based supports.

And there’s something to be said for preparing your own panels. Before you’ve even laid down the first brush stroke, you’ve invested some time, effort and care into creating this surface.

But what’s it like to paint on? It’s too early to say at the moment, but first impressions are good. I created this wipe-out underpainting using only burnt umber oil paint straight from the tube with no solvents. The paint could be easily faded back with kitchen paper, and the slightly toothy surface took the paint evenly from the brush.

To be continued…