Tuesday, December 16, 2008


Meet Morgan - This is a commission I did this month of Morgan, a beautiful golden retreiver who passed away very recently. Morgan was left at a clinic when he was 6 and was lucky enough to be found by a new family where he has lived with his dog-sisters for the past 4 years or so. Morgan was diagnosed with splenic cancer two years ago and with treatment he continued to enjoy going for walks and swimming in the pond. Sadly he developed more cancer which spread rapidly and took his life this year - but he is a beautiful reminder that illness does not need to consume us.

As people we have such a hard time overcoming the mental weight of our problems - illness, stress, money concerns. The problems are very real - but they only beat us when they keep us from enjoying every precious day of our lives. Dogs are so much smarter!

Reference photo:

Morgan's portrait was done in pastel using a modification of the Colorist technique that I have learned some from Charlie (a wonderful pastel painter who teaches on WetCanvas - check out her blog!). I wanted a realistic final portrait - but by using a colorist foundation (strong, bright colors mapping out the light and shadow areas of the painting) the final result will have greater depth and body than if I use layer upon layer of the same color families.

As all my paintings do - it stars with a sketch after careful selection of the crop and composition I wish to use. I am working on Wallis paper for this one (remember - the stuff that is like sandpaper). I grind the initial colors of pastel into the paper to give it a base color to work on and draw the undersketch in vine charcoal:

Next go the base colors - yellows, blues, oranges and purples predominate. I sent a copy at this point to the client who ordered this painting (it's a close friend of mine and, yes, I was having a bit of a joke). She wisely heeded my warning to 'wait until it develops, it will look better' - but I'm sure I scared the pants off her.

I start layering more 'normal' colors over the base - eventually all of the base will be covered up and you will only see it in micro-tiny bits that peek through the top layers of color. This is how it adds to the depth of the painting without actually being part of what you see in the end.

I always work the background first - it's generally my least favorite part but at the same time extremely important to get right. In this case I am doing a detailed background - it's always my preference to have the subject in a setting, but a detailed background comes close to doubling the painting time so it isn't always an option. In this case I had enough lead time and the reference photo was so perfect I had to take advantage of it!

As the painting progresses I hone in on the face. Although, truth be told, I flit back and forth throughout the painting process - mapping out the values, adjusting, layering, and tweaking the parts I'm not directly working on when I take breaks from the parts I am focusing on.

Many animal artists start with the eyes, I tend to leave them until the end. Most of us will agree that the eyes make or break a portrait. That is where you capture the life and emotion of your subject, and I guess that's the reason people will start with the eyes. For me - I put so much into the eyes (time-wise I probably spend more than twice as long per square inch on eyes than any other part of the painting). So if I start with the eyes, get them perfect, and then have anything be off on the rest of the painting it is a dismal proposition to go change those eyes. By leaving them until last I am sure that I'm happy with the rest of the proportions, values, and composition before I do that last little burst. Plus the painting doesn't really 'come to life' until the eyes are done - so near the end when I paint them it's like a grand unveiling - even for me who's been a foot away from the painting for hours to days at that point.

So here is the final version - Morgan in the back garden. I hope you like it. I hope Morgan approves!

And if you didn't see my previous blog entry on pets and loss please have a look here.

~~ Boots ~~


JafaBrit's Art said...

Although I am not a pastel artist I thoroughly enjoyed reading your process. Beautiful dog and what a beautiful portrait (composition is wonderful).

Cat-in-a-Box said...

Thanks Jafabrit!

Shupe said...

I wish I could figure out pastels-
I'm not patient enough!!!
Fabulous work !!

I'll be back for sure!

Anonymous said...

Pam, you're wonderful! I found this by accident, clicking on a link I didn't intent to click on, and found this beautiful dog! How did you like to use the underpainting technique? The painting is strong, the dog is adorable, and I love how he peaks out behind the trellis which isn't a wall stopping the eye, but a delicate space-setter, orienting us in space.

:-D I've gotta know, what did the client say (will say?) when she gets the developed painting?

Beautiful work!

And thank you for linking!


Cat-in-a-Box said...

Charlie! Thanks for visiting! I really liked my little foray into colorist-ness! I'm not sure I did it quite right - but even what I did do gave tremendous depth to the shadows and enhanced the final painting. I'll be sure to do it again! (I'll be checking back in on your WetCanvas lesson before I do!!).

Chrissy said...

Lovely work! I have had a play with pastels and enjoyed them but still keep going back to CP's or watercolours. I smile at how you leave the eyes till last, I used to leave them till last but found it helped me with the rest to have life as I was going along. But, I cannot do them first so they are about in the middle at the minute.

kaslkaos said...

Beautiful work of art, and a great lesson in pastels too. Thank You!

Robin said...


Harold said...

Astonishing work, as always Pam. I had some thought that the framing of the original photo might cause you trouble, but you seemed to get around it by the final edit - still not sure how - I would have thought you'd need to create more framing to balance the trellis, but somehow it seems to work ok...

Really enjoying catching up with your blog posts.

OtterTail said...

Beautiful work! I also wonder about when to do the eyes. I like the idea of doing them first because they are so important - if they are off the whole picture will be bad. On the other hand, doing them late makes the whole thing really come to life. Like Chrissy I currently do them about in the middle - because that is as soon as I can. I have found the dogs sometimes talk to me after that and help me develop the rest of the painting :-).

Happy to have found your blog - I know nothing about pastel. I look forward to seeing more of your work!

Edward Burton said...

Wonderful -- simply wonderful!

"JeanneG" said...

This is great. Reminds me of our baby Friday who is 10. Very hard to get the gray in a painting without it looking like a mask. Nice job.