My FIRST niece also happens to be a dog. How I painted her, from start to finish.
Charlee, aka the cookie monster, is dog “cousin” to Teelo, Riggs, and Clicquot. Charlee is a Portuguese water dog. She was supposed to be a boy, but then my sister was handed a girl puppy on the day they went to pick “him” up from the breeder. True to form, my sister already had her mind made up that her dog would be named Charlee, so Charlee she stayed. Charlee and Teelo are both eight years old and a bit, born one month apart (Teelo is the older, more mature pup, obviously). They spent a lot of time together when they were little, especially before Riggs and then Miss Monkey Bananas Clicquot appeared on the scene. Nowadays, special planning has to take place to manage get-togethers of this four-dog gong show, but the cousins always remember each other (in one way or another).
Charlee is pretty quirky (aren’t all dogs weird in their own way?). She can’t be trusted around cats, Wiggis can attest to that. You can often catch her rocking a bandanna like a supermodel (or hot mess, depends when you catch her). Charlee also likes long walks with her grandpa, eating off of countertops, and being a big sister to my sweet nephew (although I’m quite sure she preferred being an only child, sorry sis).
I painted Charlee over a few days in August 2018. I always take a lot of pics to document my work as a reference for myself. Mainly I do this so that if things really go off the rails I have a breadcrumb trail to try to get back to when things were “good”. It’s also a great way to tell the story of a painting.
This work was done in artist quality acrylics (Tri-Art and Golden – if you asked me to choose I would say that I prefer Golden but they are hard to come by in-store where I live). The main palette was burnt umber, Payne’s grey, burnt sienna, cobalt blue (!), and titanium white. There was also some failed experimentation with naphthol red which I’ll get to. I painted on gallery stretched canvas, size 16×20″. As an alternative to black, mixing burnt umber and Payne’s grey will give you a beautiful nearly black colour that is so rich- I think it really captures the inky darkness of blue-black shadows and I used it extensively for C’s portrait.
I started with this print-out of a photo my sister took of Charlee. I’ll often fiddle with filters and lighting of a photo before printing it out to sketch. Especially for… hirsute… canines like Charlee it really helps me to identify the dominant lines for my drawing. I always create a sketch, sometimes more than one if the first doesn’t suffice. The goal is not to have a perfectly detailed, shaded drawing, but quite literally a map of the most important lines and placement of anatomy. The sketch needs to capture the essence of the subject or it won’t be useful as a reference for the painting. It has to be pretty perfect. The more accurate I am here, the better for the painting. The Charlee sketch was pretty easy – maybe because I know her so well, but also I was really looking forward to sketching from that photo, the angle of her nose struck me as being really cute. I should say I did have to add in a body for Charlee based on another photo for reference of her.
Once I was happy with the sketch I transferred it to the canvas. First using graphite transfer paper (my old standby) and then apparently I decided to go over those lines with a Sharpie? I am a huge Sharpie fan for watercolour and ink paintings, but I don’t normally use it for an under-drawing. I must have been feeling especially committed to this sketch?
Nowadays, I prefer to tint the entire canvas with a uniform, neutral colour, prior to beginning a painting – for oil and acrylic. I find it kind of jarring to paint directly on to bright white gesso. I also prefer to have a neutral first layer so that if there is any unpainted canvas showing through it’s complimentary to the final painting.
Evidently, I didn’t start Charlee that way. I started with Payne’s grey and burnt umber for the darkest areas and slowly built that up in layers, then started working my way up to the highlights. Charlee has black fur, but within the highlights there are blues, and browns, and earthy yellows. When you paint from life, it’s so important to look closely and consider what colours you can see – sort of like that forest for the trees expression. Always look closely. What do you see? 😉
I kept layering in the highlights on top of the dark base.. I had to be careful to paint quickly and not let it dry too much between layers. I used a round, soft #6 brush which really worked to give the illusion of individual hairs. I use soft round and filbert (sizes #6 and #8) synthetic watercolour brushes for all of my paintings, regardless of the medium, usually short handle even if working at my easel.
I also always like to paint the eyes and nose right away because as soon as those are done, I will have a better feeling for the painting and how it’s going to turn out. In this case I loved Charlee’s little nose and the highlight detail right away. It’s the focal point.
Once Charlee was good to go, this is where it got a little bit tricky. I thought since Charlee is so dark, that a light background would really help to contrast with that. I really prefer to paint the background as I’m painting my subject now, otherwise you risk having the two look disassociated somehow. Anyway, once I had this light background in place, the whole painting seemed really washed out to me. And too streaky. I hated it.
Then I felt like I had a stroke of genius and decided that RED, pure naphthol red, would be the most striking background. So off I went.
I was so sure of it, I signed the painting. Done. then I realized that actually I hated it too.
And so, that is the roundabout way I came to choose a dark background for Charlee. I decided to use the darkest shade in Charlee’s colouring, and the highlights of her fur provided the contrast. I decided I loved it. After all that.
Charlee took about three days to complete including the background fails. I would paint after work and after the gym and whenever I had time between dog walks. There are always many dog walks. Day one was for sketching, transferring the drawing to the canvas, and underpainting. Day two was when the bulk of the painting took place, adding in details and working out Charlee’s features (I feel like every portrait is a bit of a problem to solve). Day three was final details, choosing the background colour, and sending pics to my sister to approve.
I always use acrylics for commissions because of the fast drying time. And in Charlee’s case I was able to really exploit the fast drying to use a drybrush technique and add a lot of detail in her fur. In other paintings I have really struggled with acrylic paint drying too quickly regardless of using retarding medium. This has been a big motivation for me switching over to oils for my personal works recently where I can work all prima (and sound fancy doing so!). 😛
It’s always easiest to paint dogs that you love because you know their personalities and you can kind of weave that into the painting as you go.
Charlee, the painting, now hangs proudly in my sister’s main floor washroom, because (according to her logic) that room receives the most traffic in the house. Also, according to my sweet sister, the painting receives many compliments from all of the visitors who happen to cross paths with it in the course of their business there.
And that’s the story of Charlee and her portrait. Thanks for reading! 🙂