While I may be at risk of becoming the crazy cat lady of the art blogging world, today I’m here to tell you the story of Beesa painting number two… aka “Grandma”.
Grandma, unofficially titled Big Beesa, is a big portrait of our beloved little teensy tiny micro cat Beesa. Because Beesa is our oldest and wisest pet, for a long time she has simply been referred to as “Grandma”. As in, “Dogs, leave Grandma alone!” This is my second (and last?) oil painting of 2018, and also the second (of three planned) in the Beesa series, and I just love it. I am so thrilled with how it has turned out. Well, there is good and bad. The more I wait on publishing this post and the more I look at the painting and think about it the more negative I am noticing but I’ll get to that in my totally unbiased review later on here…
I decided to talk about the painting process in this post now, as opposed to waiting until the painting is varnished, because all of my feelings are still fresh and on my mind. The Beesa project has taken on a bit of a feeling of urgency. Beesa is a little old lady, I think she’s 16?!?!? She has always been in absolutely perfect health, but in the last month or so she has stopped eating consistently and this has been very upsetting.
We have gone through many (many!) senior cat foods trying to appease Beesa. She is now accepting a Royal Canin appetite stimulator formula, but the process for delivering it to her has become incredibly specific. She eats every two hours or so starting around 5 am when I wake up. She sleeps on my chest and starts caterwauling to wake me up around 4:45. Once I’m walking towards the kitchen she runs ahead of me, squealing “Heeeeeeeeeee” the whole way (it’s the special noise she makes) and jumps up on Teelo’s dog crate (it has a solid plastic roof and she is still incredibly agile). It’s from the roof of the dog crate she demands her meals. She gets ten or so cat kibbles at a time, served whole, in a tiny dish, covered with warm water – any more than this and she will.not.eat.it. She eats these. Spends some time grooming. And then repeats the process. Over and over. All day everyday.
It’s been hard for us because this is just the first time we have ever considered Beesa’s age, and that she may not always be feeling well… and… her mortality (for lack of a happier word). And even though I truly believe she will live forever because I can’t remember or imagine my life without her… it makes my heart sad so I don’t dwell on it.
Beesa has been part of our family since we became a little family. She’s the OG Beesa, the first little animal. When we got our very first apartment in the big city Beesa joined us about a week later. We couldn’t bring her home in a cat carrier like a normal cat because we learned (extremely quickly) that Beesa absolutely hates the car. Instead the breeder recommended we bring a laundry basket lined with old towels and newspaper for the trip. Beesa may be a little micro cat but her bladder must take up most of her anatomy and she must’ve saved up for that car ride home. Suffice it to say, she doesn’t leave the house very often. It is a miracle she made it up the highway to join our new house four years ago. She hasn’t left since. Beesa is like a large, awkward couch – not really moveable once delivered.
So I’ve definitely been feeling some mental and emotional pressure from myself to get on with this Beesa series. It’s a way to meditate on how I feel about her, and study her sweet little face. Of course all of this painting continues to be interrupted every 45-60 minutes by her cat screams from the kitchen to let me know she is hungry, again.
Since Beesa is the Queen of this house it was only fitting that she have a series of commemorative portraits, just like real royalty. The first sketch for this painting (I always, always start with a sketch) was completed on Nov 1. This is just 2B Staedtler (my favourite pencil) in my sketchpad. Some things I really paid attention to in the sketch include – the angle of Beesa’s chin, her “lips”, and the tuck of her little cat arm. Those are all pretty distinctive features that I wanted to make sure came across in the final painting.
While I was still in the middle of This is a Cat I tinted the canvas for Big Beesa because I know that I will need at least a week of lead time to allow this layer to really dry before transferring my drawing. I followed my method outlined here to prepare the canvas (there’s a video and everything!). I used burnt umber diluted with oil painting medium (1 part Gamsol : 1 part Galkyd). Despite using it as sparingly as possible, my Old Holland burnt umber is quickly being used up (in addition to Payne’s grey, titanium white, and Scheveningen black – those are definitely my top four colours).
I enlarged my Big Beesa sketch and hung it on the wall behind my easel so I could kind of subconsciously think about it while I was working on This is a Cat. I do this a lot – hang up a sketch for a future work even if I’m not in a position to get started yet – I find it’s a really helpful way for me to start thinking about a project to have it there in the background.
I always start by laying down some of the darkest areas of the painting. I also find it really helpful to get the main features of the face done right away – if those look ok it gives me a lot more confidence for the rest of the work. I find this provides an “anchor” for the rest of the work. I am a realist at heart and I like to feel in control of my work, I don’t like to leave these beginning steps to chance because my vision is very clear.
I love taking pictures of my progress. I love to watch the painting evolve through the pictures. One of my favourite things is to flip through successive photos of the same painting – kind of like a little time-lapse video which you know I enjoy making :). And I also find it really, really difficult to objectively evaluate my work when I’m sitting right in front of it. More and more I depend on a photograph as the means through which to view my paintings. It provides a valuable point-of-view. I find that if I’m being hard on myself or feeling doubtful, I will usually be pleasantly surprised by the photo. I also find that any errors or issues, will really jump out at me even if I had been ignoring these problems while sitting in front of the canvas. These issues are unavoidable in a picture. It’s a great way to get another perspective.
After painting in the burnt umber and black mixture for the darkest areas, I went on to paint the lightest areas right away. Usually you would work from dark to successively lighter but Beesa has such prominent areas of light I felt disjointed until these were in place. At this point I felt like she was really starting to take shape on the canvas.
Once the darkest and lightest areas were down, I turned to the extremely difficult-for-me process of interpreting and laying down Beesa’s leopard pattern. Oh my god was this ever hard. It is really easy to lose yourself in a pattern like this. I find it’s so important to have a plan and to take frequent steps back. I try to compartmentalize all the different colours and not mix them on the canvas too much. I feel like blending is really the enemy. I want everything to remain separate, almost like a cartoon-like in its contrast, and of course resist the urge to blend. This is one example of how oil painting really feels sculptural to me. Add a little here, take away something there. Always controlled, always with an eye to the finished product.
The palette for this painting focused primarily on these Old Holland colours:
I still can’t stop raving about these paints. In terms of pigment load, handling, depth of colour, luminosity – I am so impressed. The paints are so incredibly rich. They are very expensive but they are really worth the investment because I think this really comes across in the art work. I truly believe investing in these paints means investing in my art.
I worked on this painting all this past weekend on and off and nearly finished but the appearance of the (nearly complete) painting below irritated me so much I almost quit. I loved it, loved it, loved it, and then suddenly I just couldn’t stand it. I absolutely hated how “out of control” the edge of Beesa’s coat had started to look. Kind of raggedy but also kind of like the portrait had gotten away from me.
I don’t know if I am just too particular or if someone out there will appreciate this, but I thought about this issue for twelve hours straight and decided the solution was to go back in with another layer of black background and cut in close to Beesa’s fur. So instead of dry brush strokes kind of fanning out into the background haphazardly, the black background creates a very strong, confident outline that defines Beesa. I absolutely loved the subtle but important difference. When I made this change I knew the painting was working and that the final painting would be good. It’s all about control people, lol.
So what do I love about this painting? I think all of the elements came together really nicely. I absolutely love Beesa’s eyes. The little details of eyelashes, the darkest black of her pupils against the pop of green. I think that works very well. I love her nose and mouth, and the detail suggested by the shadows. I practiced a lot of restraint, I didn’t rush and I think that really paid off. I was able to correct any issues before they were permanently incorporated. The painting is very realistic – my husband will attest to this. This is Grandma Beesa. I am still surprised by the high level of realism achievable with oil paints. It looks like sweet Beesa and it is very close to what I originally visualized.
What’s bothering me?
The black background was so vibrant when I first applied it but it’s drying kind of splotchy. I know this will be fixed when I varnish the painting (Gamvar gloss varnish – I cannot wait for this last step). Stay tuned for an update.
I (really!!) wish that I had positioned Beesa a little offset from centre. So that her right ear was slightly cut off by the edge of the canvas. A little more interesting in terms of design, a little less traditional than a standard, centred subject. As a consolation prize of sorts I’m happy that her whiskers stretch right across the canvas but I would definitely pay more attention to the composition going forward. Similarly, I also wish that Beesa was also ever so slightly tilted, like in my original sketch, versus sitting bolt-upright like she is in the finished painting. Lastly, I wish I had planned and segregated the patterning a little more deliberately ahead of time. The pattern of her coat was not totally under my control and my goal for the last Beesa painting is to master this a little more. To have it totally planned before the brush hits the palette.
Honestly, going back to painting the mono-red smooth-haired vizslas will seem so simple in comparison with these crazy, complicated Bengal coats.
So, that’s the story of our Grandma – in real life and in this painting. If you read this far, I thank you very much! The third, and last, painting in the Beesa series is unofficially titled The Scream 🙂 but I’m sure that will change.
Before then, I have a Wiggis piece that needs some love, and maybe even a human portrait that has been on deck for far too long. A break from cat painting may not be a bad thing… In the meantime, I’ll hang this sketch of screaming Beesa behind my easel so my brain can get to work on it now.
Anyone with feedback?? I love to hear from you. Please leave your thoughts in the comments below.