It may seem kind of daunting (or is it just me?), but starting your first oil painting is actually pretty straightforward with the right materials, a little know-how, and a bit of a, “What the hell, let’s just give it a try” attitude. Here’s a video to help you lay down your first layer of oil paint and get your drawing transferred to your canvas and ready to go.
***Disclaimer*** Cute dogs make an appearance and cause a little chaos. So sorry for any video awkwardness on my part. Oh, and please excuse Baby Riggs for growling at Teelo around the first minute or so, I don’t know what that was about. Materials listed after the video for your information 🙂
Canvas (I like the extra thick gallery-stretched canvases)
Oil painting medium (I use 1 part Gamsol: 1 part Galkyd stored in a screw top glass container)
A neutral oil paint colour like burnt umber or Payne’s grey (my favourites :)); I’ve been using burnt umber so much for my cat paintings I’m renaming it Beesa umber 🙂
A soft, flat brush (I use a 3/4″ synthetic bristle watercolour brush – reserved just for this purpose)
Paper towels or rags
Acrylic paint in your choice of colour to finish the sides of your canvas (I like Tri-Art charcoal black for the price and the quality);
My art history would not be complete without revisiting high school – however cringe-inducing it might be.
I started grade 9 in 1995.
Even though I’m talking about my past in the context of my artistic development, any walk down memory lane would be remiss if I didn’t touch on the glaring awkwardness. So let’s get it out of the way. I look back on my old photos from high school and I sincerely wonder, what on earth was I thinking? At the same time, I remind myself that it was such a different time from now. Just to give you an idea, the week I started high school the number one song on the radio (because we listened to the radio!) was Coolio’s “Gangsta’s Paradise”, and Friends was the most popular show on television. We all wore jeans, white t-shirts, and plaid button-downs over-top, sometimes tied around our waists. We all thought we were sooooo cool – even me! Pant waists were still pretty high back then – not total mom jeans but it wasn’t great. Nowadays people wear their high rise pants and feel ironic. Back then we did it because we just didn’t know any better. How could we – we barely had the internet!
I think most people usually just go from elementary school to their feeder high school. I had a few choices. I guess as an alternative to art school or my local high school, my mom actually lined up overnight at an all-girl’s Catholic high school that only did admissions via a lottery – it was really popular with local parents. Suffice it to say my mother put a lot of effort into getting me into this school attached to its very own nunnery.
This seemed like insanity to me. Grade 8 me was totally appalled. I already had my sights set on going to art school anyway. So in the winter of 1994-95 I applied to the Cawthra Park S.S. Regional Arts Program. The admissions process involved a few steps including a portfolio audition – it was all very proper. Two of the art teachers interviewed me, asked to look at my portfolio, and then had me draw a still-life scene for twenty minutes.
I was accepted and I was thrilled. My mom came to terms with it 😘
Cawthra Park S.S. was “famous” for being real-life Spike-from-Degrassi’s high school, but we never saw her. Students in the Regional Arts Program majored in visual art, music, drama, or dance. Art class was really great. I remember enjoying it very much right away.
The grade 9 art majors had Mr. Jensen, and let me tell you that was both an awesome and terrifying experience (I feel like that was a theme throughout grade 9). It really gave meaning to the expression, “baptism by fire.” Mr. Jensen was a no bullshit kind of guy. When you sensed he was in a bad mood (like the time he told us he got into a fight at hockey practice as an explanation for his black eye?!?) you would just stay out of his way. He was also awesome. Just a really awesome guy. He was a legitimate artist – he’d paint landscapes at his easel right alongside us sometimes. And he taught the most captivating art history classes. My knowledge of 20th Century art and the progression from impressionism through post-modernism is solidly intact because of this man. He was just a fantastic teacher. Kind of like Dead Poets Society: Cawthra Park Freaks and Geeks edition. Despite being a little bit scary, I just loved Mr. Jensen. His talks on Picasso and Dadaism and Michelangelo made me appreciate artists and styles I thought I knew or would have written off as being “dumb” or “boring”. And I loved the way he seemed to appreciate my art and my vision and what I had to offer. He seemed to think there was real merit in my work and I loved that because Mr. Jensen didn’t have time for fools – on this point he was incredibly upfront.
As an aside – I had really high hopes of finding magic again when I took art history as an undergrad at Queen’s but no such luck – it turns out Mr. Jensen was the diamond in the rough of our class. We had other art teachers over the years and they were good, but Mr. Jensen played a huge role in my high school experience and his teaching guides how I judge myself and my success as an artist even now. Definitely a lasting impression.
Academically I did very well. I think when I started in grade 9 I had enough raw talent to do reasonably alright and I thought a lot of the projects were fun. I liked getting good marks and I wanted to do well, that’s in my nature. At the same time, class didn’t feel like a chore in the first year or two. In the beginning we spent a lot of time drawing and then there were introductory “units” on painting, print-making, sculpture. Looking back, the projects were pretty disjointed. We spent time on colour theory and produced a series of abstract drawings focused on light and shadow. We spent a month on watercolours and produced a still-life watercolour painting at the end. It was pretty cool to get to go to art class everyday but I guess I’m not surprised looking back that a lot of my work has a sort of empty quality to it. It really wasn’t very inspired.
I’m not sure that I became a better artist by going to “art school”. I do think that it kind of opened up more options to me. Being a creature of habit I probably would never have experimented with acrylics (for example) without being assigned to do an acrylic painting. Likewise for oils. And I learned I hated printmaking. Like, I hated it so much and could never apply enough pressure to get an even print and it was just so… messy.
I did so well in my first year art class that I was awarded the Year 1 Visual Arts Award. I didn’t know this even existed but once I did, and once I found out that it was offered for every year of the Regional Arts Program – the gloves were off. I feel like people are really surprised about this aspect of my personality but it’s true – I am really, really competitive. As such I mounted a Herculean effort to be “the best” at art class.
What did “being the best” mean to me? Number one it meant achieving the highest mark in art class, every year, which I succeeded at. This made each year less fun than the year before. And in the process of aiming for the top, I also totally ruined the enjoyment of learning for the sake of learning. I was just so obsessed with the number awarded to my work. Not only that, I know that I wasn’t “the best”. I don’t even know what this means now. A lot of my fellow students went on to become very successful professional artists. I just got to be really good at playing the grade game. In fact, one of my life regrets is that, despite doing so well on paper, I didn’t decide to do art as a career…
One of my lasting takeaways from art school is that I really got a bit of a bug in my head about art needing to have meaning. I kind of learned the hard way back then that it’s just not good enough to create a carbon copy of the world around you. It’s ok for practice, sure, but what you paint matters. Without meaning, without a story for a Mr. Jensen to tell his grade 9 art class, the work has no soul. The story can be the colours, or the choices made by the artist, or all the things in their life that led to the pivotal point in time when a work was created. For me, art without purpose really became art that’s not even worth doing. This concept created a huge artist’s block for me in my last year in the program and lasted for a number of years (as in, what’s the point if there is no point?) but I’ve come back to it in a big way now and I find it’s really my central motivation.
By grade 11 there was a significant contingent of students that chose to focus on abstract and conceptual art, especially for our thesis project in our last year. I thought it was all just madness. I just wasn’t open to it. We got a new department head around this time who really championed conceptual art… and I really struggled to continue to paint in a realistic style with some sort of heart. When I look back on a lot of my art projects from high school they seem kind of lacking, and I remember feeling a bit empty when I was creating them too. It’s funny how that feeling isn’t lost on me even now.
Because of art school I have a soft spot for the work of Mark Rothko because it reminds me of our class trip to the Albright Gallery in Buffalo. I also have a soft spot for the super weird movie “Metropolis” that we watched there and back. I love the Group of Seven even though they are “overexposed” perhaps in the history of Canadian art – it reminds me of art history class. I’ll never forget the day students were invited to bring their dogs to art class and we spent the morning sketching in the middle of this off-leash crew of pups just wandering around the room, coming up to us to say hello. It was the best. And I’ll never forget my classmates, because even though I’m not in touch with most of them now, it was a really great group of kids. I actually recently had the fortuitous experience of reuniting with a high school friend through kind of five degrees of separation and from our conversations – it was like no time has passed. We may be separated by nearly a continent, but having this shared history makes these friendships feel like home 🙂
If I could go back in time, I would try to enjoy the “journey of learning” a little more. I suppose that’s easy to say now that I’m twenty-five plus years removed from the awkwardness of trying to paint a masterpiece while worrying about being popular and pretty enough too. I felt so creatively burnt out after art school and it took a long time to want to go back to it in a meaningful way. I was so hard on myself and my work for so long. In the past year, the most freeing thing for me creatively has been thinking – it doesn’t have to be perfect. In so doing, I feel like I’ve been creating the best work of my entire life and I really feel like the best is yet to come. I’m grateful for the solid foundation provided by the incredible learning opportunities that I had when I was younger. I just hope it’s not too late to still make something of myself in the art world.
Stay tuned for part two of my high school reminiscing – my last year in the art program and my last year in high school was a pretty pivotal time and worth its own post… thanks for reading!
Hi everyone. I’m getting into the swing of posting regularly but I’m still fiddling with the content. Sometimes it feels more natural to write about things as they are happening, and Day in the Life was popular so it makes me think I should check-in with updates more often?
Sunday I ran around for most of the afternoon trying to get s$#! done. I hate feeling unprepared for the week ahead and usually I just feel antsy on Sundays. I took the dogs for a *cold* run (I have vowed to run everyday possible this winter – no snow or ice, we will be out), cleaned the house, paid some bills, and completed some *boring* paperwork, various forms that have been hanging over my head to be completed.
I work in healthcare primarily but I have a part-time role as a university educator. Once I was done my housekeeping items I also spent a bit of time writing up some notes for an upcoming project and organizing myself for the winter semester starting in January. I bought a new eyeshadow on Saturday so I took a break to experiment with that – really critical stuff 🙂
I didn’t feel like I was in a good place for returning to the Big Beesa painting on the weekend (too much on my mind and I’m nervous to ruin it now that I like it so much) but I did paint the edges with black acrylic so that’s ready to go when I do return to it…
Why black acrylic? Mars black to be specific (which I don’t love as much as carbon black in Tri-Art but it will do until I make it back to Victory Art Supplies to stock up on more paint). I’m not sure how other oil painters finish the edges of their canvasses, and it’s hard to find reliable information?!? But, I always, always finish the sides of my canvases by painting them black or very dark. Otherwise it looks unfinished and forgotten to me. I wouldn’t want to use oil paint for this because 1. It’s kind of (a lot) pricey for just painting the sides and 2. It’s oil paint, you will literally have nowhere to rest the painting with wet edges while it’s drying for the next 3-6 months. Or you can do one edge at a time for the next year. Anyway, I digress. By painting the sides with acrylic paint now, I can easily paint my background right to the edge of the canvas and the oil paint will just dry on top of the acrylic. It really can’t be done the other way around.
It was a nice to get this little painting housekeeping item to get out of the way 🙂
Monday was a completely unremarkable day, still tying up loose ends from the weekend and that kept me away from my art room. It is actually very important to me to try to give meaning to each day, do something productive and not save everything “fun” for the weekend so…
I tried to make up for that tonight. I have been working on a painting of my Swedish cousin’s house, and it is such a pleasant change of direction – it really feels like a little painting vacation. And it’s such a fun house to paint! So many interesting angles. Have you ever seen a house this cute? I’ve been doing some watercolour sketches and working out the proportions, getting to know the house. Mainly I’ve been feeling jealous because it is such a beautiful home, as I’m painting I’m thinking, “I wish I lived here!” My lack of Swedish language skills would really hinder me I think but still – I am envious of this gorgeous house on a hill.
I haven’t used a ruler on purpose, I like freehand watercolour and ink paintings of buildings. Here’s how it’s evolving:
First sketch and watercolour. This took about half an hour. I love this angle and the suggestion of height.
On Tuesday night I opened up my Arches watercolour bock (140 lb, cold press, 12 x 16″) and started to sketch the house from a different angle using a Sharpie fine-point pen. This is wear I really missed the Canson mixed media board – the watercolour paper totally dries out my pens, even when brand new and I just feel like the lines aren’t as crisp and strong as I would like – more like weak and tepid. I’ll have to consider this a bit more for the final painting but this was just a sketch for fun.
When I finished the sketch it was after nine. We took the dogs for their bedtime walk and then I decided I really wanted to lay some watercolor down. Mainly I was excited to be able to share pics with my cousin and I wanted to see it transformed with some colour.
The Swedish house got a little too crooked in my free-hand drawing (yikes!) which is something I’ll have to keep under control for the final painting. But I’m really happy with the direction it’s going in and it’s a fun excuse to message my cousin 🙂
Oh, and I couldn’t resist ending the evening without sketching Screaming Beesa. I can’t wait to start this painting, the final installment in the Beesa Series 🙂 It’s pretty rough sketch, but it gives you an idea of the direction things are moving in.
Hi everyone, happy Sunday! This past week was the best yet for evachristensenart – thank you so much for reading! I love writing, and I love having a forum to share my thoughts, but I get even more satisfaction from knowing that people are actually taking the time to visit and see what I’ve been up to. I feel like I’m getting into a routine as far as the writing, and trying to stick to a schedule of sorts for creating and publishing and being consistent and productive. In case you missed it, check out what I painted this week, my post about my first art teacher, and a day in the life post.
Last weekend and early this week our house came down with a cold and it was pretty cold outside too. I was surprised I didn’t feel lazier than I did. If dog walks can be a bit of a bar we still got out for six out of seven days this week, so my dog guilt was pretty low (more like a steady 3/10 – I mean, it’s always there even at low levels). I find my energy and output comes in waves… I’ll often have a few really good weeks – checking all the boxes: going to the gym, meal planning, meeting all the animals’ needs, waking up early on weekdays to curl my hair before work, making time for art. And then I’ll often crash into a standalone week where it all seems to fall apart and I just feel defeated by it all and it’s hair back and glasses and chips on the couch in the evening for way too many days. Luckily, that was not this week!
Happily, I worked on Big Beesa way more than I expected this week. When I was in the middle of painting her this past Thursday I was full of doubt for quite a bit worrying that her pattern wasn’t defined enough and that I was veering off course. I find that taking a step back and even taking a picture midway through and looking at that instead of directly at the canvas can help to kind of change my perspective. I love the direction that the painting is going in now, but I’m a little nervous that there is still room to screw it up. I probably won’t be feeling secure until I have a little more of her fur and pattern done. It’s a little tricky.
I did not paint Wiggis even though I intended to. Something is bothering me about this painting. It may very well be that I simply haven’t spent the time to get over those initial feelings of doubt and awkwardness but I can’t shake that there is something wrong with it. Sometimes there may be a design flaw that is simple enough to fix (and which makes all the difference in the world) but I haven’t really solved it yet. Stay tuned.
I don’t think I’ll be going back to Wiggis for a bit anyway. I took this great photo of Beesa (demanding food) on the weekend and I think this will be the final painting in the Beesa series. I just love the idea of making this a triptych. I can’t wait to create the sketch this week (maybe today!) and get started. It will be 24 x 24″ just like “This is a cat” and “Big Beesa” will go in the middle at 24 x 30″ so everything will be balanced really nicely.
On Friday my husband and I helped out with a fight night our gym was promoting at a club downtown. I was completely destroyed on Saturday morning. I lost my voice from cheering on our gym fighters and I felt like I was so slow all day. I got into kickboxing for fitness quite a few years ago now, and had a (very!) brief career as an amateur fighter in 2017 lol.
It still gives me a lot of personal satisfaction to train with our competition team, help out with the events, and cheer our friends on. We ordered pizza when we got home close to 1 am, and shared the crusts with the dogs. I ate waaaaaay too much, felt guilty, and combined with waaaaaay too little sleep I was a walking zombie yesterday.
So, we had a quiet Christmas Saturday. Finally got our tree from the Sobey’s parking lot tree lot. We had the experience of cutting down a tree at a farm our first year in this house. We drove there and back in a snowstorm, took Clicquot who was shivering and crying the whole time, and it was cold and honestly a miserable experience. We also got a Clark Griswold tree – it was way too big, we totally overestimated how tall our living room ceiling is and underestimated the size of the tree itself, and we had no room for a star. So, not a very authentic experience buying a tree in a parking lot, but honestly this is our best one yet – perfect size, and it finally looks like we have enough decorations for the tree. And surprisingly enough – the cats have no interest in the tree whatsoever which is nothing short of a Christmas miracle given their love of destroying everything else in the house.
Plan for this week: More work on Big Beesa, sketch screaming Beesa, wrap presents, and lots of dog walks. I’ll be checking in on Thursday with more about my week. Watch out for posts all week long.
Or, how I try to fit a day’s worth of art work around everything else going on in my life!
I thought this would be a fun post, so here we go, here’s my Thursday:
4:50 am – Night table alarm goes off for first time, followed by phone alarm 5 minutes later. Alternate snooze between the two alarms so that they go off approximately every 2-8 minutes for the next twenty minutes.
5:10 am – I’m awake! The dogs look at me like I’m crazy and go back to sleep, taking over my spot in the bed. I clean the house from top to bottom, laundry, Dyson for a bit (there’s no better way to start my morning), pack our breakfasts and lunches, shower and get ready for work.
Wake the dogs up and force them outside to take care of business. Feed the dogs.
Out the door! Oh yeah, it snowed. Clean the car then off I go. Wait, I forgot my coffee. Now I’m off.
7 am – Work!
10 am – Take a break. Yesterday I was messaging with my Swedish cousin about creating a painting of her house. Doodle her house on the back of a scrap paper while I eat an apple and a banana. Excited to start this project – something different. Check my blog and I’m shocked to discover today’s post is my most popular yet – thanks for reading everyone! I feel motivated. Reapply lipstick. Back to work.
3 pm – Done work. Get home and Dyson the house again in an ongoing battle against dust and dog and cat hair. I vacuum constantly. I will prevail!
3:30 pm – Take dogs for a run. It’s really cold. It starts to snow. I feel crazy. The dogs get spooked by a little kid walking by with his fur-trimmed hood pulled up. Much barking ensues. We continue on our way.
4:30 pm – Vet appointment to check on Teelo after his procedures last week. He hides under the chair and the vet sits down on the floor to examine him. I join her on the floor. We love our vet office, they are so kind. Teeth are pearly white, stitches need a little more time before removal.
5:00 pm – I’m home, and I have the whole evening to myself. I debate going to kick-boxing but ultimately decide that an evening like this, with a clean house (even *most* of the laundry is put away!) and tired dogs hiding and resting, is too good not to paint. I feed the dogs because now Riggs is crying. He cries a lot.
I grab some coffee and head to the art room. Clicquot joins me in her moose sweater. There are antlers on the hood. She gives me side eye when I take her picture.
I got to this point with Big Beesa on Monday night:
The painting is 24 x 30″. I drink some coffee and consider my next steps. I get myself set up with all of my references images and sketches. In addition to the sketches I always keep my iPAD with my reference photo nearby. As I paint, I constantly look back and forth between painting and references. Like when you’re driving and you’re supposed to check your side and rear-view mirrors every 3-5 seconds or something like that. It’s really important for staying on track. In art and on the road. 🙂
My palette for this painting leans heavily on burnt umber, yellow ochre burnt, transparent oxide yellow lake, gold ochre, and titanium white. So much titanium white. Red gold lake and Payne’s grey for some of the details, and Scheveningen black for the darkest areas of Beesa and background. All Old Holland Oils. I love this paint. Great investment.
I work for nearly two hours and take another reference pic:
6:45 pm – Take a break to bring my husband a coffee at work. It’s difficult to bring my car window back up after the drive-thru. Worry for a bit that this means the entire driver-side door will have to be replaced. Remind myself to Google this problem later.
7:30 pm- Home! I let the dogs out again. Clicquot gives the dog next door a warning bark. Back to painting Big Beesa. I didn’t intend to work on Beesa again tonight, but her left eye is really irritating me and was on my mind the whole time I was out. I have to address it. I can’t live like this.
I trace Beesa’s eye from the same-sized transfer sketch onto an acetate transparency. I hover it above the painting and can see the issue with her eye loud and clear. I decide to finish painting her eyes even though I vowed I wouldn’t bring out the green until the very end. The pigments to make green are so potent they can infect the whole palette like an illness if you’re not careful, casting everything in a queasy green hue – I am very careful and use a totally separate brush for her eyes. I avoid turning Big Beesa into Big Sick Beesa. For this painting “cat eye green” was mixed with Scheveningen blue, Scheveningen yellow medium, burnt umber (this may be the most used colour in my palette ever), and varying amounts of titanium white for highlights.
8:30 pm – iPad with reference image dies. I write this blog post until it gets to 10% charge – just enough time to use up the paint remaining on my palette. I’m not usually so economical with paint, but for the price, I don’t want to waste any Old Holland paint.
Using up my leftover paint takes all of five minutes. I decide this is a good place to stop anyway. I probably won’t be able to visit Big Beesa again until this weekend, but maybe it’s good to have some time to think and give the painting some time to dry. I will miss her in the meantime.
9:30 pm – Clean up. Walk around putting things away around the house. I have half an hour before my husband gets home from work. I sketch some ideas for our Christmas card. I realize I am quickly running out of time for Christmas 2018.
By now Riggs is in the art room crying because Clicquot won’t share the bed with him. I call it a day.
10:15 pm – My husband is home from work. The dogs go nuts. I let them out for their bedtime business. It’s cold and I have to force them down the deck stairs. I realize I didn’t eat dinner because I was busy painting. We make a snack and talk about our days. We watch a few episodes of Season 1 of Friends on Netflix. We’ve had it on a loop for the past few weeks. I like to listen while i paint. I write the rest of this blog post, tidy up, and get organized for tomorrow.
12 am – Bedtime.
Thanks for reading everyone 🙂 Happy Friday! I will be back on Sunday with a recap of the week. Have a great weekend.
My first serious art teacher lived four houses down from my childhood home. Who I am as an artist will always be a product of everything I learned from her.
I don’t remember learning to draw. Drawing came before painting. At the same time, I can’t remember ever not doing it. I remember when I was younger I would get fixated on drawing something and then draw it on repeat until I sort of levelled up and felt that I had mastered that subject or shape or technique and then move on to the next challenge, always incorporating what I had learned previously. I didn’t realize that I was following any process back then but it was very methodical.
I loved art so much. Even though I don’t remember much discussion about it taking place, I was signed up somewhat regularly for art classes (in addition to swimming and baseball in those early days – my family still calls me The Slugger). My parents seemed to abide by the same approach that I apply to my fur babies – tired kids (and dogs) are the best kind of kids (and dogs) 😉
My earliest memory of any art lessons was on Saturday mornings one spring when I was still single-digits years old. It was in an old white church near the now University of Toronto, Mississauga campus. My one memory from that class is that we learned to draw three-dimensional cylinders, circles, and squares. I became obsessed. Even now, more than thirty years later, whenever I am bored and armed with pen and paper, I will doodle the same shapes on repeat, always the same way. It’s like a reflex. I literally remember nothing else from that class, except this one deeply ingrained habit which can be found on all of my notes through university undergrad right up to my latest property tax bill.
My most significant art instruction came from a real-life artist who lived four houses down from my childhood home. She was friends with my mom. When I was in Grade 6, she started offering classes to neighborhood kids at her home. So every Wednesday at 4pm I would head to her house with my little art tool box and that’s when I really started to learn – painting at Ann Fullerton’s dining room table. I had no idea back then how lucky I was and what an amazing opportunity I had been handed.
Up until then my experience with painting had been with school-grade tempera paints (does anyone other than every board of education ever buy that stuff??) and paintbrushes that clearly showed the care of tens of hundreds of grade schoolers and their penchant for glue-based arts and crafts. Shudder.
Mrs. Fullerton gave us a list of supplies to buy for her classes. For the first time I went to a real art store (Curry’s! which would become a big part of my life as my first employer in high school a few years later) and I bought real (watercolour) paints and real brushes (soft bristle round #6 – still my go-to) and real watercolour paper (Strathmore 9×12″ student quality block). Lesson number one: Watercolour paints don’t just come as dehydrated bright primary colour discs a la Crayola. It also comes in tubes! In fact, if you’re serious about your painting at all you probably want to stick with paint that starts out in a tube. Amazing. And there was no tube of “red” or “blue” or “green” – they were replaced with alizarin crimson, cadmium red, and ultramarine blue, and green – there was nothing that looked like green at all. It was confusing…
Mrs. Fullerton spent that first class in February 1993 showing us how to squeeze out a small amount of paint onto our palettes, how to mix colours (hello green!), how to hold our brushes (life-changing). And then we painted and followed along with Mrs. Fullerton to create this, my first watercolour:
Everything started to change for me then. Prior to these weekly art classes I would draw all.thetime, but kind of without any direction. Now I had moved on from the doodles of cylinders and cubes and was learning about composition, painting with a reference image, painting from the world around me, painting regularly for the very first time, and being inspired by a real artist. Truly, my dream was that I would one day be as “good” as Mrs. Fullerton. I had levelled up in a big way but her talent and skill – back then it just seemed impossible that I could ever hope to paint so well. Even now, my memories of her unbelievable artistic talent seem like a carrot kind of dangling in front of me. A higher level to achieve, still unattainable. From her I gained my lifelong love of realism, design, painting technique, and painting subject matter close to my heart.
By Grade 8, I had been visiting Mrs. Fullerton for art lessons for two years. I had amassed quite a collection of paintings by then. Just like the circles and cubes years before I got on a big portraiture kick and would paint portraits of people I knew and also the models from Seventeen magazine (which also addressed my love of fashion and makeup).
Mrs. Fullerton helped me to prepare my portfolio for my high school audition and portfolio review. She showed me how to mount my paintings on black cardstock, and to use an x-acto knife (not scissors!) to make sure I was cutting straight lines. I stopped going to see her when I started art school in Grade 9. I learned a lot at Cawthra Park S.S. but I owe all of my fundamental art skills and sensibilities and even my very definition of art to Mrs. Fullerton and the Wednesday afternoons I spent at her house, learning to paint.
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! 🙂