Running Free in Rusagonis

My dogs grew up running with a pack of labs on our annual trip to New Brunswick. Painting two of these boys, Guinness and Ronan, was a labor of love for me.

It’s been difficult but I’ve had to keep my Christmas commissions under wraps until now. Today I wanted to share with you a project that was especially close to my heart.

My sister-in-law asked me to paint two labs, Guinness and Ronan, for her husband’s family. They passed over the Rainbow Bridge earlier this year. Even though winter officially started on December 21st, thinking about these sweet boys reminds me of summer trips to New Brunswick with our own dogs.

Whenever we take the dogs on the crazy long drive out east, one of our first stops upon reaching Fredericton has always been to meet up in Rusagonis. Every time we pass through Woodstock on the last leg of our journey I can feel myself gripping the wheel a little tighter and speeding up towards Fredericton, trying to ignore the whines of the bored dogs about to lose their marbles on the backseat. Once in, “The Gornish” the vizslas would run through the woods and burn off all their pent-up energy with an enormous pack of labs owned and loved by my brother-in-law’s various family members. After navigating through big city traffic and driving for sixteen plus hours, arriving to the peace and solitude of the New Brunswick wilderness for this rejuvenating walk has always been such an amazing feeling. Freedom.

First it was just single child Teelo joining us on these hikes, then a few years later we were a two-dog family and we introduced Baby Riggs to the crew. Every year the same – once reacquainted with bums sniffed, growls exchanged, and alpha-status re-established, we would head out with this motley dog troop. We picked our way through a long field before entering the woods and zig-zagging down to the river’s edge than runs through the property. Teelo, being the kind-of jerk dog that he can be would always grab the biggest stick that he could find and taunt all of the other dogs with it, despite being the smallest dog there. You’d want to tell him, dude, read the room! What a guy. And Riggs, always scared to swim would bark at all the other dogs from the shore, all the while leaning precipitously close to the water, but never allowing himself to touch it. There would always be a ton of east coast mosquitoes and I’d complain and run around because they always attacked me – not the native New Brunswickers who seem to have some sort of genetic repellent against them in their blood. It was fun. It was funny. It was a relief. These memories are all wrapped up for me in the misty rose-coloured hue of nostalgia.

I knew these portraits of Guinness and Ronan had to be perfect to be a perfect tribute to their memories. But, the process was a bit of a challenge from the start because my sister-in-law only had one picture of Guinness and Ronan, shown below. She also asked that I create two separate portraits of them. As you can see, the dogs are fairly far away in this candid reference picture, and as a result their features aren’t very detailed. They are also a bit cut-off. Since the dogs have passed and this was meant to be a surprise for Christmas I had to make this work and I assured my SIL that I could. And then my work began.

I have developed a little bit of a trick for working with photos that do not have a lot of detail. Here’s my little method. I took the reference picture and cropped it separately around Guinness and Ronan because they were meant to be separate portraits. Then I edited both photos – I maximized the structure, and sharpening, and also increased the brightness while decreasing the shadows as much as possible. This results in edited pictures where the major lines are most predominant and it makes it easier to sketch the likeness and capture the most important qualities:

And the resulting sketches sent to my sister-in-law for her approval:

Another “trick” that I employed for these paintings – just like I’ve been doing for my oil paintings, I under-painted both canvases with the colour the was to be predominantly featured in each final portrait – burnt umber for Guinness, and Payne’s grey for Ronan.

With both drawings enlarged and sized about equally, I transferred the reference sketches with Saral white transfer paper to the prepared canvases. After finishing some larger commissions and working in larger sizes for my personal works, the 12 x 12″ canvases did seem a little cramped. Heck, my current 18 x 24″ streetcar painting has been challenging for this reason – I feel like I’m moving towards only working on gigantic canvases which is going to fill our walls at home up way too fast.

Progress pics:

And the finished paintings (both completed with Tri-Art and Golden Acrylic paints):

I worked on these paintings over the course of about two weeks in November. I had to balance my time with finishing up some other Christmas commissions and my Beesa projects. I really like the minimalist quality of these paintings – no erroneous brushstrokes, everything is kind of pared down and is important to the final works.

Working on these paintings and knowing that Guinness and Ronan have passed on really made me reflect on my bond with my own dogs, all of our animals actually, and all of our happy memories.

When I look at these photos it feels like yesterday we were in the woods together, hiking with all.the.dogs. In some ways, these old pics remind me of simpler times. We were all on the cusp of being real adults with real jobs and real responsibilities.

Clicquot hasn’t hiked with the Rusagonis crew. Our own little family is a little less mobile now. It’s hard to road trip with three dogs but I hope we will be able to initiate her into this little group one day. It would be funny to watch our little queen push and shove her way to the top of the pack. She has no shame.

These beautiful animals come into our lives and enrich us a million-fold. They all have a piece of my heart. I wish I could freeze time, just like in these pictures, and keep them young forever. I wish they could stay with us longer. Forever. It will never be enough. In the very least, I hope my paintings can capture a moment that lets them live on in our hearts, always happy and healthy, and always here with us. xoxo.

Thanks for reading everyone.

Unpacking Boxing Day

I like Christmastime but I’m happy to be getting our lives back in order. I spent many hours this morning cleaning our house out and packing away boxes in the garage – celebrating Boxing Day in its most literal sense. I got a lot of great art-related presents this year and I can’t wait to get back to painting regularly. Along with taking a (short) break from the site, I just found it really hard to escape to my art room over the past few days. So, just like my (unintended) little Christmas break from the gym, I took some time away from art to recharge.

New toddler-inspired friend for the art room from my sister 🙂

When we last left off, I had just started working on a portrait of my husband and Baby Teelo on a TTC streetcar. I love the reference photo for this painting, and I had been kind of mulling over this work for so long. Usually that kind of mental prep goes hand-in-hand with an easy painting experience aka, it just painted itself! I definitely wasn’t feeling like this was an easy painting after my first evening working on this. I think because I’m painting my husband, there’s just a higher bar for getting it right, I haven’t done a human portrait in a long time, but also the painting is small compared to the sizes I’ve been working with lately. This is definitely something to keep in mind for future works. I went back to this painting over and over for a few days and kept tweaking my husband’s portrait.

Today’s “before”

I grew so frustrated that I finally decided to let the painting really dry for a few days so that I could check the portrait proportions with a transparency overtop. This is such a valuable check. It let me identify the issues I wasn’t seeing but which were causing my neck to cramp. The painting was dry enough that I slipped a piece of Saral transfer paper under the transparency and drew some white lines overtop the painting to guide my next layer of paint. I worked for a few hours today (seriously, where does the time go???) and I finished up with this:

And I’m breathing a huge sigh of relief. This is much better.

There were no huge mistakes, but many little things that were all off, and all amounting to a really awkward portrait. Once I carefully worked through the changes, I instantly felt a lot more positive about the whole thing. I will let the portrait dry to touch and check it one more time with the transparency for accuracy.

And a little closer:

The next big challenge will be nailing puppy Teelo which I will get to tomorrow night 🙂 Hopefully. I am loving the details in this painting. It may sound strange but I really love the colours and reflections and shadows on the backs of the seats behind my husband. And I think it’s going to be so much fun to finish Teelo’s face and move on to the city view through the streetcar windows. I’d like to replicate the view from the photo. A nostalgic picture of my husband, Teelo, and College St in Toronto. I’m really looking forward to getting back to it tomorrow night.

My “before” painting setup this afternoon, complete with transparency overtop of painting for checking proportions.

One of my big Christmas surprises was a Neewer 18″ Dimmable light and light-stand kit from my husband. I had wished for a simple cell phone “holder” for filming. I had imagined some sort of clamp that attaches to a tabletop with a bendy arm so that I could position my phone how I like for filming (“bendy” – really technical, I know :)). My husband just went totally above and beyond and got me this amazing set-up – I still have to figure out how everything works but there is even a Bluetooth-enabled remote that will let me take hands-free pics with my phone mounted on the light-stand. Not only that, the light has drastically improved the quality of light in the art room but it’s LED so it doesn’t heat up.

My new light-stand!!! So professional!!! Note, new brushes and mediums on my art table, also sweet stocking stuffers 🙂

This gift is such a game changer. I feel like I’m going to really level up in terms of video production and just being able to see what I’m doing with proper lighting at night. It’s amazing. He set it up for me last night right away. I’m so lucky to have his unwavering support.

One more view of my pretty light-kit 🙂

Some other Christmas art presents:

More Canson Artboards! I’ve written before about how impressed I was with the Canson Mixed Media Artboards that I bought on a whim during my October trip to Curry’s Art Store. I love pen and watercolour and the mixed media boards have been a dream for this. They don’t warp, they are a beautiful, clean white. I have some sketches from a cute Clicquot series I was working on last winter. They were intended to be finished in pen and ink and I think the hot-press illustration board will be perfect.

I also got these watercolour artboards and I’m really interested to see how they work in comparison with my Arches watercolour block. They are textured, but less so than the Arches, so I think they will be better for using mixed media.

I’m also really excited to see how the watercolour artboards work with my new Winsor & Newton Designers Gouache set! I have white and black gouache that I use routinely with my watercolour paints but I’m really curious to try gouache on its own. I’m kind of intending to approach it similarly to how I use acrylic and oil… so stay tuned for that. Thank you to my generous in-laws for these sweet gifts.

Finally, I know I’ve mentioned before my love of black Sharpie markers so this was a really exciting gift for me – ALL the Sharpies!!

Lastly, totally unrelated to art but exciting for my daily life – My husband also surprised me with these Salomon winter running shoes:

They are the Salomon Speedspike CS. Another big surprise for me. Do NOT wear these in the house!!! You will damage your floors. They have little metal spikes all over the soles that dig right into the ground.

The story behind this gift is that I never risk running outside with the dogs when there is any ice on the ground. Even if it’s pretty clear it’s just too risky to run with three dogs in case there’s black ice that I can’t see – I had a bad fall with Teelo trail-running one year which included a trip to the ER and ever since then I’ve had some strict safety rules. I just don’t see the point of running without my sweet dogs – it’s just not the same – so my winter running really takes a hit every year. I took these shoes out for a test-run with the dogs this afternoon and they were amazing. We covered 4 km and the sidewalks were half-covered with ice and a light dusting of snow, perfect spikey-shoe conditions.

The dogs were a little alarmed for the first block or so because it sounded like I was wearing tap shoes. Once they got over that it was an awesome run – these shoes are like super sidewalk Velcro. I was still careful but oh my goodness – ice storms won’t get me down this winter! These will be my go-to dog running and walking shoes for the winter, as long as the snow isn’t deep.

It’s been a hectic few days. Looking forward to some time with my little family this weekend and getting back to my art work. I feel like I have so many ideas for painting and writing it’s hard to keep up right now. With the new year coming up I’ve been reflecting on where I want to take my art and evachristensenart.com in 2019. Stay tuned for regular posts once again. And of course, thank you so much for reading.

Not Always Perfect.

A little bit of day-in-the-life and a few thoughts from this Thursday.

5:15 am – A bit of a sleep-in today (I’m serious) but now I’m up. The Winter Solstice has really been doing a number on my energy. Beesa is “Heeeeee-ing” for her first meal, pretty aggressively. I feed her ten kibbles. She eats three and screams for fresh kibbles. I oblige her. We repeat this a few times.

5:15-6:00 – I didn’t clean the kitchen before bed last night so I do a full kitchen clean-up, wash some dishes that don’t fit in the dishwasher, Dyson the main floor trying not to wake my sleeping husband, fold some towels, Windex all the shiny surfaces. That’s better, I can relax. Teelo is up now and not to be outdone by Grandma Beesa he is waiting to be fed. I shoo him outside and down the deck steps for his morning consitution. I shoo Riggs out too. Feed the boys, now Clicquot is up. Of course she is. Shoo her outside with a pat on her bottom before feeding her. Alright, now all animals appear to be happy… except for Wiggis… since I haven’t seen him yet I start to wonder if he’s locked himself in a closet again (this is a daily occurrence). Remind myself to look for him later.

6:00-6:40 – Finish prepping lunches. With the way our schedules work out, Thursday is always my easy meal prep day which gives me more time for cleaning 🙂 Peak into art room to make sure everything is ok. Makeup, hair, outfit. Find Wiggis in my shoe closet when I go to grab a pair of boots. Shoo Wiggis out of the shoe closet, it’s supposed to be off-limits to cats.

7:00-3:00 – Work!

3:00-3:45 – House-cleaning, life-organizing.

3:45-4:45 – Dog walk. They need it. I need it. We’re supposed to get a lot of rain for the next few days and I really want to get some art work done tonight so I want my sweeties tired and ready to keep me company in the art room (by napping not whining baby Riggs). It’s cloudy but warm for December. It’s my favourite type of dog walking weather. I tweaked my knee in kickboxing this week so we just walk. I hurt the same knee pretty badly two summers ago so I’m fine to take the warning pain and rest for a few days versus being out of commission for the next two months. I rationalize that I could use a bit of a Christmas vacation anyway 🙂

5:00-6:30 – Art time. Last night I transferred my sketch of Chris and baby Teelo on a TTC streetcar circa 2010, College Street to a canvas I tinted weeks and weeks ago. I silently thank “weeks and weeks ago” me for thinking ahead. Because of all the metals and shadows in the reference photo I used Payne’s grey for the tinting colour. It’s not very even. I’ve had more practice since then and I can do better than this now.

There’s a lot going on here and I do want to include a lot of the detail in the painting. I decide that I’ll start with the darkest areas of the reference photo. All of them. I use a mixture of Old Holland Scheveningen black, Payne’s grey, and burnt umber. My old standbys. My neck starts to hurt from the detail work. This doesn’t feel relaxing.

6:30-7:30 – Errands! I bring my husband a coffee at work then hit the bank, Sobey’s (my favourite grocery store), and Canadian Tire. Home and I’m starving so I have toast and Cheese Whiz for dinner (I have been on a Cheese Whiz kick recently).

7:30 – 10 – Back to work on my streetcar painting! I try to practice as much restraint as I can. This is my first human portrait in a really.long.time. It’s really challenging. I was going to call it a night with the black areas done, give them time to dry, but I decide to tackle the skin tones tonight. I couldn’t resist. I use a mixture of titanium white, burnt umber, gold ochre, and Scheveningen red medium. Emphasis on the titanium white. I try to see the skin as very distinct areas of shadow and highlight and in-between. No ombre blending nightmares here. I think I need to make a bulk purchase of new brushes because they are all irritating me, getting gummy and not holding a point. I wonder whether you should just always use new brushes for new paintings? Does money grow on trees? Sigh.

10:15 – My husband is home. The dogs go crazy. We make a snack and chat about our days. Talk about Christmas plans a little. I go and check on my painting, decide I should leave well enough alone and go back with a transparency outline when it’s dry to check for mistakes in the painting, which I will surely find. The reference sketch is really solid so if the painting deviates from that at all it’s a problem. I’m pretty sure it does. Probably won’t be able to get back to this until later this weekend. Let the dogs out one more time for bedtime business. Cuddle with the dogs. Give Clicquot some ear medicine. Time to call it a night.

Thoughts

It occurred to me as I was making my way through my painting tonight that I had the feeling that I was starting to tilt my head weirdly as I was working. I often have this sensation if I feel that something doesn’t look right. As I’ve discussed before I find it really difficult to assess the appearance of a painting when I’m seated right in front of the wet canvas. Taking a step back and taking a pic really helps. But that head-tilting sensation is usually a sign to me that something is wrong and I’m turning my head to get a viewpoint that will make it look better. I will definitely use my transparency check on this painting once it is dry.

I think the painting doesn’t look very good right now, as I’m working I start to think about ditching it. I wish that past me had chosen a larger canvas size. This is 18 by 24 inches which isn’t small but it feels cramped with all the detail and the size of my husband and Teelo. I’m considering making this a study for a larger final work. The Beesa paintings have been such a pleasure to paint and one reason is the size – so much room to work.

It’s important for my animal portraits to look real, but I feel like it’s even more important for this painting to be perfect. I don’t want my husband to cringe every time he walks past it hanging in a hallway, lol.

I actually toyed with the idea of not showing anyone my work tonight, including just forgetting about this Thursday post. I realized that I really only want to show my current art that I think is close to perfect. Then I realized that’s pretty dishonest and not really in the spirit of what I’m trying to achieve with this blog. Showing my artistic process is important. Isn’t that why I’m doing this? This being this art, this website, this trying to connect with fellow artists in the community at large….

Another angle.

I text my mom and sister the painting and show my husband, nobody seems as bothered as me. I think I need to just step away for a few days. I usually experience a really awkward point at some time in every painting and I just need to figure out the solution. When I work through that I’m usually happy with the results. I’ve only permanently ditched one painting in 2018… Maybe I just need to have a little more confidence in this process? Or maybe it’s terrible but I guess we will see…

Closing thought for today: Art isn’t just effortlessly easy. I really wish it was. I look at the work of my favourite artists and I just can’t imagine them struggling like I feel that I do, and pretty often. I’ve been on such a good run with my painting recently I feel out of sorts to have these doubts about my work. I just want everyone to say oh I love that so much! What I know is that it’s not effortless, it’s not just natural raw talent making beautiful art. It’s a lot of work, and thought, and problem-solving.

I will come back to this piece another day.

Thanks for reading everyone.


Which Paint to Paint With?

The story of my painting evolution.

Say you want to start painting but you have no idea where to begin. Let me help you.

I am thirty-seven and I started painting when I was twelve years old. Over the years I have worked my way through watercolours, acrylics, and now I am focusing primarily on oil painting for my personal work. But depending on my mood I will jump between mediums. Maybe my personal experiences can help you to decide what’s right for you.

Before I was introduced to painting I had mainly used pencil crayons for my “serious” artworks. I think because it’s so accessible for so many kids (hello, Crayola) pencil crayons get written off as being kind of a juvenile art form. There are artist quality pencil crayons that can be used to create beautiful drawings – same goes for pastels, charcoal, graphite. But ever since I was introduced to watercolours I have considered myself to be primarily a painter.

Oh and save for school-mandated projects I have never wanted to make a sculpture – I express myself through my brush. 

First watercolour, c. 1995.

I started out with watercolours and was taught by a real watercolour artist for a number of years. Over time I transitioned from primarily painting with watercolour to dabbling in acrylic, then primarily acrylic until quite recently (summer 2018) when I decided to take the plunge and take up oil painting for my personal paintings. Because I have a lot of experience, I’m comfortable moving between each medium depending on my mood or my vision for the finished work, but for many years now I have tended to gravitate towards heavier-bodied paints (acrylic, oils) for paintings that I think are important or significant.

Watercolour c. 2003. I used to spend a lot of time painting the flowers in my dad’s garden. It may be a cliché but watercolour is so pretty for flower painting. You can see in this painting that my control really improved over the years.

I still paint with watercolours regularly, but I usually view these sessions as a warm up, or a break from the more serious work I might be focused on with my oils. With my art room set-up as it is, I can just swivel my chair around from my easel and push myself across the room to my watercolours waiting at my art table when I need to switch things up. If you’re open to how the paint behaves and flows, and if you are accepting of some lucky mistakes here and there, watercolour painting can feel very relaxing and just help to loosen you up. 

One of my favourite, but unfinished, watercolour paintings. I should really get this framed. This was done sometime during undergrad.

So how do you choose what type of painter you want to be? There are definitely many,  many artists who identify primarily with one type of paint and don’t really veer off course to dabble in any other mediums. There are definitely practical reasons for this – from a financial and storage perspective it is definitely easier to focus on one type of painting. And if you are new to painting and trying to learn you will probably be well-served to pick one and stick with it for awhile.

For me, I never felt totally comfortable with using watercolours. I have been able to achieve some level of personal success and sense of control over this type of paint, and I do go back to it regularly, but I just hate that you’re always kind of one wrong brush stroke away from ruining your entire painting. That’s a lot of risk and I’m pretty risk-averse. It’s a very clean type of painting. The paints are so beautiful and translucent and luminous and meant to show the beautiful paper underneath. If you do make a mistake, the work to fix it can ruin the delicate surface of the paper (drawing even more attention to your mistake) or any extra unnecessary layers of paint (to try to cover things up) can take away from the spontaneous properties that make it special to begin with.

Watercolour is such a good medium for whimsical, pretty paintings. Vizsla E. Kandinsky, watercolour on paper, 2018.

So even though I have created some watercolours that I really love, and even have framed around our house, I find this to be the exception for me, rather than the rule. I also tend to prefer watercolour and ink paintings (like my east coast series) because using ink to create more detail within the painting is very attractive to me – it is pleasing in a way that I can’t achieve with watercolour alone. I guess that’s my rigid nature coming out but I like when things are defined and under control. It’s not just paint, it extends to the dogs, my hair… I like to be in charge 🙂

From my east coast watercolour series, based on our summer 2018 travels. I love, love, love watercolour and ink paintings of interesting buildings.

When I was in my teens I started getting into acrylic painting. Oils seemed like too much of a jump and I had to transport a lot of art projects back and forth between school and home so drying time was definitely a concern – acrylic (being water-based) was just the natural next step. I now feel that I like a heavier-bodied paint because I like the feeling that I am “sculpting” an image in two-dimensions on my canvas. Maybe I sound a bit weird but I know my brushes and what they can achieve with what pressure at what angle. One brushstroke can really be so powerful or central to the entire work.

One of my first acrylic paintings. A study for OAC art class. I really don’t like this, but I love the colours. I just had no control over this paint. So frustrating.

For a long time now with acrylic (and more recently with oil paints), I have practiced painting with a very conservative number of brush strokes. The fewer the better I feel to convey the essence of the subject. When I get away from this, when it gets to be too fussy, too fiddly, something important is lost. All the planning and thought in the world should go into the painting beforehand so that the actual process of painting is very easy. My best paintings are also usually the ones that take the least time to paint. 

Another early acrylic painting. I remember really disliking this but now looking back… maybe not so bad? Again, love the colours.

Even though I feel very comfortable painting with acrylics now, for many, many years I struggled with acrylic paint because I didn’t know how to use it properly. I was trying to paint with acrylic on canvas like I did with watercolour on paper. As a result the paint just seemed too thick to me, it dried quickly, it seemed plastic-y. I couldn’t achieve the details that I wanted to.

Beesa! Compare this with my recent oil portraits of her. I found it really difficult to achieve any detail with the acrylic paint – I love this painting for nostalgia purposes, but I don’t think this is a very good painting skill-wise. Part of my evolution though!

If I can offer any advice, my top suggestion would be: for any type of paint you use, you should always buy the best that you can afford. As you go up in price point usually you’ll have a greater pigment load to binder ratio which means that your paintings will automatically look better. That alone will feel like an improvement.

Teelo. 2018. A year of huge growth in painting. I am so happy with my progress this year and it’s like something truly clicked for me. For the first time I really felt in control of my acrylic painting. A great feeling.

In the past year or so I’ve really levelled up in a big way with my acrylic painting because I started to work with it rather than against it. My approach became more sculptural. I take more time now to consider every brush stroke before it happens. This has been a huge game changer for me.

Other breakthroughs: I started painting in layers and creating an under-painting. I spent a lot of time getting to know the nature of the paint and then one day it really was like a switch clicked for me. I look back on my old acrylic paintings and I just cringe, but I’ve included them in this post to (hopefully!!) show my progress.

Now I really love using acrylics and I continue to use it for all of my commission-based work.

Oil painting!

I made the switch over to oil painting this year for my personal projects for a number of reasons. Even though I’ve made a lot of progress dealing with the properties of acrylic paints, I still felt limited by the super fast drying time. There’s a stage during painting when literally the entire painting surface is just tacky-sticky and no good can come of that. That’s the time when bad things happen to good paintings. The level of luminosity and realism I have been able to achieve with my oil painting so far has been so rewarding. I also feel like I can achieve more detail with oil than acrylic. It seems to work better for me when thinned down than acrylic paint – it doesn’t seem to lose its structure as quickly.

Detail of Beesa portrait. I think this is my best work of 2018 🙂

So, what do you do if you’re just starting out? What type of paint do you pick if you just want to try painting for the first time and you’re standing in the middle of the paint aisle at your local art store feeling intimidated by all the artsy looking people milling about? What do you do?

For ease of use, watercolour and acrylics are both water-based – water to thin, water for washes on paper and canvas respectively, water for clean-up. Soooooo easy. And actually, oil painting is only slightly less convenient in terms of having to use solvent and painting medium. Really, if I was advising someone on what type of paint to pick if they’d never painted before, I’d ask them to consider their favourite paintings and artists – what medium do they work in?

I put off oil painting for a really long time because I was intimidated. I told myself acrylic painting was basically the same (it’s not!!). The motivation I needed to change came this past summer when I saw the work of Canadian artist Heather Millar at Details Fine Art Gallery in Charlottetown. She is a phenomenal artist, one of my favourite contemporary artists, and such an inspiration to me. I am in awe of her talent and mastery of technique. When I experienced the impact of her beautiful oil paintings in person – I knew I had to try it for myself. I have so much to learn about oil painting, but I am grateful for the change and the opportunity to grow into a medium where I can really express my vision for painting.

Next oil paintings on deck!

No matter what you pick, the progress you make with painting technique and colour theory – it’s pretty transferable to some extent between mediums. If you want to paint, the most important thing to do is to just get started. Like today. Don’t wait. There’s no time like the present. If you want to paint give it a try! And if you do, let me know how it goes in the comments below. Thank you for reading and happy painting!

Big Beesa

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. December 2018. Oil on canvas. 24 x 30″

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.

Beesa poses with her first portrait. c. 2008.

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.

We used to worry that Beesa was gaining weight, but that’s because kitten Wiggis was so little. The tables have really turned…

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’s first Christmas, and first Christmas photoshoot. She hated 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.

Beesa sketch. Graphite on paper.

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).

Before.
After.

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.

And so it begins.

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.

Riggs and Clicquot, the art room dogs. They are always so helpful.

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.

Close up of Beesa pattern. Starting to take shape.

The palette for this painting focused primarily on these Old Holland colours:

Can you tell which tube of paint is the most loved?

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.

Close-up of Beesa with palette.
Welcome to Cat Town.
Beesa’s big ears and pattern taking shape.

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.

Something about this pic really made me turn my head to the side, it just didn’t look right.

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.

That’s better. Detail of black background. I love this contrast of light and dark.

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.

Not Enough Hours in a Thursday.

Teelo scoping out the situation at the vet. 

Teelo went to the vet on Thursday afternoon and got his stitches out. We found out that he has lost even more weight on his diet. Our sweet little boy is doing so well. He’s like a puppy again. Teelo is a devious, clever fellow who has the world wrapped around his little paws. He hid under the chair at the vet’s office (as per usual) and eventually I had to drag him out for the stitches removal. I told him, “Teelo, this is life, this is happening.” By some Christmas miracle the vet tech was easily able to pull out the stitches as I held him in a bear hug. At this point Teelo, sensing that he was now out of hot water, danced around the office bum first, accepting bum scratches and liver treats as he sashayed like a little dog maniac around the room. 

Our skinny little pork chop. Safe at home after the vet. 

I spent Thurday evening working on a new video for the website! If you’ve ever wondered how to start an oil painting, or if you just want to watch an entertaining and fun video, you should definitely check it out. I’ve been meaning to do this for awhile now but just wasn’t camera ready at the right times :). I really want to add some regular instructional content here and there – I love teaching. I’ve been toying with the idea of a “learn to draw” type series or ideas little art projects readers can do themselves. Anyway, I figure (I hope) it might be useful to someone out there, and it was really fun to create.

Showing off for the camera with my pretty, prepped canvas.

I’m still learning how to use iMovie. I could not for the life of me find the voice-over control tonight, I had to watch a YouTube tutorial to find it. So far, I find that the editing is the most time-consuming part of the process. In comparison the speaking was the easy part! – I had been rehearsing what I wanted to say in my head and thinking it through for awhile – especially on dog walks. I enjoy public speaking – I had to do a fair number of presentations when I was in graduate school and other than being nervous about messing up, I kind of always liked the idea of it. I would say that was one of the lasting skills I kind of took after grad school – not the science as much as being able to hopefully string together some coherent sentences in a somewhat entertaining way. 

If there’s art learning content that you would like, if you have any art-related questions, if there’s something you’d like to ask about – ask away in the comments section below or send me a message. I’ll see what I can do! Art school and many (many!) years of working at Curry’s art store in high school and undergrad means I have quite a bit of technical and product knowledge. I still remember the item codes for the cash register after all this time (and yet, I couldn’t tell you much about something like physical chemistry, even though I took an entire course in 2nd year university and got an A… So many exams I feel like I carefully held onto my knowledge as I gingerly walked into the exam room, dumped it all onto the papers in front of me for an hour, and retained literally nothing the moment I handed everything in). 

Big Beesa before (earlier tonight).

I didn’t have as much time for Big Beesa tonight as I had anticipated. I worked on her ears for a bit and some of her coat. The light colour in her ears was a bit challenging to blend – it’s actually a mix of white, burnt umber, Payne’s grey (always those colours!) and varying amount of alizarin lake and burnt sienna for warmth.

With any animal like Beesa where there is a lot going on with her pattern and all the different colours in her coat (same goes for animals with lots of fur!!), there is a big risk that you will lose sight of the elements that make it distinct and just kind of muddy it all together with too many colours and not enough dominant lines and a lack of order and detail. So I always try to take a step back when dealing with something like this, try not to get lost with too much time working on it and sitting too close to really see what’s going on. Frequent breaks are good and so are pictures. I find it really difficult to assess the painting when seated right in front of the painting. Looking at the work through a photo really helps to show me what’s good and what may be veering off course. After an hour or so I figured it was a good place to stop even though I hadn’t really got too far. I was getting tired and I just had the sense that I should stop before I ruined Big Beesa. 

Tonight’s progress: Big Beesa after.
Check out those ears!
To be continued. Soon!

Thanks for visiting everyone. Happy Friday and happy weekend!

Always a dog mom.

1995 –

My art history would not be complete without revisiting high school – however cringe-inducing it might be.

I started grade 9 in 1995.

Grade 9 me!

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!


Growing out those bangs in Grade 10…

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. 

Grade 11!

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.


Cawthra Park S.S. library, drawn on location. 1996? Pencil crayon on paper.

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. 

Grade 9 watercolour.

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.


A design project that I did not enjoy but other people always seem to like. 1997? 
Ditto.

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. 

Grade 9 yearbook.

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. 

Portrait study, grade 9.

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.  

Grade 12 me!

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!