Inspiration in Unlikely Places.

An artists’ guide to finding brilliant ideas in a pizza delivery box – or wherever else you least expect it.

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

This painting, and this post, are inspired by a photo of our three vizslas lined up and waiting for pizza scraps to be shared with them. But let’s back up a little bit. Our dogs are always hungry. They love to eat so much. This association with food and love and nurturing is all tied together in our relationship with them. It’s the basis for nicknames, inside jokes, and showing love.

Teelo dreams of beef.

We take a lot of care in feeding our dogs nutritious and tasty-to-them meals. Each morning they have dog food with a side of berry, spinach, and yogurt smoothie. Maybe some apple slices and peppers thrown in for good measure, leftover from lunch prep. Dinners are usually a variation of dog food with one of their favorites – sweet potato, scrambled eggs, leftover roast beef, steamed carrots. “What’s for dinner?” is a question that applies to the dogs as much as it applies to us when we open the fridge to figure out the evening meal.

Work in progress – December 2018.

That all three dogs are such food fanatics is a little surprising, especially for Teelo, who has reversed course in a huge way. From years one through three, Teelo was so busy, and such a picky eater. He was all dog ribs and long skinny teenager legs. We could not tempt with anything. And he could go days with only a few bites of food. To be honest, it was super annoying. The tides have certainly turned and Teelo has spent many years making up for lost time. We lovingly refer to him as, “The Beef Man,” (pretty self-explanatory – he loves it and looks like a pot roast). That Teelo is able to maintain a healthy weight is really only due to our extreme efforts to save him from himself. Teelo even eats a special “satiety blend” dog food to try to keep him sated – it turns out, he cannot be. He’s so clever and dexterous, that in his older (no filter) age he has taken to unzipping my bag packed with food for work, selecting a few snacks, and popping open the Ziploc bags to enjoy. This past January I came in one morning from cleaning snow off the cars to find Teelo in the middle of the living room, finishing off a peanut butter sandwich and carrot sticks (but not the celery, he left that littered around the carpet for me). There was no shame in his eyes for stealing my lunch. What a guy.

In comparison, our gruesome twosome Clicquot and Riggs are a lot less devious, but certainly are no slouches in the begging department and suffer from significant treat FOMO.

Good behavior is all an illusion.

And pizza – Pizza trumps all (except roast beef). It is king in the vizsla snack world.

Reminiscing about warm deck dinners in July.

This painting was inspired by our vizslas who love pizza so much that we lovingly refer to them as The Crust Dogs. Example of this used in a sentence: “Make sure you save your crust for The Crust Dogs”.

Clicquot.

The Crust Dogs do not discriminate – homemade or delivery. One summer we invested in a pizza oven for our BBQ and literally ate pizza for two months straight. As a hobby my husband set out to perfect his pizza dough-making technique a few years ago and in our house humans and dogs have enjoyed the benefits of this immensely.

At the same time, the dogs have granted the pizza delivery man a stranger-danger exemption – he is not to be scared off, but instead he is a stranger to be trusted, wagged at, toys offered to – and he is welcome to knock on our door in the dark at 10 pm on any random Saturday night – I can’t say that luxury is afforded to anyone else who visits us.

Just a typical Saturday evening in.

The reference for this painting was a picture I took of all three dogs lined up in front of me, good as gold, my three little angels, waiting for their share of my pizza crust one evening. They are never better behaved than when they are waiting for a valuable handout. This is why, “Dogs waiting for food,” is a standard pose for all dog moms. Other fail safes include, “Dogs sleeping,” and, “Dogs sun-tanning,” (the latter of two sometimes being one and the same – there’s often some overlap there).

This was such a great photo and I knew right away that I had to paint it.

Teelo.

Bringing this painting to life took a long time – the reference photo was taken last summer but I waited until I had transitioned to oils and then waited some more to think on this composition of all three dogs.

A single portrait is a big task, multiple figures poses many more challenges and I spent many months working on other paintings while the reference sketch of three vizslas hung in my art room. Sometimes even if I’m not physically working on a project, having it around to think about is like a type of work. And then when I sat down to finally get started – all those months of pondering it made the painting come together really easily. It was also painted against a backdrop of a lot of personal stuff – I was painting this piece when the email invitation to interview for my new job dinged through on my phone, and I completed the painting over the ensuing weeks of huge life decisions, serious conversations with my husband about what we wanted our future to look like, and the resulting upheaval that a big life decision brings. This painting was one of the very last items packed for storage before our move.

My paintings often play double duty – They capture a moment in time on the surface, but they are also closely tied to the time when I created them and everything I was feeling. While begging for pizza was the comical inspiration for this painting (picture me, I’m behind the lens probably with a slice in one hand, camera phone in the other), what is serious about this piece is how accurately it captures each dog. I love portraiture. I love capturing these moments in time and working through my feelings about my subject matter as I paint. In this case studying their sweet features and ruminating on my love for them.

Clicquot.

In this work, each dog looks just like their unique self. Teelo is Big Teelo, standing firm and gazing right at me, looking straight into my soul. Clicquot looks a bit like, hey, how did I end up here? Which is basically her standard. Always late to the party but never left out. The girl with the big, brown eyes. And that is a classic Riggs pose. There he is, with all of his middle-child narrative that we’ve created for him. He’s first in line, continuously inching his bottom forward with his head cocked in a pose that is at once inquisitive, but non-committal, eyes half closed but really fully alert, gaze partially diverted but still totally aware… ready to pounce if pizza is offered (deliberately or by accident).

Clicquot and Riggs.

I love these simple moments with the dogs, with my family. I love remembering them forever through my art. More and more I see my style evolving to remember people, places, memories frozen in time in my work. I find endless inspiration in this idea. A painting is really so much more than what you see. With so much change and uncertainty in my life right now, it’s comforting to reflect on a time and a place when I was at peace. I miss the routine of our quiet Saturday nights with The Crust Dogs. And I look forward to getting that familiar feeling back again. Soon.

Thank you for reading!

What a Difference a Little Time Makes.

In art. And in life.

Wow. It’s been a really long time since I last posted. Every winter, once the New Year’s festivities are over and all the fun of the holidays is behind us, I always start a mental countdown to spring. And my mental countdown always seems to move.so.slowly, punctuated by snowstorm upon icestorm. Not this year. We’ve had the same bad weather but this year I feel like I could use a little (or a lot) more time. I feel like my life has been a blur since January. At first I tried to keep up with everything, but eventually I had to prioritize, and my blog posts took a bit of a hit.

The big news – I have accepted a new job and we are in the midst of packing up our house and moving across the country! We just sold our home this past weekend which was like finding a place for one of the most giant pieces in the entire puzzle. In a few weeks we will load our animals and an overnight bag each into the car and head east. And even though some of the stress over the past few weeks has made me question, “Why am I blowing my life up like this?” I am so excited for this adventure and so grateful for this amazing opportunity.

I had to pack up my art supplies for our home showings, but now that we’ve sold I took a bit of time this weekend to finish up Wiggis on the Green Couch. I think this will be my last large scale painting before the move, and then my stuff will be in storage while we’re looking for a new home. So I may be focusing on my sketchbook for the next little while.

This painting and everything going on lately has me thinking a lot about time – how quickly it passes, how you can never predict quite where you’ll end up. A year ago, I was in a totally different place, with no idea of all the change to come.

At the same time, Wiggis deserved a new portrait since his last painting was this cartoony tryptich acrylic on canvas from 2008:

This painting has been displayed in our last three homes, and it will have a place in our east-coast house too, but it was time for an update. I can honestly say that back then, I think this was the best I could achieve with acrylic paints. I found the heavy-bodied paints really difficult to work with, and they controlled me more than the other way around. And what a difference a little time makes. For his new portrait I used oil paints (of course) and focused on realism. I’m so happy with the results and so proud of my progress.

I painted this over the past two months, with a really long interruption due to our home staging (always a huge life upheaval that I find extremely difficult to deal with). Old Holland Oil Paints, 12 x 24″ gallery-stretched canvas.

Some progress pictures:

And up close:

Altogether now:

I think the next few weeks are going to be really up and down with our to-do lists around here. I have some posts that were intended to be written but in the mayhem from the past few weeks got pushed to the side. So when I have some time I’ll check-in to write, and I’ll focus on sketching and packing up the art room as safely as possible. I’ll miss this space that I’ve built for myself here, but I’m so excited at the possibility of a new home with an even better room for an art studio. And the arts community in our new city is really thriving and inspiring. I’m really looking forward to immersing myself in it and hopefully putting my work “out there”.

Thank you all for reading!

Varnishing an Oil Painting: How-To and Review

Perhaps the single most important step in the oil painting process, and no, I don’t feel like I’m exaggerating one bit.

I tend to get really excited about some random things. Like when my husband surprised me with a new Dyson on Black Friday 2018. I went on about that for weeks. I just wanted to tell everyone about how many canisters I filled just on the first go around the house. It was life-changing. Or when I discovered you can mail order dog food. Did you know you can mail order dog food!? And set a delivery schedule? That was pretty big. Or when we bought a food dehydrator and made our own raisins from grapes. That was really, really cool.

So anyway, usually when I have one of these discoveries I like to tell anyone who will listen. Varnishing my oil paintings is now one of those things. I feel like I can’t stop talking about it because it has made me so inexplicably happy. Everyone has been really polite about me going on about it, but the non-painters inundated with my excitement can only appreciate this so much. This topic is definitely more suited to visitors of my art blog. ☺️

Teelo says, Mom, it’s time to varnish your paintings!

To all the artists reading this: Varnishing is a big deal. Those of you in the know are thinking, well duh. I have always varnished my acrylic paintings, most recently with TriArt gloss varnish. However, my experience using Gamblin Gamvar Gloss Picture Varnish this week is what has left me feeling so impressed. First of all, you should varnish your acrylic and oil paintings to give them a protective surface (watercolorists – obviously varnish will ruin your work, just stick with glass framing). While I appreciate this protective layer, the majority of my happiness is because varnishing has made my oil paintings look so much better.

I finished three oil paintings from November to end of December 2018 (This is a Cat, Big Beesa, and Downtown Brown) and those are the paintings that I varnished for the first time this week. Like I said, I’ve been waiting for this day forever.

A bit of a preamble: I was really hesitant to start painting with oil paints in the first place, but now that I’ve made the transition – honestly I don’t know why I put it off for so long. Oh my goodness if you’re considering it – just switch. Like right now. My style of painting improved by leaps and bounds when I committed to acrylic painting on canvas (instead of forcing watercolours on myself, which is still hit and miss to this day) but I just could not stand the drying time. There is nothing worse than going back to work on a section with one more perfecting brushstroke and you hit dry paint and your brush skids across the sticky canvas. I just hate it. And I paint in fairly thin layers so it just happened all the time. I’ve been loving the leap to oil painting because I still feel like it retains everything I enjoy about acrylic paint but with even more benefits – colours blend so beautifully, the canvas is saturated in colour, and I have been achieving a level of realism and luminosity beyond anything I’ve ever experienced. I’ve been loving the leap to oil painting because I still feel like it retains everything I enjoy about acrylic paint but with even more benefits – colours blend so beautifully, the canvas is saturated in colour, and I have been achieving a level of realism and luminosity beyond anything I’ve ever experienced.

However. And this is a big however. One thing that I noticed with the oils almost right away was that, while the painting may have looked amazing and perfect right at the end of a painting session (when all the paint was still wet and shiny and freshly applied), a few days later with a bit of drying – some of the paint seemed uneven. Some areas were still glossy, but some colours that had so much depth when first applied were now matte and dull and uneven too. At first I thought, oh when it’s totally dry it will even out. Not so. For the paintings This is a Cat and Big Beesa, the dark backgrounds were really dramatic when first applied but dried really patchy. No amount of layering fixed this (I tried, and just wasted paint for no reason). It really took away from both paintings.

The streakiness is really evident here in this process pic from Downtown Brown. Those black areas should be totally black:

After Googling this issue (thank you Google!) I learned that this is a fairly common issue for oil painting. This “sunken in” appearance is especially problematic for darker colours where it is more obvious. As for the reason – as usual it seems like a number of reasons are suggested – painting too thin, mixing too many colours, too much solvent. One big issue that faces all oil painters is that oil may not be absorbed from paints uniformly by your painted surface as the paints dry. Combine that with the fact that different oil colours differ in terms of oil content to begin with and you have all the makings for uneven drying and overall appearance in your final painting.

The fix

The good news is, there is a solution. The fix for this variation in paint appearance is varnishing (in addition to bestowing all those wonderful protective qualities). I have really, really been looking forward to this final step because I’ve read so much about how this really adds so much to your final painting. I love colour and contrast and I was so disappointed to see that some colours significantly dulled with drying.

I expected the varnish step to even out the surface and that the glossy finish would return and saturate my colours and really make them pop. Gamblin advertises that their Picture Varnish will unify the surface of your painting.

Gamblin is a great company and really committed to artist education. If you have a question and contact them they WILL get back to you with a personalized email. For example, Dave from Gamblin sent me a lovely email response to my question about using graphite for your underdrawing for an oil painting (I had concerns). Anyway, they produced a really handy post about varnishing that covers everything you need to know. I followed it exactly with excellent results.

Gamblin recommends waiting until your painting is touch-dry to varnish. This may be a few weeks or a few months. I paint in pretty thin layers so after a week or so all of my paintings are just about touch dry. I thought I would be extra good and I gave all of my paintings at least a month to dry. I also figured a varnish assembly-line would make the best use of my time.

Step 1: Assemble your tools

Not much to assemble. I had my varnish bottle from which I poured a small quantity into a flat container (old Tupperware repurposed for the art room). I cleared off my flat art room table to place each painting during the varnishing. It’s best to work on a flat surface so the varnish goes on evenly and isn’t drawn downwards by gravity.

I purchased this 2″ Royal and Langnickel Jumbo flatbrush just for varnishing. Soft but firm synthetic bristles and well constructed (no bristles falling out during the actual varnishing and ruining the painting).

Loving this new varnish brush.

If you have a dedicated varnish brush, you don’t need to clean your brush after using Gamvar. You can just let it dry and put it away until your next varnishing party.

Step 2: Varnish!

I laid each painting flat on my big table in the art room. Using my large brush, I dipped it into a flat container holding some Gamvar. I tapped off the brush and then starting at the top of each painting I swept it in long even strokes across the canvas. I worked my way down being careful to lay the varnish down in a thin layer picking up any excess as I go. You want to watch out for any areas where it may pool, especially on amore textured painting surface. The Gamvar needs to be applied very thinly or it will always remain tacky. It dries solely by solvent evaporation and if done correctly will be dry to the touch in a couple days (I checked, mine were dry to the touch in a couple days!). I did ignore the unsolicited advice of a well-meaning sales lady at Michael’s who I chatted with on a recent canvas buying expedition. She advised to rub the varnish in with a cloth. I have no idea how this would be superior but I implore you, do not do this. It seems more likely to ruin your painting. For my 24 x 30″ Big Beesa I dipped my brush into the varnish twice for the entire thing. That’s it.

Here’s a pic of the varnish process halfway thru. The Gamvar immediately saturated the painting, You can see a distinct line about halfway down. The top half is varnished, the bottom half not varnished. The difference is really striking in this photo and that richness was retained when the varnish dried.

Another compare and contrast. Varnish applied on the left side of painting, the red, especially the darkest areas are noticeably more vibrant. The right side is awaiting varnish. It is more dull and muted.

Step 3: Drying

Let your varnished painting(s) dry for a few days in a safe pet-free zone. They should be totally dry to the touch if done properly.

Before and After

All of these pics are totally un-retouched to try to show you the true before and afters.

This is a Cat

You can see the top-down vertical steaks in the black background and the variation in light and dark black throughout even though black was used straight from the tube. I applied two layers of black to the background to try to fix this but it dried the same every time. In the after, you can see that the background is totally uniform and this effect is even more striking in person. All of the colours look more saturated.

Big Beesa

I felt that the dark background was even more problematic in this painting. Again I applied multiple layers of paint in the background to no avail. In the after image, again the paint is totally uniform and all of the colours have been restored to their straight-from-the-tube lustre.

Downtown Brown

This painting was so streaky in the before image. Again the darker colours are a bigger problem but you can see in the varnished image that everything gains a greater intensity and the steaks are lost.

Final Verdict

I put so much love and care into all of my paintings that it just makes sense to kind of finish them up and tie everything into a neat package with a final varnish (like the ribbon on a present). The same goes for painting the edges of my canvas and signing my work. It’s the little things that can elevate a painting so much. In terms of the varnish step, the difference is subtle but it is also everything. Not only will you protect your artistic investment, you’re allowing it to reach its full potential.

I’m sorry this turned into a bit of a review of Gamvar varnish but I just can’t get over it. I received it for Christmas from my husband and it’s now one of my favourite presents (the spiky shoes and Neewer lights were the front runners up until now ;)). I think the Gamvar Picture Varnish is an absolutely excellent product. It’s always hard to photograph paintings, especially glossy ones, but in person the paintings have a rich, saturated, unified appearance. A little Gamvar goes an extremely long way. I have a 500ml container and I think it will last me for years of oil painting varnishing. And yes, in case you were wondering (I know I was!) you can use Gamvar Picture Varnish on oil and acrylic paintings.

I hope these impressions will help any of you starting out or on the fence about which product to varnish with. If you have any questions please feel free to write to me in the comments below.

Thank you for reading everyone. Happy varnishing!

Back to the Grind.

Teelo stole Riggs’ Christmas toy and is so proud.

Hi everyone! Happy Wednesday. Missed any holiday posts? You can catch up here:

Running Free in Rusagonis

The Story of Downtown Brown

Christmas Commissions Round-Up

and Unpacking Boxing Day

I’m back to work, back to the gym, and back to regular life. Thank you to everyone who reached out about my New Year’s goals. It’s exciting to put myself out there!

I spent New Year’s morning watching Tidying Up With Marie Kondo and taking down our Christmas tree. Relief at last! Totally random fact: I discovered the KonMarie method for folding clothes a few years ago and for anyone with 2019 home organization resolutions let me tell you it.was.a.life-changer. I think I spent like a week re-folding all of our clothing when I discovered this, and I still use this method now.

Another random thought: Today I learned that if you delete images from your WordPress media library that are linked to a post – you will also delete the linked images in your post! Oops! Well that was a giant fail!

I have This is a Cat, Big Beesa, and Downtown Brown drying around the art room now. I’m looking forward to varnishing these soon! I’ve read so much that varnishing really brings out the colours of your oil painting and I’m really excited to see this. I’ve noticed that the Old Holland Scheveningen black that I use dries pretty matte. This has the effect of making my deep, dark, black backgrounds on the Beesa paintings appear kind of dull. I have the Gamvar High Gloss Varnish and just need to pick up a new, clean flat paintbrush before I give it a try.

Also, kind of out of nowhere but I wanted to share: I’ve been painting a lot and losing a record number of paintbrushes. I was finding that even with careful cleaning, my brushes must have had a film of oil paint that hardened when dry. It rendered a few brushes totally useless. I picked up some Master’s Brush Cleaner on a recent trip to my local art store. We also used to sell this when I worked at Curry’s Art Store and I always thought it looked like some old-timey weird product from the packaging. But given the number of paintbrushes that had been lost (and the cost to replace) I thought, oh just add it to the pile. Well, it works great!

For my brush clean-up I follow these steps: 1. Use a paper towel to remove any excess paint. 2. Swish my paintbrushes around in my jar of Gamsol. 3. Run the brush under warm water. 4. Lather up the brushes with the Masters Brush Cleaner Soap (you just rub the brush against the hardened soap bar in the container. 5. Rinse the brushes. 6. Reshape bristles and lay flat to dry… And, voila!

Totally clean brushes, no more film! And I was actually able to restore a few paintbrushes that I thought were garbage. This method works great so I really wanted to share!

I started working on some more east coast pen and watercolor paintings yesterday which carried over into today. I got a few rough sketches done last night and started painting today. I started this project last summer when we got back from a trip to the east coast and I just loved those little paintings. The first set focused a lot on Prince Edward Island. I’m really looking forward to working on these new ones more this week. This particular series is focused on Halifax at night and I’m hoping to play with my gouache paints for these.

And just to keep up the productivity moving along because I’ve been feeling so motivated art-wise, tonight I set up Wiggis on one easel and prepped a second canvas on my other easel for tomorrow night. Now I can kind of travel back and forth between easels on my rolling chair (Ha! if only I were so efficient!). Both of these paintings have kind of been queued in my brain for awhile now. I’ve kind of moved ahead of these paintings with some other ideas but I think it’s important to finish these – have to practice a little bit of diligence in 2019.

I’m looking forward to Thursday evening – long dog run with my spiky shoes and then an evening of painting with sleeping dogs lying around my feet.

Thank you for reading everyone! Time to watch Friends (turns out it’s still good!) and eat homemade oatmeal cookies. We’re almost to the weekend 🙂

The Story of Downtown Brown.

Oil on canvas painting
Downtown Brown. December 2018. Oil on canvas. 18 x 24″.

Should we get a dog? My husband asked me. Back then he was my boyfriend and we had been living together in the big city for nearly five years. We were sitting in Queen’s park with a picnic, drinking the “good” soy chocolate milk, back when I was still a pseudo-vegetarian. At this point we had Beesa and Wiggis, the cats, and we had been living a pretty carefree life. We were both graduate students living together in a cozy one-bedroom condo in an old converted building, aptly called, The Gallery.

So, should we get a dog? Sitting on that park bench I thought, it would be pretty nice to have a little dog here with us. Of course the scene I pictured was of the two of us and an angel dog waiting patiently for us while we enjoyed a quiet afternoon at the park – and I can tell you that the peaceful scene I pictured has a never, ever played out in real life.

Should we get a dog? It was a question we would go back and forth about for a few weeks. And while we are now in a place where adding another animal to the brood seems like literally no problem at all, back then, this was a big question. There was a time in our lives, years before this chat in the park, that we had discussed getting a lab. But by the time we started to seriously discuss getting a puppy, vizslas were the only breed we ever really considered. We don’t really remember why. There was a neighborhood vizsla that we would see sometimes. My husband loved how she looked. And then my Runner’s World magazine did a piece on the top dog breeds to run with and – you guessed it – the vizsla was heavily favored (here’s a reprint from 2018). Not a lot to go on I suppose but all of a sudden this sweet, goofy, skinny red sporting dog was at the top of our list.

Vizsla puppy waterfront
Teelo inspecting Queen’s Quay.

My husband really took the lead on getting our first dog. I think he really wanted a little buddy. I continued to protest, it’s what I do. I hate change, even good change. I had a list of concerns. What about the extra responsibility? What about the added expense? What about the shedding? I pictured balls of dog hair rolling like Wild West tumbleweeds around the condo. My husband persisted, he showed me pictures of vizsla puppies and suggested I could have a running partner. I relented and we started contacting breeders.

Now, when you enter the world of purebred animals there’s quite a process involved in actually obtaining a pet. I actually really appreciate the sentiment of these proverbial hoops you have to jump through because I am a huge proponent of responsible pet ownership and I love how much a good breeder cares about where her puppies are placed. We had gone through this with the cats already – attending several mandatory introductory sessions at the breeders house and passing a screening test before we could take sweet Beesa and Wiggis home.

Teelo napping at Yonge and Charles.

After contacting vizsla breeders for a few weeks we found out about puppy Teelo (then known as “green boy”) on a cold call. His breeder actually had two vizsla puppies – Teelo and his sister, Pippin. We drove out the following weekend to meet him. After an hour of chatting with the breeder and meeting puppy Teelo – we were sold. His breeder? Unfortunately she was not so sold on us. Over the years we became good friends. She eventually told us that she lost sleep thinking of Teelo living in an apartment in the city. Where would he run and stretch his little vizsla legs? Would he be ok??? So really, we were incredibly lucky that she didn’t change her mind and allowed Teelo to go home with us in August 2010. We are so grateful she took a chance on us.

Teelo brunching in the Beaches.

Perhaps sensing that we would have to make extra effort to give Teelo the best life experience possible as a downtown dog, we did everything with him. He had the requisite dog walks everyday, visits to the dog park, and then many visits to the vet to treat ear, eye, and GI infections picked up at said dog parks 🙄. We also took him on all sorts of fun adventures while he was a single child. He was the Prince of Downtown: High Park, Riverdale Park, Queen’s Park, Rosedale Park, Allan Gardens. Every single beautiful corner and side street of the University campus (back in the good old days, before dogs were banned). We signed him up for city-specific dog obedience which found us putting him in a sit-stay outside St. Lawrence Market and practicing his recall on the tennis courts at Kew Gardens.

And all these trips, all these adventures involved taking little Teelo on the TTC subway and streetcar like it was no thing at all. And so, half-inspired by little Teelo’s travels around the city, and half-inspired by Amsterdam Brewing Co.’s beer of the same name (note the awesome streetcar illustration on the can!), Teelo became affectionately known as Downtown Brown (even though Downtown Red would have been more accurate, strictly speaking).

Oops.

This particular painting was inspired by a series of pictures from a trip we took with baby Teelo to The Pawsway back in 2010. He was probably about five months old here. I had a day off from work and my husband had a day off from school. This photo was taken on the College Street 506 streetcar heading eastbound. We would get off at Spadina and transfer to the 510 southbound, en route to The Pawsway at Queen’s Quay. We were always trying to think of creative ways to socialize Teelo and get him some exercise. The Pawsway was an indoor dog play area with a dog-friendly restaurant where your pup could sit at your table with you. So this was our field trip for the day and it is such a wonderful memory from our first few months as newbie dog parents. Normally packed during rush hour, at midday the 506 eastbound was empty, and Teelo hopped up to sit half on the iconic red fabric TTC seat, half on my husband’s lap.

I remember this trip, this simple day off with our new puppy, like it was yesterday. Now that we have three dogs, all around fifty pounds of muscle, and all on high alert to bark at anything askew in their immediate environments, field trips like this don’t happen the same way anymore. And certainly, many of our city travels were not as peaceful as this picture. Teelo isn’t Downtown Brown in the literal sense anymore He has a backyard now and he likes to inspect the perimeter several times a day, and he runs with me in the suburbs. But, he will always be little Downtown Brown in our hearts. This was a special day (what is it about simple days that just unexpectedly turn out to be the best days ever??) with my husband and the original Downtown Brown. It was really nice to be able to spend some time reflecting on it through painting it, and now it can be remembered forever with this painting. I’m really glad I persevered.

Painting Details

This painting took nearly two weeks to complete. The canvas is 18 x 24″. I wish it was bigger. I will never attempt a portrait with this much detail with a canvas this small again. It was really difficult to paint, I felt really confined. I wish it had been something like 30 x 40″ instead. I also just had horrible misgivings about this painting after my first evening working on it.

Painting my husband’s portrait was very difficult at first, I felt a lot of internal pressure to get it right. I went back with a transparency sheet with an outline of my reference drawing two times. Just taking a step back, allowing the painting to dry when I had these misgivings, and do this check was really critical.

I always have to remind myself that fussing never helps me. Once I had my husband’s face “right”, and my mother-in-law confirmed that I had got it, everything else seemed to come together quite easy in comparison.

The underpainting was done in Payne’s Grey because of all the black and cool tones in the reference photo. I transferred the sketch with Saral white transfer paper as per usual. This was the first painting I got to paint with my Neewer light gifted to me this past Christmas and it was soooooo nice being able to paint with good light regardless of the time of day I can’t say enough good things about this beautiful light 🙂

Colours used (all Old Holland):

Despite my initial misgivings, I absolutely love this painting now. I am so happy that I stuck with it. I particularly enjoyed painting the scenery outside the streetcar – it makes me feel like an Impressionist, so loose and carefree compared to my usual – and the repeating pattern of the streetcar seats behind my husband, and of course the bright pops of red in the streetcar seats. It just ended up being a really great colour scheme and I stayed pretty true to the reference photo. I don’t know what quality it is of oil paints but I find that they really lend themselves to realism. The blendability (not a real word), the softness and texture of the paint – I’m so happy I transitioned to oil painting this year.

I love painting from old photos. I love capturing and meditating on these moments in time, captured on film and then explored on my canvas. I’m looking forward to exploring this subject matter – the important moments, people, and animals – more in 2019 (in oil on canvas of course). Looking forward to posting about my 2019 art and life goals soon 🙂 so stay tuned for that.

And THAT is the story of Downtown Brown. And so to answer the question, Should we get a dog? Now I can’t even imagine having to ask myself that. Bringing home sweet baby Teelo, then Riggs, and then Clicquot – best life decisions ever. They make our family a family.

Downtown Brown is on the case!

Thank you 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.


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.

This is a cat.

This is a painting of my sweet cat Beesa. It is also my first oil painting. The title is my idea of a cheeky reference to Magritte’s famous pipe. 

Beesa is our first and oldest pet. We are bad and have lost track a bit but she’s around fifteen years old. Beesa is a Bengal cat, and she is registered with The International Cat Association under Jabara Asia. When we brought her home, Asia quickly morphed into the name Beesa, and if you met her you would definitely agree that is her name. If you call her name she will come trotting from anywhere in the house. She likes to chat with you and makes a noise that sounds something like, “Heeeeeeeeeeee” to emphasize her points. She is very little and we call her the micro cat. Everyone who meets her is shocked to find out she is so old, she is still spry as a baby kitten. Given Beesa’s micro size I thought it would be really nice to paint her portrait gigantic-in-comparison. What she lacks in size she certainly makes up for in personality.  

About six months after I took up painting seriously again in 2018, I started to question whether acrylics were the ideal medium for me. My biggest issue with acrylic paint is that it dries way too quickly for my liking. Even using Golden retarder medium liberally I’d always get to that awkward tacky paint stage where the brush is nearly dry and starting skipping across the canvas. Not what I want. I want to blend and have time to really work with the paint. I really had the sense that it was time to move over to oil paints. However, other than an incredibly unfortunate looking self-portrait painted in oils for a grade 11 art project (*think every tooth painted individually*shudder*), I didn’t have much experience. The oil paints themselves were a pretty significant financial investment, I was worried about having to use solvent to clean up, and I really found the number of available mediums to be totally overwhelming. Like what on earth is “oil spike of lavender”? The corner housing oil paints and mediums at our local art store was more like a witch’s pantry.  

Now maybe I have too much time on my hands but this transition ended up taking forever. Like many months. I researched every detail. I spent a long time obsessing over which oil paints to start with (finally decision: Old Holland professional quality paints) and which mediums to use (that was really, really difficult but ultimately Gamsol and Galkyd). When I had everything purchased and organized, and my husband surprised me with the gift of a second H-frame easel just for my oil painting I came up against an enormous wall – how to transfer my drawing to the canvas for the oil painting? I read somewhere that graphite will “swim” to the top of an oil painting and ruin everything in 100 years. But if not graphite then what? I searched for old school overheard projectors on Kijiji, and finally went as far as to email Gamblin paint company directly for their opinion (their answer? ultimately it probably doesn’t matter). In the end I discovered white saral wax-free transfer paper. Used on top of a canvas prepped with neutral burnt umber this has turned out to be an absolutely awesome solution for transferring images. 

But I digress. I love the Beesa painting. It may just be my most favourite painting I have ever painted to date. I love that Beesa probably weighs less than two pounds and her portrait is 24×24″ It is like a million times bigger than her. And then there is the paint: From the first swatches of Old Holland oil paint I was in love. I love, love, love the luminosity and intensity of the colours. Even professional quality acrylic paints don’t stand a chance against Old Holland oils. I loved painting for a few hours, taking a break and coming back to a still totally workable painting. I felt like I planned this painting and this transition for so long that when it came time to actually put brush to canvas the whole thing flowed really naturally. And isn’t that when our best work is bound to happen?

I put a lot of thought into preparing my canvas before finally getting started and it was well worth it. For anyone interested in trying their hand at oil painting, stay tuned for a video tutorial detailing how to start an oil painting and some introduction to oil painting posts all coming up soon!