Stevie, Bridal Portrait

When I painted, "Lady Leanna Lynx," about a year ago, I was surprised and pleased. Surprised that I had agreed to paint it, and pleased with the result. Not only the result, but the production of the painting was also a ton of fun. It also occurred to me that if I wanted to push in that direction I might be able to do more costumed pooches. Whether I should push in that direction I was at the time unsure about.

digital mockup

digital mockup

It didn't take long before a second commission came, without my trying. Having been shared by the owner, another basenji owner got in contact with me about a similar commission. The goal wasn't to do another renaissance dog, which was good: it would be fun doing others of that era, but back-to-back might've killed my motivation to continue down this four-legged path before I'd really gotten going. Instead, as this dog, Stevie, was sort of amorous of one of the owner's other dogs, we talked about portrayals that might communicate that. There was of course the option for a western or other kind of wedding gown, but as early conversations indicated an eastern flair, I went this direction.

I proposed a bride's outfit. In particular, a traditional Japanese bridal dress, complete with tsunokakushi--the characteristic and gorgeous headdresses they sometimes wear. I mocked up a study to show the owner based on a generic dog of the breed, just to give the taste of the thing.

One of the keys to Leanna's success as a painting was that I was able to visit Leanna and shoot reference. Because Leanna was extremely compliant, it made life easy. Her particular expression was a bonus, but not unusual for her, being a bit of a goofy dog. I told myself that if I did others like this, I might want to limit them to dogs I could visit and photograph myself. There are just too many variables to try to base it on someone else's photos. Like painting a human portrait based on a random photo a person might send you versus seeing the person live, in the flesh, and getting to choose lighting and pose while getting high-resolution shots.

"Stevie the Basenji" 8x10" pencil on vellum sold

"Stevie the Basenji" 8x10" pencil on vellum

As it turned out, if we waited a bit, I could visit Stevie. The client, living in Southern California, was within striking distance from my parents who now live in Central CA. Not close, mind you, it's still a three hour drive or so. I was going to be visiting my folks at Thanksgiving, so I proposed driving down to take some photos. To make the drive more worth it, I promised myself a visit to Pinks Hotdogs in Hollywood on the way home. Any excuse to get down to Pinks is a good excuse.

I was thus able to shoot some reference of Stevie, another basenji, but one with such a different personality and look, really. I'm new to that breed still, so it was interesting to meet two very different examples. She wasn't quite as compliant, and had injured a foreleg that morning while playing, but we did our best and got some good shots.

From there, I set about working. I knew the look of the silk kimono through image hunting online, the way the patterned white silk has various sheens. But I wasn't confident in my ability to translate that straight to paint in my version. So I went to eBay and picked up an inexpensive under-kimono (juban) which exhibited the material qualities I needed. That set the project back a bit.

In the meantime I changed the headdress. One of the breed's characteristics are the tall pointed ears. You can see that even compared to the digital mockup above, that I was starting to back away from it in the drawing. Though the tall, horn-like ears of the basenji made a too-clever-by-half pun for those who know that tsunokakushi literally means something like "hidden horns," hiding them so much under the headdress wasn't sitting right, so I removed the headdress and added in the decorative hair pins and ribbon bow that accompany other bride's ensembles. The client loved the change and finally we were off. I used the heart-medallion on Stevie's collar and placed it over the knots of the tassels.

Once again however, trouble arose as I attempted to paint a sort of actual environment in the distance, in a flash of inspiration...which just shows that not all flashes of inspiration work out. It just didn't work, and so was repainted. As with Leanna, an attempt was made to paint Stevie in nearly life-size. I also adjusted the pose from four-legged standing to sitting on haunches quite last-minute.

As Rockwell said, "Some come easy, some come hard." I had to fight for this one! But in the end it too was fun, and leaves me wondering if there is something other than basenjis in my future? It's a great breed I've gotten to know better, but the world of dogs is so very, very wide. So far this series has been great fun, so we'll see what comes!

"Stevie, Bridal Portrait" 11x14" oils on panel Sold

"Stevie, Bridal Portrait" 11x14" oils on panel

Lady Leanna Lynx

You don't work as an oil painter very long before someone asks you to paint their pet. I've gotten used to politely declining, simply because these pieces often end up rather...uninspired. While I suppose for enough fee I'd paint a lot of things--I am an illustrator by trade, after all--it's a little unfair to a pet owner who loves their pet dearly, to paint it quarter-heartedly. There's also the fact that most folk think that sort of painting can be had for like $100.

So when I was approached with yet another request to paint a dog, it was because there was the hint of something far more interesting that I continued the conversation. Here, there was the interest in having a dog painted in an old master style, probably in costume. As we chatted about it, we both agreed that this would only really work with a few things in mind: first, the painting would have to be done completely in earnest, nothing in the piece was to read as wink-wink / nod-nod. Secondly, it would be done in accordance with various period portraits of people. What sealed the deal was the fact that I would have access to the dog to shoot my own reference, and that my fee was acceptable. We were off to the races. So to speak.

Digital study

Digital study

To start things off, I did have the owner email me a few photos. I took a low-res camera shot and enlarged it. Then, using references from a number of renaissance-era paintings, sketched out a rough costume digitally. Many portraits of the era also included usually-clumsy hand-lettering, stating the name of the person and the year it was painted (with one of a few abbreviations of, "Anno Domini").

It is an odd feature of many old portraits that they are painted with forboding dark clouds as a backdrop. Likely they are just a dark value contrast so that a fair-skinned European sitter stood out, while not just being a flat background. It always seemed a bit incongruous to have some lovely Gainsborough lady, hair meticulously coiffed, out in what would surely be the start of a windy downpour.

I ran this quick sketch over, just to see if we were really thinking along the same lines. We definitely were. Next up, came the sitting, as the patron here was local.

Pencil study, 6x8"

Pencil study, 6x8"

Leanna Lynx (yes, two names) is a Basenji: a nice, hypo-allergenic, quiet and clean breed, with a tail curled a lot like Shiba Inu. Additionally, she had a short career as a show dog in her younger years. We spent some time posing her for photographs. Though she's out of practice on the show floor, she was still pretty compliant and stood up on her forelegs, ears pointed up and showing off the breed's characteristic forehead wrinkles.

Back home, I went about refining the costume and drawing it over the pose already present. A lady in her formal portrait, back in the day, would be decked out in her best and most expensive clothes and jewelry.

To add to the feel of this historical recreation, I decided to paint on birch panel. Painting on wood was fairly common back in that era, before the popularizing of canvas or linen as subtrates. It gives old master paintings a distinctive surface quality, which I hoped to capture to some extent. The panel came cradled and primed. I transferred my drawing to it and began by knocking in the base colors in acrylic. From there, my usual methods carried me forward in oil. The owner, who commissioned the painting as an anniversary gift, was made incredibly happy upon seeing the finished painting, and also related the overjoyed reactions of the recipient upon its opening.

"Lady Leanna Lynx" 12x16" Oils and acrylic on birch panel   Sold

"Lady Leanna Lynx" 12x16" Oils and acrylic on birch panel

It was really very enjoyable to work on--utterly ridiculous, totally serious. It allowed me to indulge my love of art history and costume, as well. The patron got a nice original painting that will keep Leanna Lynx around for many, many years past her time on earth. That's a win plus another win. It was also, of course, one of the reasons those old portraits were painted. With no way to ever know what people in the past looked like, the portrait (painted or sculpted) was the only way your visage could survive into the future.

Though commissioning an original painting to own is often thought of with regards to my bread-and-butter of imaginative realism (for good reason), this piece certainly shows that the realm of things an artist might paint for you are broader than you think. If you'd like to read a little about the process of doing so, you can do that here