Tony’s Boxer portrait
You have produced a confident and impressive portrait from a very difficult, dark and high contrast photograph that most artists would really baulk at. I think your choice of paper and limited palette of colours have held you back from what you’re really capable of, but let’s go into deeper analysis of your technique to see what this portrait can teach you. I am going to assume the dog in the picture is a ‘he’ for the purpose of writing this – please extend my apologies to her if I have that wrong!
It seems to be a good likeness of the boxer and I’m sure the owner would recognise their own dog here. Mostly your drawing is pretty much spot on, and you’ve tackled the tricky folds of the ears particularly well. I’d say his eyes are on the large side in your painting, which give him a puppy look, which may have been your intention. The nose has ended up a little twisted on his face – check the shape of the dog’s right nostril on the photo: it’s more upwardly angled than on your drawing and foreshortened as it follows the contour of his face away from us.
The right hand edge of his neck appears rather hunched where you’ve finished it off as a curve. I would prefer to see a soft, fading away of this edge, which would give it more form and help reduce the flatness. It’s fine to play with an animal’s markings unless you’re doing a faithful portrait, so I’m not sure if you added the white bib deliberately to lift his face out of the picture, which was a nifty move if your intention wasn’t to represent a particular individual, but I’m sure you realise it’s not something you’d want to try on a portrait commission. His neck area is rather less carefully observed than his face. I know it probably wasn’t nearly as interesting to draw as the face, but there are wonderful opportunities there to play with the direction of hair going into and around the fold of skin under his neck and the longer, glossier hair behind his head going up into that cute little ruff. This doesn’t mean you have to put just as much detail in there, but it’s important that what you do put there is accurate and descriptive enough for it not to stand out due to a change in technique.
Brindle is the most time-consuming coat colour to paint well, but it’s also one of the most beautiful and impressive, and so it’s worth all those extra colours and strokes. I think you’ve missed a trick by limiting your colours so much here – I would like to see that lovely rich chestnut red in there, some flickers of pink and pale orange, and in the black areas it would be good to see just a hint of violet and blue on the borders of some of the softer shadows.
His eyes are appealing and very well painted if we disregard the scale, but again you could increase their depth and make them more three-dimensional with the addition of a darker reddish brown at the edges of the irises, and by toning down the catchlights with some blue you could make them more liquid. The sclera (whites of the eyes) are rarely a true white, and remember that they too have subtle shadows where they recede from the light and are shaded by the top eyelid.
You have commented that you had difficulty with blending on this paper, and this has meant there isn’t as much variation in the texture as there may be. Some pastel artists work successfully on watercolour paper but this is generally by using heavy application of soft pastel and a style which doesn’t look for fine detailing. There are certain properties of rough watercolour paper which make it unsuitable. Firstly, it’s white, which means you have to work hard just to get the colour to the kind of depth you want. The surface is prepared with ‘size’ to help watercolours and inks stick to it: in very basic terms, it’s a mild form of glue activated by water, and it can be quite resistant to dry media. Pastels prefer something a little more fibrous. The third problem, and this also applies to certain pastel papers, is that it’s heavily textured, so when you try to blend or show texture in your painting you first have to wage war with the texture of the paper. Given the unhappy relationship between detailed hard pastel pencil work and rough watercolour paper, I think you’ve done an amazing job, but I must suggest that to do yourself justice you should invest in some fine toothed paper made especially for pastel, such as sanded, primed or velour paper. This will enable you to layer colours and blend as well as apply sharper edges.
A common mistake when painting a detailed animal portrait is to try to define every single hair and I’m pleased to see you haven’t fallen into this trap. By allowing key hairs to dominate, you’ve given a good impression of how his coat would feel to the touch, in particular on his slightly bristly muzzle and his softer, more velvety ears. A few repeats of this treatment on his neck and shoulder would balance the whole portrait out and complete the story.
I know you realise that it was a mistake to do the background last, although you’ve made a pretty neat job of it, which must have been tricky! As you now appreciate, it’s always best to lay down the background first when you’re working with pastel. It can be hard to decide on the colour and tone before you’ve painted the picture, but a good standby is to use a colour that exists, or is close to one, already in the portrait so it creates unity. I think the cream colour you used works fine in this respect, although it’s so light that the edge of his muzzle is getting lost against it. For this reason, I usually like to use two or three very closely related graduated or blurred colours – lighter, main colour, and darker. This way I can make sure there is edge contrast where I want it, and where I want to lose an edge to make it recede right away, I can paint the background next to that edge in a close tone. So for this portrait, I’d make it darker behind his right cheek and also behind his neck and into the top right corner of the picture to make him come out at us some more.
In conclusion, your biggest strength is your drawing skill, which you could apply more consistently to the whole image. Be braver with colour and look carefully for colours that you may not expect to find – you might need to buy more pastels (you can never have too many colours!). Your interpretation of the photo is very good and you’ve made it your own and not fallen into the trap of copying exactly what the photo looks like, whilst still portraying all the character of the dog. When you have some better paper, spend some time doodling on it to get used to blending and making different textural marks to widen you repertoire ready for your next painting.
Silvana’s Horse & Rider
The angle and unusual crop make this an interesting image, and the diagonals reinforce the direction of movement. You show a good sense of composition here, which is a great foundation on which to build your technique.
For the most part, your measuring and drawing are accurate, the only obvious deviations being the rider’s arm, which has somehow developed an elbow next to the wrist, and her leg, which doesn’t follow the contour of the horse’s back: look at the curve where her thigh and bottom meet the horse and think about how the weight is placed. The lower leg has become too far back. You might have got away with this position as artistic licence but moving it there has actually placed it into space that should be occupied by the horse, with the result that the horse’s body has lost its solidity. This is a good example of why it’s so risky to draw things as we think they should be instead of how they are. Take a look at the mane too. It’s always a temptation to tidy things up but the very irregularity of the mane in the photo makes the horse look bouncy and full of life.
There are many strengths in your compositional design, but where it flounders a little is by not giving us a focal point – somewhere the eye naturally lands before starting its journey around the image. Usually our attention is grabbed first by the area of strongest contrast or by a dominant shape. In your painting there are many elements calling for attention equally: the colour contrast on the hard edge between the blue jeans and the horse, the dark, strong arc of the mane, the glint of the eye, the shine on the bridle, the bright white shape of the chin, and so on. Each is a destination on the eye’s journey, but there needs to be one place to start, so the others can be subdued, which will make the painting more interesting because they have to be discovered.
Something that is compounding this is your use of white. It’s easy to get carried away with the ‘sparkles’ and most of your applications of white are overly bright and too broadly applied. It’s easy to fix the brightness by knocking back with gentle blending in a darker colour on top. For example, the highlight glint in the eye is so strong it gives the horse a shocked look. It’s very rare that you’d see more than the smallest pinprick of white light reflected in a horse’s eye (and then only if the light came from a strong point source like the sun) – if you look carefully at your photo you’ll see it’s actually a fairly dark blue-grey, as are the parts of the bridle which are catching the light. To reduce the thickness of the bit ring, you can paint into the edges carefully with the colours from behind to slim it down, and while you’re there take a careful look at how much of that is actually white and how much is in shadow or reflecting other colours. The same applies to the white at the lower part of the horse’s chin, muzzle and lips – this area is furthest from the light and would always be in shadow unless the horse is walking over a reflective surface.
It can be hard to tell from a scan how accurately the colour of your painting is reproduced on my screen but to me the horse seems to have quite a yellow cast. Introducing some warm mauves and pinks would help here. Introducing more midtone areas and allowing a little more light into some of the neck shadows would make the horse more three dimensional: at the moment there is little in between the dark and light areas so he appears more like a relief carving than a solid form. You have successfully related the poppies in the background to the horse by subtle introduction of the same colour into the coat and this is very effective. The strength of the blues in the rider’s clothing hold her shape in isolation and I’d be inclined to reduce their vibrancy somewhat and also balance the colour by bringing a little of it into the background – perhaps a graduated blend of the lighter blue into the top left corner, which would also serve to give the impression of distance.
The background you’ve introduced works very well and adds context to the painting. I would like to see some places where the horse overlaps the poppies, particularly around the mouth, where they are a little too evenly spaced. and the chest which has a tide mark around it. It looks to me as though you added most of the background after painting the horse, which often results in a disjointed look that is hard to disguise.
You seem to have good command of your materials, as there’s a nice variety of mark making in this image, from soft blends to sharp detail. The smooth texture of the horse’s coat is well described, but the mane has become a tad fussy: you only need to depict a few individual hairs, not all of them. The rider’s clothing would benefit from more careful observation: you don’t need to paint it at the same level of detail as the horse’s face but some points of reference to tell us about the texture and thickness of the material would add to the painting’s quality. See how the folds of cloth are so much sharper along the seam of the jeans than on the back of the jumper, and consider where the shadows are.
It’s good to be confident and take informed liberties with a photo reference, and many of your decisions in this regard have been successful and made it a better picture. Some have been less so but there’s nothing you can’t resolve without a little more work on the painting as it has all the makings of a good piece of art.