Painting a Pet Portrait

"Sourpuss" 8.5 x 10.5 Pastel on paper
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Pet portraits, like people portraits, have a big pitfall: if you're painting an image of a person or animal you know well, your left brain is always whispering in your ear-- telling you that your portrait doesn't match up with the real thing. I wasn't even going to make this an actual pet portrait-- I just wanted to paint a stylized white and pink cat on a blue-green background for fun. Once I started blocking in the chalk, though, it felt wrong not to match her face up with the real thing, since I was using this cat as a model. It might have something to do with that accusing stare, which she shares with just about everyone she meets.

I took a wildlife painting class some years back, and the big thing I took away from it was that the face gives the animal its personality. To get the face accurate, you have to turn off that left brain, which is searching for recognizable features that can be named. Instead, it helps to break the face down into shapes-- good old two dimensional or three dimensional ones (triangles, cones, spheres, etc). Put the shapes in the correct relationship to each other, with the right proportions, and add in values. Then, the face will come out on its own, and your left brain will go back to nagging you about other things.

Don't get me wrong, I know we need our left brains. When I'm painting though, I usually invite mine to take a hike. When I teach an art class, I like to turn the lights off for a minute and explain to my students that it's time to tell their left brains to get lost for a while, and come back later for math class. They giggle, but it works.

I think it's worth noting that I have a much easier time painting pets I don't know well-- there's no pre-formed memories of those pets in my mind, so it's much easier to focus on shapes and values.

On a side note, I used Strathmore watercolor paper on this one, and I don't recommend it for pastels with water. I would stick with Arches Cold Press, because it grips the pastels much better.


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