Keep Those Pencils Sharp

Central Coast – Morro Bay | 9 x 12” | Colored Pencil on Paper

A few months ago we took a trip to indulge in wines of Paso Robles, California. This is a beautiful area, a little hard to get to, and the wine is fantastic. Don’t get me wrong, I’m no wine snob… my palette is worth a $40 bottle of wine at best. However, over the years we’ve done a lot of travel around the world and there is no better way to find wines you like than to be in the actual region and explore. Again, we tend not to go to places for the purpose of doing wine tastings, but what else are you going to have with dinner?

We took a beautiful drive from Paso Robles, CA to Morro Bay. Along the way we came across this stunning view, giving a first glance of the ocean as we wound through the hills. As you can see from the reference photo, it’s beautiful, but as an artist you see a whole lotta green! 

I chose to do this piece in colored pencil instead of oil paint for two reasons. First, I’ve recently started experimenting with colored pencils and the investment in a new pencil set needed some return. Secondly, it gets brutally hot in my upstairs studio during the summer, so having the pencils setup downstairs is an easy way to get my creative fix for the day if I don’t feel like running the AC for 3 hours in the middle of the afternoon. Pragmatism, go figure. 

I’ve done a few practice sessions with colored pencils after taking a workshop from Jenny Granberry, who is a great artist and instructor, a rare combination. This piece was a challenge and intended as a massive practice exercise with the goal of something “completed” in the end. This composition was a challenge for reasons beyond my lack of colored pencil experience. First, I can’t remember the last time I’d done a drawing-based landscape, and secondly, the greens! 

What I find the most interesting part of this piece is the fact that I worked from the top down (far to near), and I don’t know about you, but I can definitely see that the bottom part of the drawing is notably better than the top. I can hear Jenny now… keep your pencils sharp and go slow. I hear you Jenny, I hear you, it just took half a page to get there. 

As to the greens, I focused on blending variations of blues in the more distant hills, segueing to stronger yellow in the foreground. I wasn’t excited about the final look initially, as it lacked warmth from the sun, so I drank some wine to work up some liquid courage to grab an orange/red pencil to add an overlay to the foreground hills. Unlike oil painting, you can’t just wipe off pencil – true, it can be erased, but then you’re compromising the “tooth” of the paper, and at some point I hope to be good enough that something like that matters. 

In the end, Central Coast – Morro Bay was a great learning experience and provided a wealth of knowledge through trial and error. I also think I’ll return to this subject matter in landscape perspective for a larger oil painting. 

Thanks for reading!

Soulful Eyes

Vedder | 8 x 6” | Graphite on Paper

This is a friend’s dog, Vedder, who I’ve never met… the dog, not the friend. I only know about this adorable black lab (I’m guessing… looks like a black lab, hoping he’s a rescue dog, too) because I occasionally check Facebook and he manages to take a lot of really good photos of his dog. As a doggy dad myself, I know how hard it is to get a good pic of your dog, especially a black one. 

I’ve been spending a lot more time this year working on dog portraits and other dog related compositions. Many of them have fallen short of anything resembling artwork, thus the lack of posts on this topic. However, some things have started to click lately and I believe it’s because I’ve returned to the core exercise of drawing instead of painting dogs. I’ll bounce back to painting them very soon, but sometimes my brain needs a reset in terms of how it translates between my eyes and the canvas. 

Vedder was all about getting the face, especially those soulful eyes, just right. I’m pretty happy with the outcome, especially since the initial drawing block-in required very little adjustment. In other words, the proportions of the face and related features was accurate from the outset, something I hadn’t been getting right with the brush and canvas. 

Drawing dogs is very tedious, but it’s offset by very rewarding outcomes. The process of drawing hair via thousands of “strokes” is a test of patience, which artists really need, but oftentimes it can be elusive as you’re excited to get a composition done. Vedder is an older pup, how old I’m not sure, so he has features such as white hairs and a well-used dog nose. These are very tricky to get onto the paper with graphite only. As you can tell from this composition I missed the mark on that front, but the rest of the details I hope capture the personality of Vedder. I’ll have to cross post this on Facebook to see if my friend has an opinion. 

On the technical front, I used 3 pencils – HB, 2B, and 4B. The paper is very basic, no idea what it actually is because it’s a sketchbook that I usually tote around on trips when I want to get some sketching done to capture the place for posterity. Very convenient, but the paper has no teeth which makes it hard to layer hair strokes with value shading.

Thanks for reading… and GO HUG YOUR DOG!

#artbern #berntx #crashboomzip #painting #art #abplanalp #bernabplanalp #austinartists #rescuedogs #bestfriends #dogsofinstagram #dogsofinsta #dogstagram #oilpainting #fineart #petsofinstagram #contemporaryart #fosteringsaveslives #dogsofig #adoptme #takemehome #austinpetsalive #mutts #muttsofinstagram #snouts #wetnoses #blacklabs #hugyourdog

Yellow Rose Botanical

Yellow Rose Botanical | 8” x 10” | Colored Pencil on Paper

I finished my botanical drawing (virtual) classes last week and this Yellow Rose is my final project. The sessions were 2 hours weekly for 8 weeks, the instructor (Jenny Granberry – @jennygeeberry) was hilarious, and I learned a lot about both botanical artistry and how to use colored pencils properly.

Yellow Rose Botanical Drawing

The biggest challenge was figuring out how to incorporate a range of colors beyond basic yellows to add interest, value variations, and realism. I was using a limited palette (12 pencils), but through some trial and error I managed to land on a few color combinations that added a lot of depth to the overall piece.

I’m hoping to do a few botanical series over the course of this year. I like the idea of colored pencil drawing because it incorporates drawing and a lot of oil painting concepts, although the techniques are very different.

#contemporaryatx #berntx #crashboomzip #rose #art #drawing

Vine Tomatoes in Colored Pencils

As we settle into a new year, hopefully a better one than 2020, I thought it was time to learn something new on the art front. To that end, I’ve been attending a weekly Botanical Drawing class. The theme of “new” is splattered all over this class – it’s done virtually (a first for me), focused on botanical drawing (another first), and in colored pencil medium (yet another first… kinda). 

This week’s subject was a pair of tomatoes on the vine. The first two classes were graphite only, no colored pencils, so this was the first session that introduced color. I’m using a small set of 12 SoHo colored pencils, which are very vibrant and so far seem to do the trick. It’s going to be a challenge pivoting from oil painting, where colors are seemingly endless through mixing of a core set of hues. The colored pencils are a different challenge because there’s only so much layering of colors that the paper will tolerate. In oil painting, if you overdo it with oil paint colors it goes brown or a dirty grey, but you can wipe it off the canvas. The colored pencils, however, can only support a limited amount of mixing on paper, and it’s largely un-erasable. It’s a wee bit stressful at times!

I really like the challenge of capturing the reality of botanicals, which is at the heart of botanical drawing. It will be interesting to see how the various compositions evolve on the color and value front over the remaining 5 weeks of class. 

This week’s composition vine tomatoes is done on standard paper and measures about 7 x 5”. 

Lyra – Spotty Dog Portrait

This one was a challenge for a few reasons. First, this adorable pup is a newly rescued dog one of my good friends adopted recently, so there’s the pressure of getting it right for a multitude of reasons. Secondly, Lyra’s stare is very intense in this portrait, so the need to capture that “what are you looking at?” essence is a new challenge for me. And lastly, Lyra has LOTS OF SPOTS!

Looking through the progression shots in the gallery below, it’s clear that there were a few challenges with the length of her snout. There’s nothing more frustrating than nailing a dog’s nose only to realize that it needs to be erased because you gave the pup a Pinocchio nose. Glad I did opt to erase, though, because it made all the difference in getting her likeness right. In fact, this composition reminded me that I frequently err on the side of Pinocchio noses, so I need to remind myself every time I start a portrait to keep it short!

Back to my friends who adopted Lyra…. she’s a lucky girl to have found such a great home! My friends live in a part of the country that lends itself to great outdoor adventures and plenty of room to run. While there were some lose leash walking and other training challenges early on, Lyra eventually figured out what was expected of her and what seemed like insurmountable issues became distant memories. It never ceases to amaze me how adaptable dogs are to the world, so willing to forgive and live in the now while embracing those who show them love and compassion.

Adopt, don’t buy!

Wolfgang Portrait

Graphite on Paper | 4” x 6” 

Wolfgang Portrait

Say hello to Wolfgang (Wolfy), who was willing to take a short break from his squirrel hunting to pose for this quick portrait. This is a smaller piece that isn’t quite as refined and complete as the previous Happy Lab portrait from last month, but the intent was to practice a couple of smaller drawings before taking on a more comprehensive composition.

This is actually the second effort at this portrait, the first having gotten off track just enough to warrant starting over. Despite carefully checking and verifying the dimensions and proportions along the way, somewhere along the process I inadvertently extended his snout, which threw everything off. It took me a little while to figure out what was going on, as the error was ultimately very small, but that seems to be the challenge with portraits – the slightest proportional error is magnified, but it sneaks up on you in a very insidious way. 

I also wasn’t very happy with the focal point of his left eye in the original effort, which I had redrawn at least twice prior to discovering the proportional issue with his snout, so I decided to restart the entire composition. Rather than flipping to another page in my drawing book, I used the opposite page so I could contrast and compare along the way. The immediacy of the failed effort staring me in the face proved very helpful as a reminder of where the key problem areas were initially.

Final on Left | Initial Fail on Right

In the end Wolfy’s draft portrait came to life pretty nicely – see progression gallery below. It’s very hard for me to incorporate the variations of his brown, gold, and black coat, but focusing on the key patterns instead of every detail captured the essence of his inquisitive look and cute face. 

Happy Lab Portrait

Graphite on Paper | 6” x 8” 

Happy Lab Portrait | Graphite on Paper

This Labrador’s smile and overall happy, expressive face quickly caught my attention. I have no idea who this dog is, but I know s/he’s never met a stranger. 

I thoroughly enjoyed the slow, methodical pace of working through this drawing. One of my focal areas this year is something I call “dogs in motion”, basically dog’s doing stuff (see Frisbee Dog), which remains my primary interest when it comes to dog related art. However, the challenge of doing a realistic dog portrait has always nagged at me, in large part because I could never figure it out. This composition is either a fluke, which is entirely possible, or something clicked in my art brain – my big, smushy, oft confused art brain. 

The technical keys to this drawing, at least for me, were as follows:

  • Proportions: Free-hand drawing, no tracing is mandatory for me… otherwise I won’t learn a damn thing. There’s something elusive about getting the snout of a dog just so. Eye spacing and size of the nose, which is a lot bigger than you think, were also key.
  • Eyes: Oh those precious stares! The expressive nature of a dog oftentimes exudes from their eyes, but I realized so much of that expression is from the hair around the eyes, too. 
  • Hair Strokes: The darker areas of the coat are a combination of different types of pencil hardness, but also more variations of stroke density, i.e. darker areas have more strokes, which is obvious now that I say it aloud. 

Hopefully the progression shots above are helpful to see the compositional approach. There’s a lot of bouncing around, but ultimately it’s about getting the eyes and nose nailed and then building out from those anchors. 

Thanks for reading!

Frisbee Dog!

Frisbee Dog | Graphite on Paper

One of my dogs, Zip, is obsessed with 2 things in life: food and anything thrown. I used to think her love was exclusive to tennis balls, but over the years I’ve learned that not unlike her willingness to eat anything thrown into her food bowl, she will retrieve anything thrown across her yard. The day she trained me to sling a frisbee was a fond day indeed… for both of us. It’s her insatiable drive (dare I say “lust”?) to retrieve that inspired this drawing of Frisbee Dog

No, this is not Zip, but the reference photo captures all the key elements of a dog in motion doing her thing. The face is particularly tricky, in large part because it’s obscured and squinty, which mutes distinguishing features like eyes and ears. But you gotta love the open mouth and all those frisbee hungry teeth! 

The gallery includes a reference photo and two versions of the drawing. Granted, the drawing is a rough study and not intended to be a refined composition, I thought it was interesting to see how different photo settings can change the look and feel of a piece of art. Using the same source photo of the final drawing, one is set to sharper detail while the other uses a soft setting to remove some of the detail of the pencil strokes. Bear in mind this drawing is done in my sketch book on thin, see-through pages; there’s not a lot of teeth in the paper, thus the relatively rough nature of the drawing. Also, the entire piece was done with only 3 pencils – 2B, HB, and H. 
I think this type of subject would make for a good painting.

I’ll try a few more drawings of frisbee dogs and then make the jump to the canvass. 

Squirrel Watch

Pivoting from painting to drawing last week and finally made the time to finish this one. Squirrel Watch is pretty self explanatory – Wolfgang, my 3 year old rescue mutt, sitting in the yard watching the tree tops for the infiltrators! 

One of my artistic goals this year is to improve my dog related art skills. I’m not a big fan of dog portraits, however, I thoroughly enjoy what I like to call “dogs doing stuff”, creating intrigue through motion and activity. Over the coming months I’ll work on various dog related pieces that capture the essence of dogs being dogs as they do their thing. 

Squirrel Watch | graphite on paper

Squirrel Watch was done over the course of a few weeks – I have no idea how long it took, but I wouldn’t be surprised if I spent 6 hours on this relatively small piece. There were a lot of mistakes along the way, but nothing an eraser and some patience couldn’t remedy. 

This isn’t a piece I would frame and hang, but I’m pleased with it from a progress perspective. It’s also riddled with lessons learned, so if you zoom in to see the details you can spot various styles and techniques.

Here’s what I learned and need to remember for future drawings:

  • It’s not necessary to draw hair detail throughout the subject. In this piece, the emphasis should have been on shading and shape foremost, whereas hair detail should be secondary. 
  • Draw hair details with a clear understanding of actual direction of the hair on the dog.
  • Work hair dark to light. 
  • Most of the hair detail can be accomplished using 2B, HB, and H pencils.
  • Show wrinkles in the coat by changing the density of hairs, i.e. closer together or further apart.
  • Dog paws are hard to draw, dammit! 
  • Blades of grass can be done by either individual strokes or by lifting out shading with a thin eraser. 

A Stuffed Kong and Its Dog

I recently saw a question on Quora asking “when does drawing end and painting begin?”, which was a timely inquiry given a new approach I’ve been taking with some recent paintings. It’s always a bit tricky and, frankly, pretty intimidating to take on a new type of composition. For me, that tends to be something that involves shapes and/or subject matter that’s new or unfamiliar. In one of my current projects, A Stuffed Kong and Its Dog, I came to realize that while the subject of a dog toy was not a new compositional challenge, the complexity of a dog chewing and pawing something was really friggin’ hard!

My normal process, and what’s been reinforced at workshops by artists far more experienced and talented than myself, is to do a study of the subject to help get a feel for the composition (see Dances With Squirrels blog post for more on studies). I prefer sketching as opposed to small paintings, largely because I like to sketch, it’s more expedient than painting, and it’s more flexible, i.e. erasing graphite is infinitely easier than wiping out paint. Lately, however, I’ve been refining this process whereby I still do an initial sketch before starting the painting, but as I work through the project and run into challenges, I go back to the sketch and either do another or simply refine the one I was working on earlier.

In hindsight it’s frankly a brilliant idea, of which I don’t have many, because the pause from the painting a) makes me breathe as I gather my thoughts to overcome the problem, and b) let’s me return to an existing sketch and figure out how to navigate a solution based on a similar composition. What I’ve found thus far is that I often find the same problem in the original sketch, kicking myself for not having seen the problem in the first place, but I can quickly figure out how to make changes and move forward.

In A Stuffed Kong and Its Dog, you can see the original sketch being reworked (I forgot to take a picture of the original state of the sketch) when I ran into 2 problems. First, there was something fundamentally wrong with the Kong dog toy shape, which became clear when I returned to the sketch and saw that the bottom planes of the humps were misaligned. Secondly, I thought the size of the Black Lab’s right paw was too big once I painted it, but when I returned to the sketch and redrew it, I found that the size was actually fine and the issue was the related to the size of the black fur shadow gaps between the toes. Clear as mud, right?

The final painting will need a few minor refinements, but I want to let it dry before I make those updates. I’ll update this post when it’s really done. The intrigue with this piece is to make the viewer wonder what in the world is in that stuffed dog toy Kong! It was very hard to translate the focus and excitement of the dog as it diligently worked to get to the yummy treats out of this toy. While the focal point is the Kong, the supporting cast is the nose and that huge right paw, which in combination should convey the canine treat obsession.

Lastly, I’m not pleased with the sketch or the painting. The sketch is not supposed to be a finished work, and is muddled with various experiments to see what was going to work, so I’m. not flustered it. However, the finished painting, while not intended to be a refined piece of exceptional artwork, is ultimately a composition that doesn’t work well. The angle of the nose looks wrong relative to the muzzle, but it’s actually accurate as most dogs are able to bend that nose around in weird ways. That said, it doesn’t convey well in the painting. The large paw also creates visual confusion and seems out of place even though it’s proportionally accurate.

This exercise has taught me that all compositions aren’t destined for a “real painting”, but that’s why we do studies and small pieces to see how it plays out. I’ve also learned that my dog portrait skills need a lot of work, something I knew already, but this work has highlighted the gap and is proving to be quite motivating to start sketching my dogs’ faces!