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!


1 Hour Challenge – Run Sandpiper, Run

Moving these updates to the blog to motivate myself to do them more frequently. The goal is to hone my drawing skills by doing sketches in 1 hour.

This session is from a reference photo taken by my brother. Very challenging given the need to incorporate movement of the bird and the advancing waves. Oh, and drawing ocean foam is hard as hell. I think the key is to not draw it. 



“Rescued” is done and hung on the wall downstairs in our powder room! This was my first “commissioned” piece, done for my wife who wanted something with a lot of saturated color and big! The design is entirely from her and the passion and love she has for rescuing dogs, of which we’ve had the pleasure of fostering 114… and counting. When my wife says “rescue”, she means literally rescued from the kill list at the Austin pound, not “rescue” from a pet store (don’t do it… just adds to the breeding problem), and these dogs are often in really bad shape – parasites, detached intestinal walls, starvation, neglect, flea infestations, ticks, kennel cough, Parvo and more.  But she nurses them back to health, even waking at all hours of the night to feed them meds every couple of hours, and finds each one of them loving homes. She is amazing!

She also had the primary design in mind, of which you see in the picture – a large heart with the paw prints of our 3 dogs (yes, rescues all of them) on it. We had a lot of fun collaborating on the details, although she would say there was some stress involved in figuring out the right colors for each dog’s prints, which ended up as follows:

  • Pink – Crash, female, age 13
  • Green – Boom, male, age 12
  • Yellow – Zip, female, age 3

The process for getting the dog’s paw prints on the painting is worthy of a separate post, so I’ll pause here today and give an update on that entertaining adventure in my next update.

Tech details of the painting for those interested:

  • Canvass, 24″x36″
  • Colors were almost straight out of the tube, but had to make some small tweaks:
    • Blue background – Titanium White + a small amount of Pthalo Blue + tiny bit of Orange.
    • Red heart – Cad red medium
    • Green paws – Permanent Green Light + Titanium White
    • Yellow paws – Lemon Yellow + Titanium White
    • Pink paws – Titanium White + small amount of Alzarin Crimson
  • I added the Titanium White in heavier doses with the yellow and pink paws because it helps add opacity to those more transparent colors. Sitting atop the red heart it was helpful to cut back on the bleed through.

For the dog rescue lovers out there, the group we work with, Austin Pets Alive, is fantastic and is by far the most influential and impactful rescue group in Austin, perhaps all of central Texas. If you want to learn more, check them out.

French Countryside Loire Valley – Practice sessions continue on 2 fronts

More progress this weekend on the practice sessions for the Loire Valley countryside piece. Added the first pass at details to the sky on the oil on paper. I’ve done clouds in graphite before, but never detailed painting. Learned a lot about what not to do, most notably trying to be too precise and layered paint to thickly. Need to go with looser brush strokes and thinner paint, I think. Advice is welcome, so comment if you have some helpful guidance please.

The second pic below is a practice session on my iPad. Still getting the hang of the Paper 53 app tools, but it’s been very helpful in drafting possible compositional elements that I wouldn’t otherwise have taken the time to do with paint. It’s very limited when compared to real painting and drawing, but it’s an invaluable drafting tool for layout and testing ideas.

IMG_3617 IMG_0002

Loire Valley Landscape

Started a new project today. I’ve sketched this one a few times already, but intend to use this as a reference point for the actual painting whereby I’m going to try to emphasize the storm clouds in the background, add some color to the foreground with flowers, and insert some actual people doing stuff in the village area to draw the viewer into the scene. This first effort will be a quick draft painting on paper to get the values and compositional elements figured out. If that goes well, I’ll parlay this into a larger piece.

Reference Photo – Loire Valley, France
Sketch on paper
Initial block-in. Focus on values and basic color scheme.

iPad sketch with “Paper by 53” app

Used a new art app on my iPad today and it was surprisingly easy to use, yet had a good range of options to create great sketches. 

Did this whale tail in about 30 minutes, including fumbling time with the app features. Might prove to be a great way to do quick art on the go while traveling without supplies, or in bed where graphite and eraser debris are unwelcome. It was a lot of fun!


Daily Sketch #24: San Francisco tower


Quick sketch for San Francisco fans. This is Coit Tower, an iconic part of San Francisco, from one of the surrounding neighborhood streets. I think this is on the downslope side that  trickles down to North Beach.

Despite the ridiculous clown car at the bottom, the rest of the sketch holds up pretty well. My challenge tonight was drawing varied perspective very fast. When drawing any of the San Francisco architecture, it’s not long before it loses it’s charm and starts to drive you insane! So many lines, curves, and wickedly detailed bits. And don’t get me started on the cast shadows on a sunny day. That said, it’s very rewarding when you’re done b/c you look up at your drawing and “BAM!”, you’ve got a beautiful urban landscape.

This will likely become a knife painting project in the near future. The colors are simplistic, but there’s a good mix of fun stuff in the shapes and angles that an oil painting would work well.

Daily Sketch #23: Drawing in Reverse


Today’s sketch is inspired by curiosity and experimentation. I thought it would be interesting to do a drawing in reverse, kinda. The idea was to fill the entire page with a graduated value scale that was pretty dark, then remove graphite with a gummy eraser to “draw” the trees.

I’m happy with the result, but it made me think a lot more than I had anticipated. And frankly, this is more complicated than I initially thought it would be. While I only spent about 20 – 30 minutes on this one, it could have easily been a couple of hours. Here are the things I had to consider:

  1. Should the initial value shading be done with the darkest darks (about a 9 on a 10 point scale) in the distance where the pathway fades away, somewhere on the horizon line, or more in the foreground. I opted for somewhere near the end of the pathway, but then spread it out a little further once I got into the sketch details. I thought the horizon line would have been a good idea, but who the hell knows where that really is in this kind of composition.
  2. Trying to fill a large block with darkness wasn’t as easy as I expected. All the drawing lessons I’ve taken, ILT or self paced, you do a lot of shading exercises that have boundaries, shapes, and contrasts. You never do a whole page. Apparently nobody teaches that because you might go insane. Trying to get it laid in well enough to not be distracted by the sketch lines wasn’t easy, but it was a sketch so I didn’t worry about it too much.
  3. Related to #2 above, it was also important to not press the graphite into the paper too hard because I was going to pull off parts of it to “draw” the trees.
  4. Drawing the trees with a gummy eraser is fun, but ever so weird. I’ve used this technique to get texture and shape in clouds, but trees have more definition and sharper lines. It worked pretty well, though.

Overall, the effect is creepy and cool. The pathway is very light, although it darkens as you move further along – might be hard to see in the photo. There is a lot of variation in values in the darkness of the forrest, which is similar to getting just the right subtle mixture of color in an oil painting. It’s nice in this sketch because it gives a sense of atmosphere and prevents it from looking flat. Speaking of which, that was the hardest part with the trees. Pulling off enough graphite with the gummy eraser in just the right places so as to give the impression of trees with shape was the primarily challenge. The outcome is something unusual, deceptively layered, and just a bit eerie.

For the detail oriented, this sketch utilized the whole drawer: HB, 2B, 4B, 8B and an ebony. As mentioned, the gummy eraser was used for the trees.

Daily Sketch #22: Normandy Coast

Tough week on time for sketching, so another 20 minute effort. Wanted to take another whack and getting a quick sketch of rocky coastline done quickly. It forces me to draw loosely and step away from the detail, which is very hard for me to do. But it worked out today. Not the best result, but given the time constraint it works for me.

This is the Normandy coast, similar to an earlier sketch. This is Point du Hoc I believe, but not 100% sure and too tired to go rooting around my notes to confirm. Clear blue sky, calm seas.

HB and 2B only.

Daily Sketch #21: Ball! Ball! Ball!


For all the dog lovers out there!

Sketched with 2B, HB, and 4B pencils. Quick, loose style done in 20 minutes.

I didn’t have a reference photo, but rather was inspired by a small painting by an artist I really like, Kanna Aoki. The palette she uses is very bright and vibrant, but she’s masterful at capturing that magical California lighting in landscapes.