Art Education Slap Down

Wolfy Portrait | 9 x 12” | Oil on Canvas Board

Painting is truly a never ending learning process, which is what makes it so intriguing and rewarding, no matter one’s skill level. However, there are times when you pivot to a new thing – subject matter, tools, medium, etc – and realize the education could be a seamless experience, while there are other times when it’s more of a slap down. This portrait of one of my beloved pups, Wolfy, was indeed of the latter variety. 

I’m pretty sure I had a couple things working against me on this one, but let me know what you think in the comments. First, it’s exponentially more difficult to paint (or draw for that matter) a dog that you know really well; getting the expression just right is nearly impossible. Secondly, the reference photo I used was, well, not the best. Wolfy does not like the paparazzi and therefore a workable pose from the furry prince was hard to come by. The third and final challenge was the recognition that Wolfy’s hair and color patterns were new to me and frankly very difficult to figure out. 

You’ll notice the reference photo has a grid overlay, which helped tremendously and led to a few adjustments that were very helpful in terms of portrait accuracy. However, despite the grid and many hours of work on this piece, I feel like the final result leans cartoonish and for the life of me I can’t figure out why. I think it might be the length and width of the snout is simply off, but it might also be the plane of the forehead… or it’s his eyes. I don’t know. Thoughts? 

Despite the challenges, I had a lot of fun with this composition. And although it was a slap down learning experience, I did educate myself alot about what works and what doesn’t. Some of the “what works” highlights that will carry over into future pieces are the brushwork for long fur, the use of reds in brown haired dogs (it’s there, it’s just hard to see), and the realistic texture of a palette knife for the tongue and nose. 

Thanks for reading!

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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!

Daily Sketch #17: Who the hell is that guy?


The problem with committing to 30 consecutive daily sketches is that sooner or later you’re going to run into a truckload of bad. Today, I got run over.

This isn’t a self-conscience thing, although deep down I’m sure there’s some of that, but rather it was just an off night. Or the fact that I’ve only done one portrait in the past, and it looked a lot better than this one. It was also done over the course of 3 hours, not 35 minutes. Enough with the excuses. I present to the viewing public “self portrait”.

I can honestly say that while this looks nothing like me, once again I learned a lot in a short time thanks to the rigors of daily sketch. Proportional sketching when it comes to still life and landscapes can be a lot more forgiving than drawing a face. The slightest swerve to the left, right, up or down and something won’t look right. It’s a very unforgiving endeavor. I did enjoy the process of getting the parts about right, but just not the proper positioning. In the end, the Mr Potato Head result is not something to frame, but it will be a fun one to revisit with more time to spare and see what kind of result can be had.