Tuesday, December 21, 2010
Conquering portrait anxiety
This is Boomer. His family are my friends at Meadowcroft Farm, whose garden I painted last year. They were agreeable to having me try some portrait work of their three dachshunds. She sent me some photos and I quickly picked Boomer, the senior partner, as my first try. I hadn't done a portrait in 25 years, human or canine, but I grew up with pet dachshunds from when I was 7 or 8 till I left for college, so I felt like I knew them well enough to be able to do it. Plus, Boomer and his other housemates were friends of mine, and I thought I had a chance of getting a good likeness for that reason.
I was determined to do a fairly loose study, and started with some pencil sketches. With those under my belt, I grabbed my liquid acrylics and threw a head sketch onto a small canvas panel. I took all of the sketches to my friends, and he looked at the acrylic and said "that's him". But the next time I picked it up to work on it, I went into panic mode. If the acrylic was the one they connected with, I had to continue with it, I could never get that lucky again (that was my line of thought). Then I discovered that the reference photo of Boomer was very faded out around his paws—the trickiest, most complicated part of a dachshund's anatomy. None of the other photos showed a paw in a similar enough position for me to use it. I went to the web looking for references and still didn't have any luck. All of my confidence and conviction fell flat, all the (hot) air squeezed from them by my fear. I knew I could never meet their expectations, so why even try?
About that time I fired up my glass kiln for the first time in five years, and for the next two months I didn't want to do anything but glass, so Boomer lay on the shelf, alone and footless, while I pushed down my guilt over not having at least made an attempt to give him some paws. At the beginning of December I ran into my friends at a party, and he remarked again that he thought I had really gotten Boomer's look. That statement somehow gave me the courage I needed to go back to work on the painting. I spent a few hours photoshop-playing with the original photos until I believed I could see what the the missing paw pixels had to look like, until I could construct an image in my head of how that lumpy, amorphous arrangement of bones and skin and fur would appear. I was determined, at that point, that I would just keep reworking it until I got something I was happy with.
As it turned out, I had to rework several areas, and it certainly is not a great painting. But I'm still happy with it, because when I look at it, I see my little friend, Boomer.