Portrait of Ben

20150831_175952Here’s my latest piece of art- a portrait of our dog, Ben. As usual I’ve had some trouble getting a decent photograph that properly captures the artwork (I really need to sort that out- the colours are so muted here the paper looks more grey than white).

Sobering thought- while I’ve done two pencil drawings in the past few years (one in colour, the other black and white) this is likely my first painting in three or even four years (my last painting being another portrait of a friends dog who passed away). If somehow I had a time machine and could tell my 16 or 18-year self that there would come a time when the space between my paintings could be measured in years rather than days or weeks, well, that younger self would be horrified. I used to live and breathe my art. I suppose its not at all surprising, once you leave school and college and enter the outside world and get a ‘normal’ job and get married and all that implies, its hard to keep it up. Life is full of distractions. God knows I find it difficult enough to find time to watch movies and put up posts here on this blog.

So anyway, this is my first painting in years and naturally I found it a bit daunting at first. You may recall I did a pencil drawing of a friends dog a few months ago, and at that time I decided to get more active with my art and follow it up with a painting of our own dog.  I already had an idea of what photo to paint from- it was a recent photograph I had taken of Ben, in which he was in a jolly mood excitedly looking out the front window that was behind me. It seemed to capture his character and was the natural choice of image. Capturing that in a painting though…

First things first- I had to find all my old art stuff, packed away in the spare room, and take stock of what remained usable. I had plenty of watercolour paper and my brushes on the whole seemed ok, but my old paints were looking worst for wear so I went out to buy some. I had some watercolours that seemed ok but wanted to be a bit bolder with this one, going the gouache route that I used to in sixth form. First harsh lesson for aspiring artists today- the price of tubes of gouache paint (how students afford it I don’t know). It could have cost a small fortune, and being a bit unsure how the whole enterprise would turn out with being so rusty after all these years, I chickened out and bought a cheap budget box of twelve core tubes. This would give me a little trouble later on, so I perhaps should have been a bit bolder with the money but I’ll just put that down to the doubts and lack of experience. I’ll certainly be investing in better paints next time.

20150830_182206Here’s a photograph of the painting in progress, with the original photograph alongside it. By this stage it was coming along pretty well, although the quality of the paints was causing me some trouble, proving the old adage you get what you pay for. Funnily enough, the actual painting part of things didn’t cause me the most time or trouble, it was getting the drawing right. Once I had that down on paper and was ready to start the painting, I actually future-proofed the whole thing by tracing the final drawing as insurance, so if I messed up during the painting stage I could lay the drawing back down on a fresh piece of paper and start again. I honestly expected to be doing just that and am very surprised/pleased that this initial attempt started to come along so well. I was very nervous laying down the first background wash, a light green that I used just to knock out the whiteness of the paper. I agonised about that colour by the way and it remains something of a doubt as to whether I chose the right one. I was overly tentative and indecisive about it but in some ways this might have actually helped me in the long run, because I was so annoyed by that indecisiveness that I chose to be bolder with the painting proper. Hence once I’d laid down some tonal base work for the areas of brown/tan fur I went in pretty bold with the black areas, where I might have otherwise been too cautious and wasted time/messed things up agonising over it.

20150831_180138Warning- Artist At Work! : this next image is pretty near the end of the road on Bank Holiday Monday. It was a short day at work so I was able to come home and crack on during the afternoon.  All told there was probably about eight hours work at this point spread over about a week, so it went pretty quickly considering how ‘new’ it all seemed to me. Maybe painting is like riding a bike after all. While I really enjoyed it and it felt a little bit like ‘old times’, the most over-riding memory about the whole thing was nervousness that at each step I could ruin it and result in having to start all over again. Mixing the colours was tricky and made a little more difficult by the quality of the paints -the tube of yellow ochre was unusable, for instance, as it came out of the tube all powdery and lumpy, something horribly wrong regards the pigment and binder- but I got around it. By this point it was clearly near-finished and I was very pleased with it. I had that old buzz I used to get in my teens when a painting was coming together; yeah, like old times, a nice feeling.


The whole point of the painting was to get something framed on the wall. This was something my wife has been badgering me about for years. We spent years looking for a nice picture to put on the wall and never found one, and Claire often said I should do one myself, particularly after doing those pictures for friends over the years. So here’s how this painting of Ben turned out when framed in £22-worth of frame and mounting card from Hobbycraft (yeah, I know, big spender). It does look lovely on the wall, an inspiration for the next painting I do, certainly (I’m not likely to wait years to get started on the next one with this looking back at me everyday). Inevitably I look at it and see things I’d like to ‘polish-up’ but it’s pretty much everything I could have hoped it would be, all things considered. You can over-work paintings and I think when it feels finished, its finished. I think I’ve captured some of Ben’s personality in it, which is what was my main goal.

Whatever next then? One of my intentions doing this one was for it to act as a warm-up to doing a painting of our old dog Barney, who we lost over two years ago. So that may be what I do next, if I go through all his old photographs and find one I can use. I’m sure I’ll find much of that difficult -to be honest I’m wary of that whole thing, painting Barney, it still feels raw, the feelings from losing him, even after years have passed. And doing him justice feels like a weight too. Ben’s still around to take on walks and play with and I’m sure there’s future paintings of him ahead of me, but a painting of Barney, that’s got all sorts of other tangled emotions all over it. You invest all sort of things into a painting, it isn’t just a technical exercise, you put some of yourself into it, and I still think the prospect of painting Barney something a little harrowing.

But I don’t want to be stuck doing just paintings of dogs, naturally I should shake things up a bit and do something different too, so I’m not sure the painting of Barney is the next in line. But I do know there will be something soon, and won’t be waiting months /years for the muse to take me. I really enjoyed getting into this old painting business again, which means that whatever anyone thinks of the actual painting, this portrait of Ben did me some good.

One thought on “Portrait of Ben

  1. Well, I’m no artist (apparently I was exceptionally good for my age at about 5, but I also think that’s when my abilities stopped progressing), but it looks pretty great to me. You seem to have captured him very well.

    I know what you mean about returning to old skills, that mix between feeling like you have no idea what you’re doing anymore and the “riding a bike” thing of it slipping back into place. I recently started dabbling with video editing again (coincidentally enough, to try to construct some kind of tribute to Rory), firing up Final Cut for the first time in years — so long I had to find a product code for it, because at some point lost to memory I must’ve upgraded my computer. Anyway, I suppose it’s a different thing recalling how to use a piece of software, but I’ve had so many moments of clicking around for minutes trying to do something that used to be second nature, and then finding how and having an instant “oh yes, of course that’s it” sensation. Can’t say I’ve made much progress though, because, really, where does time go?!

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