My pop just celebrated his 90th birthday! My mom will be doing the same in January. Lucky for me, huh? My dad’s unbelievably difficult to buy gifts for. He doesn’t want much, but when he does want or need something, he just goes out and purchases it. Up until recently golf was his passion, so you could always pick him up something associated with that, but a deteriorating back put an end to his time on the greens.
So, I had no idea what I was going to get him for this very special birthday. Then my wife, Betty, came up with a great idea. My father had the worst of childhoods. His mother and father split up, when he was very young. When my dad was 5, his father stopped by on the way out of town to say he was pulling up stakes and didn’t know when he’d be able to see him again. My dad didn’t hear from his father again until his was 13 years old and didn’t see him again until he was 35. His mother took off with her boyfriend (later to become my pop’s step-father) around the same time, leaving her parents, my pop’s grandparents, to care for him. This was during the Great Depression of the 1930s. Stripped of all else, he held two precious possessions, the deep unconditional love of his grandfather and a boston terrier named Buck. Betty suggested I create a painting of Buck for him.
With only a week before the extended family party in L.A., I had to hunker down and make swift progress. My first decision was to work small. They have a small home, filled with the products of their many interests, anyway, so there isn’t a lot of wall space there. I chose an 10″ x 8″ canvas.
I had a couple of old photographs of Buck, with my pop and his grandparents from the 1930s. These gave me an indication of the dogs specific markings, but I had to do a lot of online photo research of boston terriers to collect the more detailed information about the breed that I needed. I started with a soft charcoal pencil sketch on the canvas to establish my composition. Hard to maintain a clean line, at this small size, where every mark is magnified, but it will get the job done.
Squinting at my reference, I visualized the gross masses making up my darks, mid-tones and lights. Then, with my eyes fully open (no longer squinting) I moved on to a turpentine wash (actually I use Gamblin’s Gamsol) underpainting, in burnt umber, to establish the orchestration of my darks throughout the painting. Notice how the darks weave in and out of background, mid ground and foreground. It’s these dark shapes that cement your composition together and it’s why I do an underpainting first. Working this way allows me to sneak-up on the finish, closing in on the painting and building my confidence that things are going to work out, more with each step.
I added basic transparent color washes, to dye each general area, so if I didn’t cover everything completely with opaque paint, I wouldn’t have any bright white holidays (missed areas) showing, before moving on to opaque painting, i.e.: transparent green over the grasses, transparent grays over the black patches on the dog. I always paint dark to light, but sometimes my underpainting darks are dark enough that it makes more sense to move right to the mid-tones and lights, then return to the dark areas and repaint them in the proper colors. At the end of about 6 hrs. on day one, I had most of the work behind me, just detailing the grass and a few adjustments on the dog left.
Day 2 only allowed me 2 or 3 hours of painting time, but I managed to make a few passes on the grasses, adding a couple of dark passes and a couple of light passes. I decided that I liked the idea of leaving the extreme, most distant areas of the grass background rough, but determined I’d need to blur the mid-ground grass details into the background a bit, to make it all work.
With my last day, day 3, I blurred the mid-ground grass detail a little into the background and added a few more light details to the foreground grasses. I also did a little more final detailing on the dog, Buck, to bring us to the finish, shown at the top of this post.
My pop was totally surprised and emotionally touched by the unexpected gift. The painting brought back a lot of pleasant childhood memories he hadn’t visited in quite some time.