When we presented the portrait of Simba over the weekend, the subject, or one of them, was sleeping very poetically on a chair in front of a window. Forget about seeking out my hosts and saying hello, I literally dropped everything and took a series of reference photos of Simba sleeping in this soft light in front of the window, the soft mauve tones of the carpet and chair highlighting his black and white patches. I’ll modify plenty of details—that’s why we have art—and I’m thinking “watercolor”. I was actually picturing my watercolor palettes and the brushes, actually watching the brush apply the paint to the paper on the leaves outside the window. I don’t know when I’ll get to it, but I know I’ll remember it.
One of the nice things about photographing and painting animals is that they are okay with how they are no matter what. Not one animal has ever said about their portrait, “That doesn’t look like me!”, or “Wait, let me fix my hair.” I do enjoy painting people, but I don’t worry at all about reaction when I paint animals.
Well, the recipient was presented with his portrait on Saturday, totally surprised with the gift and rather emotional at the subject.
Several months ago my friend and customer Carolyn Kozlowski of My Three Cats & Co., Inc. said she’d like to commission me to create a portrait of her brother-in-law and his cat as a gift for his retirement from 40 years of teaching high school biology.
The cat, Simba, is a great love of Fred, and has been for all Simba’s 17 years. While Simba is generally well he’s pretty arthritic and moving slower all the time. Fred’s retirement, his affection for Simba and realizing Simba’s age all came together into the idea of the portrait.
And Pam, Carolyn’s sister and Fred’s wife, had captured a wonderful image of Fred cradling Simba on his left arm as they had done many times in those 17 years. After consideration of other poses, there was no question that this was the best image, not only as a portrait of Simba, but also as a gift for Fred to remember a special moment between the two.
Medium and style are always part of the decision in creating a portrait, finding what really suits the subject and theme, and even before I have all the materials together I usually visualize a image of the portrait from just the communication with the person and meeting the animal if I have had the opportunity to do so. In this case, at hearing about the pose, then seeing it on Pam’s phone (photos come from everywhere now), I immediately visualized a less formal style, something loose and flowing that didn’t pin down the details of Fred and Simba but let the image represent any moment in the years they were together.
In the original photo, Simba is facing Fred, a wonderful moment between the two. But we decided we wanted to capture a little more of Simba’s features in the portrait so we turned his head to look out of the portrait so you can see his wide face, big green eyes and pink nose.
Pencil was my first thought, a nice loose sketch on a warm-toned slightly textured paper, but the revised view meant adding color. A charcoal sketch with touches of pastel on a medium-toned paper would capture the image I was visualizing. Charcoal is available in various densities in pencils, in vines and in powder, but it has the necessary dense pure black I had in mind, the ability to work as a line or blend to muted, softened areas, and the soft matte finish I prefer for fur. The mid-range tone would enhance both the black and white of Simba’s tuxedo coat and allow me to highlight a few other elements in the drawing to give it body and depth, but leave non-subject areas with less detail.
Painting animals is a huge pleasure because I love studying their features and then capturing those features in some medium that illustrates them best, be it pencil or ink, or pastel or watercolor. I get to know another animal in a deep and intuitive way, even if they’ve passed, and they add another angel to my lifetime of animals I love, and another story to the long list of mine and others’.
Getting to know their people, most of whom have become friends over the years, has been a second great pleasure of animal portraiture, and another group of people with whom I can share the lives, loves and losses of a very important personality in our lives.
A portrait which is a gift is a level of honor I truly appreciate—the idea that another person trusts my talent enough to have me create this special gift is almost a frightening thought, but such a joy; we can never give too many gifts, and sharing in anothers’ gift is beyond compare. While I always think of my subject and the people involved while I work, I can also think about this other person who knows nothing about the special gift we’re creating, and the loving, joyous, usually highly emotional surprise they’ll have with it.
I am rarely present at the presentation, though, and that made this portrait all the more special. I couldn’t imagine this portrait any other way, and everyone was pleased with it. Carolyn presented it, and Fred suddenly understood why I’d visited Pam a few times and why I was at his retirement party, other than being a friend of his wife and sister-in-law. My last visit was to determine the mat and frame.
But a little sad note…one thing that makes this portrait a little bittersweet is that Simba had a brother, Shakespeare, another tuxedo cat. When they were a little less than two, Shakespeare, investigating something on the floor, was startled enough to suddenly leap backward, hitting his back and neck on a doorframe, and after writhing in pain for a minute or two while Fred and Pam tried to look him over and decide what to do, he simply quit moving and quit breathing. Such a shock, to say unexpected is an understatement, and Fred and Pam have never forgotten, but Simba was never the same without his brother, much quieter and less playful, all the rest of his life. Simba hid while they buried him in the garden, but later Simba went to sit there.
So many stories, we all have so much to share.
I’m working with a few other people in designing their portraits now, plus I’ve got several I’ve had in mind to do for myself. You would think that I would have done portraits of all my cats, but it’s like the shoemaker’s kids going without shoes, I don’t always take the time for my own things. Plus my studio has been out of commission for a while so I haven’t pursued portraits, and now with merchandise moved out into my shop and things rearranged so that I can easily set up and work, I’m ready to get back to business.
To see other portraits I’ve done read about Madison, proof and finished portrait from last summer, and Lassie and Buddy from last spring. You can also visit my website and look under “Fine Art and Portraiture“, choosing “My Cats”, “Commissioned Cats”, “Commissioned Dogs” and “Portrait Demonstration”.