Perhaps the most important step in drawing a pet portrait is to choose the best photograph to use as a reference. We had six photos to choose from of Lola (who died a year ago). Most of them were too distant and too small to show enough detail. We narrowed the choices down to these two:
DeeDee liked the first one, because Lola was “smiling,” but she realized that the eyes were not that clear. I said that the smiling pose was doable, but asked DeeDee to take another look at the second one. “It's a much better photo,” I advised her, “which is important with pale dogs, because it's so hard to see contours on blonde fur. I love the way her face and feet form a triangle—a nice composition! It's also a real heart-wrencher with those big, dark, adoring eyes.” DeeDee agreed with me. “Let's go with the second one!” she responded. “That was a classic Lola pose. I sure do miss her. She would have been 10 on Monday.”
The next step is to sketch the dog in pencil. Here I have to make a confession. I use a light board to trace the general outlines of the animal and to place the eyes, nose, ears, legs, etc. correctly. So my portraits aren’t drawn strictly “free hand” as a little boy in the Brooksville Library once politely pointed out to me. But hey! The art critiques speculate that Vermeer used a camera obscura to help set up his masterpieces, so I’m in good company. I use the light board mainly to save time, as it takes anywhere from 6 to 26 hours to ink in my drawings after I’ve sketched them in pencil. Here’s what I came up with on the light board. (I realize now that I should have slapped this onto my scanner rather than photographing it. Sorry it's so pale.)
I spend twice as much time sketching “free hand” on the drawing board, filling in the details, the riffs and rills of fur cavorting over Lola’s tawny hide . I’m impatient with this step in the process, eager to get to the pen-and-ink work, but I find that the more thoroughly I sketch the dog in pencil, the better the finished portrait turns out.
Finally, I start to ink in the drawing. I always start with the eyes—the windows to the soul. I figure that if I don’t get the eyes right, I might as well trash that effort and start over.
Next, the nose.
Then the whole head--ears, muzzle, cheeks, jowls.
I’m always happy when I’m drawing. I relate to this passage from Ian McEwan’s novel Saturday, because it describes so aptly how I feel when I’m drawing. McEwan is describing a surgeon in the operating theater:
“For the past two hours he’s been in a dream of absorption that has dissolved all sense of time, and all awareness of the other parts of his life. Even his awareness of his own existence has vanished. He’s been delivered into a pure present, free of the weight of the past or of any anxieties about the future. In retrospect, though never at the time, it feels like profound happiness. . . . This state of mind brings a contentment he never finds with any passive form of entertainment. Books, cinema, even music can’t bring him to this . . . This benevolent dissociation seems to require difficultly, prolonged demands on concentration and skills, pressure, problems to be solved, even danger. He feels calm, and spacious, fully qualified to exist. It’s a feeling of clarified emptiness, of deep muted joy.”
Tom, my husband, is more practical. He worries that the house could burn down around me while I’m drawing; I’m that oblivious to my surroundings. I only know that I love the deep concentration that I fall into when I’m drawing a bead of light that rims a dark iris, a nose that glistens with moisture, fur that lightens and darkens as it waves and swirls and corkscrews, ears that flop or prick or curl. I know that I’m perfectly contented when I am pondering how best to translate a steadfast gaze, a creased brow, a tilted head into an expression of love or longing or loyalty.
Lola's body is pretty well done. Now for the background:
I like the way a dark background sets off a pale dog.
It may look like the drawing is done at this stage, but now I do what I call "tweaking." I look at the drawing from near and far, from top to bottom, from side to side, and add a line here, a squiggle there, a dimple, a shadow, a suggestion, until I’m sure it’s just right. Truth be told, I’m never actually “sure.” I have great difficultly knowing when to stop. Eventually I do. Here is the finished drawing:
From start to finish, I estimate that this portrait took about eight hours to complete.