Friday, October 14, 2011

Pet Projects: A Cat, a Dog and a Lizard

A few years ago, at the annual Eastside Culture Crawl, a boy of ten or eleven came into the studio and stared for some time at my display of paintings, after which he offered me some advice: "What I think you should do," he said, "is to paint pictures of puppies and kittens, because I think people would really like those, and would want to buy them." Of course, I thanked him for his suggestion, and I hope I was gentle enough in my attempt to explain that a great number of paintings of puppies and kittens have been produced in the world and that I prefer to choose more original subjects. What I probably did not add was that it is difficult to paint animals--particularly baby ones--without falling into the cloying sentimentality of pastel greetings cards and old-fashioned drawing-room pictures. It is, however, possible, as some of the masters have shown: you don't have to be soppy about dogs to enjoy a little book called David Hockney's Dog Days--here's the cover: 

Hockney's two little red dachsunds aren't sitting up begging with bows around their necks: in most of the paintings they are just stretched out asleep. Somehow the artist has made them delightful without being cute or uncanine. If I could paint puppies and kittens like that I think my young visitor might be proved right.

The Master - acrylic - 2005  
In spite of the pitfalls I have of course had a go at pets, though mostly not my own, and I am currently engaged in painting a black and white cat. Black fur presents a challenge, as it's hard to see enough detail, and flat black hardly ever looks right. I didn't have that problem with my own cat Stripes, whom I painted several years ago. As his name indicates, Stripes was a tabby, but his mother was a Siamese. He was the only survivor of his litter--the rest were stillborn or died after birth. The Siamese heritage combined with the indulgence he received from his mother and his human family in his infancy produced in Stripes a cat of great intelligence, character and mischief. Above all, he had Attitude. He was afraid of nothing, except perhaps the vacuum cleaner, and would take on prey of any size, bringing home at different times huge rats, a squirrel and a young crow, the last of these still very much alive. And he accomplished memorable feats, such as dragging my daughter's fleecy bathrobe down the stairs to the kitchen, where he tried to stuff it in his dish. Of course he regarded himself as head of the household, as is shown in my painting "The Master", in which he clearly has the upper hand over my son.

Patrolling His Wall - acrylic - 2008 - 24" x 32"
My first attempt at painting a dog was "Patrolling His Wall". I am always a little disappointed when people say "Aww" as if the dog looks cuddly and sweet. Actually he was all businesslike ferocity, though I hope he did have an affectionate family life when he wasn't working. I can't tell you his name, his breed, or whom he belonged to, or even for certain if he was a male. He was a massive guard dog--look at his heavy collar--and he erupted, high up on the old city wall of Brasov in Romania. My companion and I were having a beer on a cafe terrace at the foot of the wall, when something must have startled him and provoked a volley of deafening barks above our heads. I photographed him from below, but cropped off most of the wall in my painting. In doing so I lost something of the dog's vantage point, but having the focal point perched on top of a virtual mountain just didn't work as a composition. 

I think dogs are at their best when they have a job to do, and this dog took his responsibilities very seriously indeed. I hoped to capture his determination to protect his property at all costs--which is why I don't want him to be seen as a softie. As regards the painting, it was difficult and frustrating, in part because of the awkward viewpoint and perspective. I value it chiefly for the foliage in the background, which is painted in a looser and more impressionistic way than I had been able to achieve before.

Soon after making the acquaintance of my future son-in-law, I also met his bearded dragon, a lizard about a foot long who lived in his comic-book store. Simon had had the dragon some ten years by then, which speaks highly of his handling and feeding of it, since many reptiles meet an untimely end in captivity. However, after another year or two it died, and one year I had the idea of painting it for Simon's birthday. I had gathered that the dragon was female and that her name was Trish. I therefore asked Simon to lend me some photos of "Trish," at which point he told me a bit sheepishly that her name was Chish, a contraction, he explained, of "chickenshit."

Although he hunted, Simon was not able to find any photos of his pet, so I had to go further afield to find models. I didn't want to work from someone else's photos, so I drove out to the Reptile Refuge in the further reaches of Surrey, on a dark, rainy afternoon. The Refuge, which I believe has now closed for lack of funding, had a collection of bearded dragons along with many other adopted reptiles, many of which had been abandoned by their owners. I found my way to the dragons' quarters, squeezing past a school group in the narrow space. I asked if I could photograph the lizards, which would have necessitated a flash, and was not surprised when permission was refused. So I stood close to the glass, jostled by the school children, and made some sketches. Later I chose one of them and made Simon's birthday present, but then I used the same pose for two different versions, which became more colourful each time.
Lizard 2 - acrylic - 14" x 11"

In Memory of Chish - acrylic - 12" x 12"

Lizard 3 - acrylic - 12" x 12"

Of the above paintings, I sold "The Master" and "Lizard 3", and Simon seemed happy with his present. Another dog,"Designated Driver", which I featured in my blog on April 23, 2011, also sold, as did my other attempt at reptiles, "Cancun Conversation" (blog March 6, 2011.) So I'm not doing too badly with my animals, and maybe that young boy was on the right track, even if I'm not up there with David Hockney.

Next instalment mid-November