Into the Light

With Pastel Cat, Kristina Becker takes full advantage of the pastel medium to create the tactile texture of the cat’s fur, combining it with a smooth, airbrushed background for contrast. Pets and animals are great sources of inspiration, and Becker’s sensitive depiction shows the dignity her pet possesses while maintaining the aloof air for which cats are known. She’s been quite successful in rendering the cat realistically; this cat clearly has a distinct personality. Although the painting is basically monochromatic, Becker has subtly interspersed a variety of colors, which suggests that she studied the cat closely instead of relying solely on photographic reference.

I’d like to explore ways in which Becker could control some of the lightest areas of this painting to bring more focus to her center of interest. A little more attention to edge control and drawing would also go a long way toward directing the viewer’s eye.

Art Principles At Work
Maintaining a consistent light source. Becker has effectively created a strong feeling of light on her subject, but the direction of that light is hard to discern. If the light were coming from behind, for instance (as the white areas around the cat’s head suggests), there would also be a stronger pattern of light on the left side of the cat’s body. In addition, the cat’s ears—particularly its left ear—might be bathed in warm, light color, which would give Becker the opportunity to integrate even more color variation.

The airbrushed background, while a great choice to complement the texture of the pastel, isn’t as effective as it could be for this same reason. Its random light and dark patterns further confuse the direction of the light source.

Capturing necessary details. Becker’s close-cropped composition is a skillful choice here, as opposed to including the entire figure of the animal. This tight cropping further enhances the intensity of the cat’s gaze and creates a very strong, intimate composition. However, with such a tight focus, it becomes noticeable that the foreground drawing—the cat’s paw and arm in particular—is a bit fuzzy. It should be more descriptive of the anatomy so it doesn’t distract from an otherwise convincing portrayal.

Controlling and varying edges. Becker’s handling of the pastel could be strengthened by using sharper edges where she wants to lead the viewer’s eye and softer ones in less important areas of the composition. For instance, the top edges of the cat’s head have a strong rim light, which makes the cat look somewhat “cut out” against the background. These edges could be softened, placing the emphasis instead on the cat’s left ear, where the light seems to originate.

In addition, some of the lights on the front of the cat’s face, specifically under its right eye and to the right of the nose, are currently as bright as the left edge of its head. While these scattered lights do suggest the variations in the cat’s fur, they’re too bright, leaving a spotty impression. If these variations were subtler, they wouldn’t rival the lightest lights in the painting and would lead the viewer’s eye more effectively through the work.

Lessons Learned
The strength and simplicity of the composition and the sensitive handling of pastel are indications of Becker’s obvious talent. Careful observation of her subject will help her glean more anatomical detail for her drawing, while developing a better sense of cohesive value patterns will further strengthen her work. Being more sensitive to edge control as the painting develops will not only allow Becker to direct the viewer throughout, but will also allow her to create more form and dimension within her composition. In my own development as an artist, I’ve realized you have to be hypersensitive to your subject if you want to develop the necessary connection for interpreting what you see.

About the Artist
Toledo, Ohio, artist Kristina Becker works with terminally ill patients and teaches art to neighborhood children in her spare time. She does private portrait commissions and has won several local awards for her work.

Robert A. Johnson, of Vienna, Virginia, is a signature member of the Oil Painters of America and Allied Artists of America, and a life member of the Art Students League of New York. A veteran of 13 one-man shows and many group shows, his awards include first-place prizes from the Salmagundi Club and The Artist’s Magazine‘s 1993 Art Competition. He teaches privately and at the Scottsdale Artists’ School, and he’s the author of the book On Becoming a Painter (Sunflower Publishing, 2001) and an instructional video from Liliedahl Publications.

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