Painting the Dog’s Life

Anyone interested in art history will agree that many artists have been inspired, either by love or money, to immortalize the canine species in their paintings. When I saw Mary Beacon’s Dirt Devil depicting a Jack Russell terrier, my interest went beyond art. My husband and I raise and train hunting terriers on our farm, and I think Beacon did a good job of portraying the athletic and intelligent qualities of this gritty breed.

Beyond the appealing subject matter, my favorite aspect of this painting is the high contrast and the brilliant colors. With simple adjustments, these values and colors could be improved, making the painting even more compelling.

Making Subtle Adjustments
Observing nature
. Beacon made the lightest areas of this painting too white and “burned out.” By the same token, the darkest areas of the dog’s head have “dropped out” and appear inky. The green of the background is also an overstatement of local color, bringing it forward and causing the painting to appear somewhat flat. These problems typically arise from working from a single photographic source. Beacon needs to keep practicing painting from life, while paying special attention to the way halftones affect edges and charge surfaces with color. Photos tend to simplify and even omit subtle color and value transitions, resulting in unnaturally hard edges.

I’ve found that working effectively from photographs requires shooting many rolls of film of the subject in available light, while generously bracketing (overexposing some shots and underexposing others). This will ensure many choices of gesture, lighting and composition, while providing a full value range. After selecting specific photo references, I take the negatives to a one-hour developer for darkened and lightened versions. Nuances in the values and hues will then be more apparent, helping me create a more natural painting.

Beacon’s green background would be more convincing if she used a parent mixture of ultramarine blue and yellow ochre. Then she could add other colors to adjust this basic mixture, but the idea is to create a background that’s less chromatic, implying distance and air. Mixing the appropriate background and foreground colors into the shadows would also help unify the color world of this painting.

Another problem needing to be resolved is the hole in the ground. It’s difficult to tell whether it’s a hole, smoke, dust or a smudge on the painting. Once again, my advice is to practice painting from life, which will lead to an intimate knowledge of the landscape and assist in depicting burrows and depressions.

Creating the composition. Relying less on photo references will also encourage Beacon to work from memory or to invent landscape backgrounds. For example, a compositional technique used by many old masters was to place their subjects above the viewer, with panoramic landscapes in the distance below. This worm’s-eye view provided grandeur for the subject while giving an illusion of depth to the painting. Perhaps a design technique of this sort could have been explored by the artist.

Exploring a variety of brushstrokes. The surface texture of Dirt Devil has been painted in dabbing and repetitive brushstrokes, and the thickness of each stroke looks the same. To take her work to the next level, Beacon could study, and even copy, the bravado brushwork of such artists as John Singer Sargent, Diego Velazquez, Valentin Serov and Anders Zorn. Masterpieces by these and other great artists were created with thin painting in some areas and thick brushwork in others.

Typically the thickest, most active painting was employed in the lightest areas. Often their paint strokes became calligraphic, describing form and resolving edges with just the right value, hue, texture and line quality. Virtuosity of the brush develops from a combined understanding of drawing, design, edges and a working knowledge of color theory. One element cannot truly succeed without the others.

Editing nature. My final comment deals with personal aesthetics. Simply put, I’d prefer less graphic detail on the dog’s rear. Beacon could have de-emphasized this area of the dog by choosing a different gesture, for example. Or, she could have decreased the color contrast so the viewer’s eye isn’t immediately drawn to that “area.” Ironically, though, one of my favorite Rembrandt etchings actually depicts a dog defecating in the background. So, ultimately, this is a matter of artistic license and personal choice.

Lessons Learned
There’s no doubt that Beacon has an artistic eye and good basic skills. Dirt Devil is a charming and accomplished piece. With additional experience working from life, experimenting with multiple reference photos, incorporating a greater variety of brushstrokes and making better decisions about focal points, Beacon will continue to inspire us with her canine portraits.

“When I first started creating art, I was certain that faithfully reproducing a photograph was the best I could hope for,” says Mary Beacon of Littleton, Colorado. “As I did more ‘photographic’ drawings I realized that I wanted to say something personal about what I was drawing, rather than slavishly copying a photo. So I started trying to work more from life, and I continue to do so, even though it’s hard to get the little critters to sit still for long.” Her work has placed in and been selected for several regional and national shows, including The Dog in Art Exhibit 2000, Art Show at the Dog Show, American Academy of Equine Art Exhibit and Horses in Motion II.

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