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Reaching out with a full heart

When I’ve finished a painting, I know that I’m happy with it, and that it looks as good as I can make it that there is nothing more I can do to improve on it. But that’s not the best test to find if it is complete. There is a further way of telling that is a far better and successful way of knowing.  But it is nothing I have any control over as such, its just something that …well……happens.

This is the painting I’m talking of, the one of the five beloved pets, much loved, much missed, and the commission I’ve been recently given to put together in one painting. The client wasn’t too concerned if it was a watercolour or not, but that was the method that we decided on to do the painting in, which I know brings its own problems since you can’t mess with watercolours, if you make a mistake it shows, and its difficult to correct errors. Which is fine, if you get it right. But this painting in question meant I had to *get it right* not once, or twice, or three times, or four times even, but five times. All five of the animals had to look right, and had to look right with the other animals.

My first problem was to layout a composition that I was happy with – I knew which photo I was working from for each of the pets, so it was quite simple to make a composition that worked – putting the German Shepherd (Sadie) in the middle made sense since she is so big and central to the setting. Mollie (the terrier) was facing to the right so she went on the left, and Kim (the collie) was facing to the left so she went on the right, making a lovely negative shape with her lovely profile. The cats went on the dry stone wall behind them, and could have easily been placed one to the left and one to the right but it would have made the composition too evenly spaced (and boring because of that) so I put them together, the black cat (Bramble) of the left since her tail was curved around, and Jack (the ginger and white cat) above Sadie with his tail pointing down. There are some artistic tricks within the painting to to make the viewer look at it as a cohesive whole rather than five different animals not looking like they are part of the same family group. They all lived together under the same roof, at the same time, and were used to each others company, so the painting had to show them all interacting together even though they weren’t touching each other. To that end the dry stone wall has some lines within it that make the eye follow along to the animals – horizontal on the left towards Sadies back, straight down from Jacks tail to Sadies back, as the pointed stone above Kims back, and the diagonal stones above Kims back, and towards Sadie. They are subtle and you probably wouldn’t even notice them if I hadn’t pointed them out to you, but they are a large part of the painting helping to pull it all together. The dark bluey veridian greens of the foliage behind the wall are indistinct so that the eyes stay with the cats and the dogs and don’t go wandering off into the distance. The warm pale greens and sandy ochres of the foreground keep the eyes at the front of the painting, but aren’t too strongly painted that they intrude on the main stars of the show – the pets. The dry stone wall has been painted the pale ochres and browns of the dogs, but they are not intrusive in colouring – if the dogs had been more stone coloured, I’d have painted the stones a duller blue instead. Even the moss on the wall is echoing the colour of the grass in the foreground to pull it all together.

But before I could even start to paint it, I had to do something that was actually very complex to work out. And that was the size of each of the pets against the others. I didn’t have one photo of all the animals together. If I had just been painting one of them, it wouldn’t have mattered what size the grass or stone wall was. But because they were all together I had to make sure that they were all the right corresponding size to each other. I knew that Bramble was fatter than Jack, but that although he was leggier than her, so a bit taller, they were both well….cat size.  But fortunately, from other photos I had been able to bring away with me when I went to see the client, I knew that Mollie lying down was the same height as Jack sitting up, and that Kim standing up was twice his height, and Sadie sitting down was the same height as Kim. I say all that as if I clicked my fingers and could see it as that mathematical equation. But that piece of maths actually took me two and a quarter hours to work out, and draw out!

After I’d drawn out the animals and checked that the painting looked right, I could start putting colour on it. I didn’t use any masking fluid at all, just painted it out onto the plain paper. Starting with the sky and clouds to add some interest, then when that was dry I applied the paint for the foliage behind the wall, then the wall itself as a wet wash knowing that I would add the details later on, then I painted the grassy area infront, but only as a hinted at colouring, knowing that I would build up the depth of it later on when the animals had been painted, so that they looked like they were sitting and standing on the grass not hovering over it.

Then it was time to start on the animals, and as you can see from the photos they weren’t the best ones to work from. But there was nothing I could do about that, they were the best photos available to me.  I completed each animal in turn starting at the left with Mollie and finishing with Kim on the right. I made sure that each animal looked as close to the photo I had before moving on to the next one, and then went over the whole painting making sure that the whole painting pulled together as a whole.  

 When I was happy it was finished I rang the client – Pat, to arrange to take the painting over to her. She had said she would arrange the framing of it herself, which was fine by me.

I took the painting, and was surprised to find her husband was at home as well, but she explained that she had wanted him to view it when she did, since she had been nervous about viewing it for a week or more before I rang her.

Before the unveiling I explained a little about it, and they nodded at my explanations and descriptions. But now, the time we’ve all been waiting for. Their first viewing of it.

I unveiled it, holding it up for them to see it, its 20 x 16 inches so a large painting. They stood looking at it, in silence, and only a couple of seconds had gone before Pat said “Oh, I’m going to cry” and it was that that I had been waiting for. The tears. Because if that is the reaction it means only one thing ……

….that I’ve got it right.

And in this case, I haven’t got it right once, or twice, or three times, or four times even, but FIVE. Five times correct.

And over the next half hour whilst they kept looking at the painting, and I talked to them about it and said everything I’ve explained here, she kept reaching out, to touch the painting, and I felt I should warn her not to touch it as its a delicate thing, a watercolour painting (which is why it has to be protected behind glass in a frame), but when she told me why she was doing it, I understood totally. She was stroking her animals. Like she had done a thousand million times before. Stroking them, and getting pleasure from doing it. And that makes me realise in a quietly  emotionally satisfying way….

I’ve done my job.