A full-color rendering that covers the entire ground—paper, canvas, etc.—is often what we think of when we envision a “portrait”, but less formal portraits in drawing media have been classics for centuries as well. Sometimes they are preferred, or they may simply be more affordable.
Or, as in the case of gray tabby sisters Scarlett and Melanie, the medium might also be most appropriate.
And yes, guess who they were named after—and wearing gray on top of it all—perhaps we are also remembering the 150th anniversary of the battle of Gettysburg today.
My second commissioned portrait, ever
This portrait was in the first group of commissioned portraits, way, way back at my beginnings so the photo quality is not as good as it could be. Pencil is difficult to photograph to begin with and this portrait is 30″ wide so that I couldn’t avoid shadows left and right. In those days and still today, I take the final photos of a portrait right before I frame it, which is sometimes right before I hand it over to the customer. In the days before digital when we had to wait for film to come back, and in this early time when I wasn’t the most experienced photographer of art, and I didn’t begin taking specific details shots until about ten years ago, so I had to take the best guess when I photographed and hope I’d gotten it.
That major detail aside, Scarlett and Melanie were young gray tabby sisters, the only two children of a young couple who adored them completely. I met the couple at a cat show where they were stocking up on toys and treats for their girls and I was on my maiden voyage in promoting my portraiture to the feline community, at that point showing mostly my own personal portraits and a few of those early drawings I’d framed.
Deciding to use pencil for the portrait
I had a gray tabby named Moses who I’d sketched in pencil and while the full color, nearly full-size and realistic portraits caught their eye and brought them in to talk to me—a portrait of their girls? how exciting! they had to have one—it was the little pencil sketch of Moses that really convinced them.
Plus, they wanted a fairly large portrait to go over their fireplace, and had the idea of a long and narrow one to fill the space. In full color with two subjects, and then framing, that would be rather expensive even in those days. I have always charged less for monochromatic drawing media such as pencil, charcoal and ink simply because, while I may spend as much time in the planning as I do for a color portrait, I spend much less time in the actual rendering.
My love for drawing in pencil
I was also secretly glad because I have always been most confident in pencil. I often refer to it here as my “first and favorite medium” because I began drawing with my mother’s No. 2 pencils when I was very young, and when I returned to drawing in my early 30s at the very beginning of this career I again picked up a pencil and began drawing (read about Sally and “Sleeping Beauty”, my “first drawing”, which was also in my display that day). Even today, most often my daily sketches are in pencil because I can pick one up and begin to sketch as if the pencil itself is thinking for me. I think this was my second commissioned portrait, the other was pastel and went along fine, but I was still nervous at being able to perform and I just knew I could do it in pencil.
Performance anxiety aside, we were also considering two gray tabby cats, and what could be better for them than pencil? I could just picture it, and I think they could as well.
Planning the portrait
I visited them after the show to meet and photograph the girls and see their place, a nice, sunny newer condo with a great room and fireplace at one end, perfect for a portrait of Scarlett and Melanie. At that time, when portraits were just subject with no background, I literally had nothing in the background but the drawing surface and I often used colored drawing paper so I always matched the color to the subject. In this case I thought a color would be nice and suggested a pale blue, to which they agreed. When we estimated the size, however, the drawing would be wider than my largest sheet of drawing paper—no problem, I would use mat board, which had a laid finish much the same as my drawing paper, just a little coarser.
And then positioning the girls—the possibilities were wide open. They were very active and playful, very social and we talked at length about what habits they would want to immortalize. Scarlett had a habit of playing the ceiling-stare game and was also always bobbing her nose around to get a good scent, usually in order to find th nearest catnip toy.
They had seen a sketch of my Sally in a paper bag and mentioned that Melanie LOVED paper bags and they even had a photo of her in one, but should they have something silly like this in a portrait? Sure, why not, portraits don’t have to be formal things, they need to be what you want to remember.
I remember doing a quick little rough layout of the two so they could see what I had in mind (don’t know where this is now) and determined they’d be darned near life size. The mats would be deeper shades of blue and black core mats (black on the beveled edge), and the frame would be a particular walnut with a blue wash that I had used on one of my own paintings.
In the detail above, you can see a rather hard shadow of Melanie’s head on the side of the bag; I have since learned not to be so literal with photos used in portraits. Today I’d either soften or eliminate this, but I wasn’t confident enough then to make changes that might look unnatural.
I completed the portrait and invited them to my “studio”, actually my living room at that time, to see their portrait. They excitedly approved, and then had one more request, could I add a little color for a particular reason? Since the girls were nearly identical, they kept two different color collars on them, Scarlett of course was red, and Melanie was blue (we did joke about a Union kitty since Melanie Wilkes was a Southern girl). Could I add just a little color to their collars just to make it clear which was whom? No problem, watercolor would take care of that. I added the color later, after they had left. Looking at it I decided it looked a little unbalanced now, and their eyes should have color as well. I called them with the idea and they agreed it would be fine.
I apologize for the quality of the detail shots; they are cropped out of the full portrait and are about as clear as they can be from scanning the print of the photo. In some cases I can scan the negative with better result, and if I manage to do so I’ll update the images and post an update to this post.
I have done a number of other pencil portraits as well though none as big as this, and you can find some of them by browsing at the links below. Pencil has always been difficult to photograph and only in the past year or two have I become at all proficient with lighting the paper to avoid shadows and flashed areas so I’m working on rephotographing all the ones I can. In the future I’ll feature those as well.
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A few readers have asked about portraits in pencil, so I decided to run this post again since Scarlett and Melanie are wonderful example kitties! I first published this in April 2012. Since that time I’ve tried to reconnect with Scarlett and Melanie’s people without success, but I will keep trying so that I can photograph their portrait again some day.
Take a look at other portraits and read other stories
Read articles here on The Creative Cat featuring current and past commissioned portraits.
Read about how I create commissioned portraits.
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All images used on this site are copyrighted to Bernadette E. Kazmarski unless otherwise noted and may not be used without my written permission. Please ask if you are interested in using one in a print or internet publication. If you are interested in purchasing a print of this image or a product including this image, check my Etsy shop or Fine Art America profile to see if I have it available already. If you don’t find it there, visit Ordering Custom Artwork for more information on a custom greeting card, print or other item.