Commissioned Portrait: A Father’s Day Portrait Comes Back For More
Yes, that’s a lot of animals. And they two guys aren’t brothers, they are the same person, holding two different tortoiseshell cats.
This is the first time I’ve updated a portrait several years later with a new family of animals added into the original portrait. And I’m really glad I left a little space in there for the updates! The portrait was not commissioned by the person shown who cares for all the animals, but by his girlfriend—both times, the original and the update. It was a surprise the first time, and she managed to keep it a surprise the second time too, even though she had to take it out of the frame and ship it back to me.
For starters, here is the original portrait from 2012. It looks dark in comparison to the one above because I photographed it, and it’s generally difficult to photograph a larger piece of art that has a good bit of paper showing without the right lighting; the above portrait I scanned in parts and pieced it together.
Next, here is a listing of all the animals in the original from 2012.
The first portrait includes, on the left: Nutmeg the goat, Buell the mule and Harley the mini-horse, above. On the right are: Frankie, Pumpkin and Tabatha, below.
The human is Jay, and on the left he’s holding his tortie, Stirfry, and on the right it’s his girlfriend’s tortie, Steeler.
In three years Jay rescued several other cats and adopted a mini mare he named Thea, who last year surprised him with a little one who was likely fathered by Buell.
Jay lives in a rural area and has a barn, and all the new cats approached his house and began eating on the porch, so he got them spayed and neutered, and adopted the ones who were friendly enough. The new cats from top center are: Tabasco, then then Arian and Eclipse. Tabasco showed up on the deck with the other cats at the feeding station, but he was too friendly to be a feral cat or one who’d been outdoors for very long. No owner claimed him so in he came.
Arian, a lovely long-haired gray kitty, came from the outdoor crew. You’ll note that Eclipse is missing the tip of his left ear. He was neutered through a TNR program, but was friendly enough that he stayed indoors.
Below are Diver and Styx, two torties, but not two girls and two who are not rescues from outside of Jay’s house. Diver is a male tortie who was rescued in Ohio and adopted by Bernie as a gift for Jay. Styx had belonged to Bernie’s mother and stepfather and if Styx’s habit of biting women was any indication she did not like women at all. When Bernie’s mother died and her stepfather could no longer take care of Styx Bernie took her home and soon enough ended up in the ER with a bite, so Jay offered to take her. Diver and Styx are best buddies.
Onyx was another kitty from the outdoor crowd.
Unfortunately, in the same time period, Jay Stirfry, his heart cat full of tortitude who had shown up years ago and gave birth to kittens, and then stayed, and Pumpkin, the big gentle orange and white cat who was one of her kittens, as well as Tabatha, the calico he’d adopted. Jay also lost Nutmeg the goat. Bernie lost Steeler, too, but they all live on in memory and will always be a part of the family in this portrait.
Creating the portrait
So I’ll begin at the beginning.
The first portrait
Bernie called me with an idea for a portrait as a gift for Father’s Day in 2012, which was three weeks away. I’ve had less time to produce a portrait so I asked her for a few details, and then I began to doubt.
We needed to have Jay, who is the “father” in question though all his children in this portrait will be animals, including three of his cats, Tabatha, Pumpkin and Frankie, and his mini-horse Harley, his mini-donkey Buell and his goat Nutmeg, and Jay himself holding his famous tortoiseshell cat Stirfry, and Jay again, holding Bernie’s even more-famous tortoiseshell cat Steeler.
I could tell she had thought this through pretty thoroughly. I was also trying to visualize and calculate the amount of time it would take depending on various media. I also knew Bernie had had a series of losses at that time, including Steeler, her son and her husband, and Jay had been instrumental in keeping her on her feet through it all. I understand the nature of grief and I knew this had to be done, no matter what.
“Okay, Bernie,” I said, “I don’t think we’re going to go with a pastel, there’s not enough time, but I can visualize a sort of a collage in pencil, and maybe we’ll add a little color, how does that sound?”
“Whatever you say,” she answered. I knew I could produce something more than acceptable, and I also knew that Bernie wasn’t going to say she didn’t like the medium or style or whatever, as long as it conveyed the idea she had in mind. I think I understood that idea. She had a frame, I would cut a mat, so we knew what the size would be. The clock started ticking.
She had mentioned the two photos of Jay holding Stirfry and Jay holding Steeler, which I was familiar with from her Facebook page, and the special photo of Steeler holding her paw like a little fist up in the air. All the rest were up to me from all the photos she emailed and which were on Facebook.
There have been times I’ve done portraits where I had to sneak out to a customer’s house and photograph a photograph that was taped to the refrigerator because moving it at all would be noticed, meeting customers at some lonely exit on the interstate to pick up a photo and mailing it back to a PO box and other exciting ways of gathering images for surprise portraits. As much as I whine about Facebook, this wouldn’t have happened without everyone’s galleries where I browsed for multiple images of each of the animals, one for position, others for details of faces, paws, tails, manes and hooves.
Then came the task of putting together the collage as a composition, which looks simple but is more complicated than a regular scenic portrait because you have to make something which is impossible, totally visually believable. How to make it look as if Jay didn’t have a horse sitting on his head, or three cats falling onto him on the other side? A lot of moving and resizing and squinting to make sure it made visual sense.
For the ease of that I credit PhotoShop. I used to do these by hand, sometimes using a copier to enlarge or reduce things, then later I would sit down to do rough sketches for layout which helped me familiarize myself with all the subjects and determine which features were the most important. In this case I didn’t have the luxury of several individual preliminary rough sketches before a final sketch. I pasted all the photos I wanted to start with onto a pasteboard in PS and began arranging and rearranging, sizing and cropping until I had everyone just about where and how I initially wanted them, then except for the two photos of Jay I changed each one of them at least once to a completely different photo and rearranged them within their groups to fit together better. Then I pasted the detail photos in place and blended in, then blended them all together.
I gave it a break for a day then looked at it again and decided it worked, printing it out in tiles, full size, to tape together. Again, I didn’t have the time to start sketching right onto the paper, taking my time with each image. When the composite was ready I placed it beneath my smooth 2-ply acid-free cream drawing paper, taped it lightly in place and used my little lightbox, really just a box with lights in it that shone through both papers so that I could lightly trace the outlines onto the drawing paper using a moderately hard drawing pencil so the lines would be thin and lighter than my usual drawing pencils with softer, darker leads. I had to keep the drawing surface itself covered with other papers and boards so I wouldn’t smear lines or leave oil or sweat from my skin—it was only May, but pretty hot. Oh, and a cat too. Kelly was such an incredible help as I worked on this portrait.
I knew from the beginning that I wanted the basis of the drawing to be in pencil because it could even work without color, but it could also work quickly and, as I always say, it’s my “first and favorite medium”. I can think in pencil, looking at the image, which I’d placed in front of me so I could glance up at it, and working it out on the paper in one pass, softening and blending a little later; having just the outlines of each figure and its major features was a great help to start with. Feline supervision is required as well, though I have to be careful—those tiny movements the pencil makes, and the little scratchy noise, well, sometimes a kitty can’t help but imagine little mousies and before you know it there’s a paw on your drawing.
So with the outlines in place I began adding in the dark and medium details. This drawing was too difficult to work on my easel and too big for my drafting table so I worked it on my work table where I have lots of light and places to put pencils and things when not in use. When I work a drawing where large areas of the paper are left uncovered with media I always place covering materials over them to avoid spills, clammy handprints, pawprints, cat hair—on that nice smooth creamy surface everything shows up. Kelly did a great job keeping the upper left corner under control, but Mewsette needed to be redirected because the cute little scratching sounds my pencils made really did sounde like something she likes to hunt and the big black mitten quickly flashed out at my pencil once too often.
I worked the first pass with pencil, then blended for the softer shading, stopped and photographed and let it rest in case I might want to stop there. But the essence of tortie cats is black and gold and I knew I had to go on.
So I got out the watercolors and got the colors ready I knew I’d need and quickly filled each with a wash, then went over and over again until everything was pretty evenly colored and shaded and highlighted, then decided to add some brushwork to the background in between to tie them together a little better. I had to go over Stirfry’s and Steeler’s black areas because they had softened with the brush when I overpainted with the watercolor.
And just in time. Bernie was coming the next day.
I ended up getting a temporary frame for it as well as cutting the mat, and I had everything ready to put together, but she hadn’t seen it at all—highly unusual since I usually send progress photos while I work. Photographing this was a challenge, though, and I never got around to sending what I’d taken. So she would approve it before I’d frame it.
As it turned out, the only thing I needed to change was Pumpkin’s eyes, which were gold instead of green. I also needed to add whiskers to Stirfry and Steeler, white whiskers, and no type of opaque white watercolor, gouache or acrylic would cover the pencil evenly, so there are just hints of whiskers there.
Of all the subjects, I was very happy to be able to draw Steeler. I felt as close to her as I had to my own cats, and I grieved for her loss as well, though of course not as Bernie did. But my solace is my art and I could lovingly study and sketch Steeler’s familiar face, and my gift to others is my art and I was glad I could give that gift to Bernie and to Jay.
And what fun to have Bernie be greeted at the door by a very talkative Kelly, and get to meet the Fantastic Four! But it was Mimi who stole her attention. Kelly stayed downstairs, the boys unmade my bed to their specifications and had a nice nap there, odd because they always have to be the center of attention. Mimi and Mewsette had come downstairs to greet Bernie as well and then joined us in the studio, but Mimi decided Bernie needed Mimi on her lap. Even when Mewsette began to step on Bernie’s lap to say hello, Mimi simply walked underneath Mewsette and sat squarely on Bernie’s lap and big, gentle Mewsette understood and came over to me. Mimi curled in her comforting posture whenever possible.
The first portrait was a big hit, and a total surprise!
The second portrait
When Bernie contacted me summer 2015 about updating the portrait with all the new critters, I really wasn’t sure it was possible. Unlike other media like pastel where I could remove a portion of it or draw or paint on top of it, that wasn’t possible with this portrait. You can gently fade watercolor on certain papers, especially real watercolor paper which has a little sizing on the surface so you can build up layers. This was uncoated illustration board, and even working too long in one place would start to pull apart the surface. Watercolor paint has gum arabic in it that creates a thin layer atop anything underneath, including the pencil, which was now pretty much permanent on the paper. Plus, I had added a background tint between all the original subjects to tie them together, and even working gently on top of areas that had already been worked with pencil and watercolor would be less detailed with the surface just a little softened. I could work on top of a few existing features, like paws or tails, if I was to be working darker, and as long as a color that wasn’t right wouldn’t show through.
I had a great spot for Thea and her baby, and that’s just where she ended up. But to find spots that were logical placements for all the new cats, where they could be proportional to all the existing subjects and show as much of their best features without taking too much from what was there, and be able to work the surface for details without falling apart, and still have it be attractive…I pulled together all the images of the new subjects, and pulled up the image of the first portrait and studied…and studied…and studied. I kept going back to it, and found I could place most of them, but one of them always lost out, being mostly hidden if it could fit at all. In the end, Arian’s fluffy fur and tail are mostly hidden behind Pumpkin, and you can’t see much of Tabasco’s wonderful tail and many of the marbled swirls on his sides, and Onyx is a little small in porportion, but probably if I hadn’t pointed all of those details out to you, you would never have noticed. I only mention it because it’s part of the process of how portraits are done, whether it’s the first time through or possibly even adding other subjects years later.
I have done a number of other pencil portraits as well, 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 as well as scanning them on a higher-quality scanner I have now and I’ve been sharing those as I can, like the portraits of Pearle and Belle.
Also read about other Commissioned Portraits and Featured Artwork
I also feature artwork which has not been commissioned, especially my paintings of my own cats. If you’d like to read more about artwork as I develop it, about my current portraits and art assignments and even historic portraits and paintings, I feature commissioned portrait or other piece of artwork on Wednesday. Choose the categories featured artwork.
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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Weekly schedule of features:
Sunday: Essays, Pet Loss, Poetry, The Artist’s Life
Monday: Adoptable Cats, TNR & Shelters
Tuesday: Rescue Stories
Wednesday: Commissioned Portrait or Featured Artwork
Thursday: New Merchandise
Friday: Book Review, Health and Welfare, Advocacy
Saturday: Your Backyard Wildlife Habitat, Living Green With Pets, Creating With Cats
And sometimes, I just throw my hands in the air and have fun!
4 thoughts on “Commissioned Portrait: A Father’s Day Portrait Comes Back For More”
B…this is beyond cool…….great job on this one…truly !! ♥♥♥ L
Really an incredible challenge, Tabbies!
Fabulous. I gave you a really tough challenge this time. You took that challenge and what a fantastic piece of artwork you have put to paper with your excellent skills and imagination. You balanced this update with all the animals as no other artist could have done. Please folks just look at the flow that comes from Bernadette’s skill in her artistic gifts. She is truly a gifted artist. Again, all I can say is Bernadette, you do fabulous artwork. This portrait had been a treasure by Jay 2 years ago and now it will be even more moving and treasured by him for his lifetime.
Yes it was, Bernie, and thanks for your faith in me. I love a good challenge! It was exciting for me from start to finish. Thanks for all your compliments!