Finished Portrait: Marsha and Scruffy
I just delivered this portrait today! I also had the chance to visit with Marsha and Scruffy and tabby cat Amy, who you’ll hear about, and check up on her stray feral colony in her back yard.
This is the sixth commissioned portrait I’ve painted for this customer, who was one of the first to commission me all the way back in 1992. We had started out with a portrait of Scruffy playing with shoes, which I think I will still follow through with, but then Marsha’s husband decided he wanted this photo as the portrait. It’s the first of their portraits to include a human. This was challenging and fun as I don’t often draw portraits of people in pastel—I have artist friends who specialize in human portraits and as I refer customers to them, so they refer to me for pet portraits—but I actually found drawing skin without fur to be difficult at first, so accustomed to the texture and pattern. It’s been a while since I’ve been asked to draw a human at all, and I’m glad I had the chance to draw someone I know so well.
This is one rare commission when the subjects are both in one photo instead of creating a composite, as you see the basic reference photo we started with. Because a flash had been used I also went to get other photos of Scruffy and Marsha after I’d started to fill in the details the flash had either flashed out or covered in shadow. The original is cut off on the top, right and bottom so I added a bit to that to finish off the composition.
Of course, human skin doesn’t have fur. While that may seem obvious, it does have tone and shape and texture now. As soon as I began this portrait it was clear that all my pastels are intended for painting animals and plants and not humans. While many colors work into creating a true flesh tone including those of furs and leaves, a basic shade that matches the subject’s skin is very helpful and I had exactly two colors in that range, neither of which coordinated with Marsha’s pale skin tone. I started, then stopped when I determined that those two were too dark as I was also compensating for the use of a flash which creates hard shadows and adds a tinge of green to areas of the photo. Marsha has very light skin and so when she stopped over to take a look I took a few more notes, then actually went to take more reference photos on a bright overcast day. Finally everything worked into place.
I’ve known Scruffy for years but discovered something new in painting his portrait. I had asked about Scruffy’s expression, looking down, and did they want to see his face? No, this was what Scruffy looked like all the time—and here I thought it was only because I only saw him occasionally. He is happy and playful and affectionate, but he rarely looks up at either of his people for any length of time because he’s always got something to do, and I also call him a “squinty kitty”, one of those who loves his people and surroundings so much that he is always squinting and blinking at everything. You can guess that Scruffy is a really nice kitty.
Marsha really is wearing a bright red jacket which was interesting to match because the red is heightened by the flash, but I think I’ve matched the color and toned it so it’s not overbearing in the composition. Because of that red jacket I chose to draw this on a big sheet of Art Spectrum Colourfix Fine Tooth Pastel Paper, tinted a darker shade of red (not a product placement, but other artists like to know what materials are used). I decided to leave bits of it showing through the gray background patterns.
A new habit from my daily sketches
I tried out a new technique with this portrait that is no doubt a carryover from my daily sketches—no drawing underneath as I had always done, but working straight onto the paper while referencing my composite image on my computer screen as if I am drawing from life. My portraits and often the images painted in the studio always had a comprehensive sketch underneath so I could be sure all the details were in the right places, but sometimes it felt like a glorified paint-by-number as I filled in the sketched lines. I had gone right to the paper with a few recent landscapes, “A Bend in the Road”, “The Rope Swing”, “The Swimming Hole”, because for those landscapes I wanted the feel of en plein air painting though it hadn’t been possible in the moment, letting my hands and eyes make my own mistakes and adjustments as I studied my subject and let it develop before me on the paper. I knew I wouldn’t be able to focus on the painting if I was trying to find the guidelines I’d transferred onto the paper, so I went ahead and just painted and it worked out fine. This new freedom between me and my medium, trusting myself and letting my image build intuitively was part of my goal with my daily cat sketches and I was very confident and successful with this practice in those sketches.
It took me a while to get started on all the portraits I have now and in trying to determine what was standing in my way—the need to replace certain pastel colors, looking for the papers I wanted to use, adjusting my easel, not having a computer in my studio, and then not having them networked, etc.—I also realized I was resisting the idea of enlarging my reference image and printing it out, taping it together and transferring it to the paper. I just didn’t want to, I just wanted to get to my drawing paper, mess around, build my image, trust myself. Although a commissioned portrait is much more exacting than a landscape it just felt wrong to trace the image on and color in the underlying sketch like that paint-by-number. Well, the paper and pastels used to start without the sketch would be negligible and if I was totally wrong I could just start over—I’d actually tried that years ago, messed around, and humbly gone back to my original practice of enlarging the image and transferring it, right over my attempt.
I decided to give it a try, clipped my paper to the board on my easel and opened the photo as large as I could on my computer and started to draw as if Marsha and Scruffy were there in the room with me. I feel like I know the painting much better than when I’d transferred it and colored it in. I’m glad to finally reach this point!
I rarely work on more than one portrait, or even more than one painting at a time. As I focus on my subject and each time I work on it I come closer to the final, I carry my usual focus with me even when I’m not working on it. Focusing deeply on more than one image had always confused me so I’ve avoided it, but now, working straight onto the paper without that underlying transferred image, I can actually switch my focus from one to the other and not feel that I’m missing something as I work. Time to grow and change with these things.
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About Marsha, Scruffy and her feral colony
Marsha and Scruffy live close to me and I know them fairly well. Marsha and her husband had begun with adopting pedigreed Persian cats because that was the first cat they’d met through friends and really all they knew of cats at the time. When they lost one of their Persians years later, a mutual friend of ours quietly left a photo of a rescued kitty on Marsha’s desk at work and explained he was looking for a home. She adopted him, and has adopted only rescued kitties since then—until recently when a few members of her feral colony agreed to come inside, and now she may have a ready supply. You can read more about my other portraits for this household and their rescued cats in “Big Kitty Love” and “You Are the Most Beautiful, Precious Girl”, each of which also appeared in Great Rescues Day Book.
One sad note that Marsha told me as soon as I arrived today is that Scruffy isn’t doing well. A veterinary exam didn’t show anything specific, but Marsha suspects he may have cancer after experience with it in other cats. He came to say hello to me and enjoyed his pets, then settled on the table to watch the birds outside the sliding glass door, but it was clear he wasn’t quite himself. She’ll be taking him back for more tests and another dose of fluids sometime soon. Scruffy has been with the family for eight years, and he was well into adulthood when they adopted him from a friend’s veterinarian, so he is somewhere in his teens. He’s been a happy kitty and will be treated with love, just as he always has.
A new addition is Amy, a member of Marsha’s back yard stray/feral colony who has decided indoor life is for her. Amy had probably been with people as a kitten but was pretty unsocialized on arriving at Marsha’s house with kittens five or six years ago. Over the years Marsha has quietly offered pets and praise to all the cats and most respond with increasing friendliness. Amy became very friendly and asked to come in when it was cold one year, and little by little from about 15 minutes to overnight over the course of two years Amy became a member of the household, then last winter came in for good and doesn’t go back out at all.
Here is Amy when she was living outdoors. She was pretty much the boss cat of the colony.
Marsha has used a variety of TNR programs to spay and neuter and ear-tip all her backyard cats, which at one point numbered five. One wandered off to a neighbor’s house and one disappeared. Three years ago a newcomer wasn’t looking well and she let him inside off and on through the winter; Marsha would open the basement door in clear view of the sliding glass door and he would race into the basement, then come to the top of the stairs the next morning and wait for her to open the sliding glass door and race back out. He came in full time over the next winter, and by spring it was clear he was declining. She managed to take him to her vet who found he had lymphoma, so she had him put to sleep a few months later.
She was bemoaning the fact that her colony has decreased to only three cats, but she guessed that was a mark of success for TNR, and fewer cats outdoors to reproduce is never a bad thing.
Read other stories in my Rescue Stories series.
Also read about other Commissioned Portraits and Featured Artwork
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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!
One thought on “Finished Portrait: Marsha and Scruffy”
this is an excellent likeness of both Marsha & Scruffy; never underestimate your ability to draw//paint people. We all send our best to Scruffy and hope his next vet visit comes back with a great report and maybe he just had a case of the…. blahz ~~~ ♥♥♥