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Larchmont Historical House Portrait Aidan on Tricycle Portrait of Pete Portrait of Lily
Three Brothers Portrait Samantha's 5 Cats Ali and Her Coat of Many Colors Building Entryway Portrait

Architectural Vignettes

I've been asked a few times lately to create a small portrait of an apartment building as a gift. Since trying to keep size and cost down, I knew that I couldn't do the entire building, so I offered to do the entryway instead. Each of the buildings had distinctive features and resulted in a memorable record of that building for anyone who had lived in it or sell does.

The pen & ink featured here is a rather grand old apartment building in Larchmont, NY. Solidly built with interesting features. The roof top area is also quite distinctive but I didn't choose to draw it this time.
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Why Commission a House Portrait?

I've learned so many lessons over the years about why house portraits can be so meaningful for people. In the case of this portrait of "Nana's House," I was commissioned by a young woman whose mother-in-law's mother had lived in the house I was asked to paint. The only record she had of the house was two or three photos at a rather low resolution that she could send me via email. She apologized about the simple nature of the house since it was small and not very grand but it had a very nice story attached to it. I assured her that I have done many types of house portraits through the years from very simple to extremely grand, and that wanting a painting of the house was the only thing that mattered.


The story was that this had been Nana's house and she had come from Poland many years ago. To make her new home feel homey, she had chosen to put up some adornments at the center of the front door, along its sides and above it. She had also planted plastic red flowers in pots along the path that remained visible year round and had added little hanging balls, which I think might have been candle holders, at every pane in the multi-paned front windows. I was emphatically told to include all of these adornments as they were what made this house so unique. Nana had loved her house dearly and the love passed on to her extended family. I was delighted with the story and the quirkiness of the adornments on the house and found it a great pleasure to make a painting of it.

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The Challenge of a Two Dog Portrait

As I always do with portraits of animals, I started the process with a photo session. Each of the two yellow labs was photographed both separately and together as they posed naturally. Then, with my client's help, we chose which poses to work from. She loved the poses where they were lying on the grass alongside or very near each other as that was very characteristic of their normal behavior when hanging around in the backyard area. She chose one.


My next step was to create a rough sketch of the chosen poses in a background. The time was early spring and there wasn't much happening in the garden besides a stand of daffodils. I thought that was what I would use and included that in my sketch. At that point I decided that another option for one of the dogs might work better. I sketched that pose on an overlay and showed both possibilities to my client. She chose my new option.


By the time I was actually ready to start the painting, summer had come and gone and after seeing the beauty of the more colorful time of year, I had reservations about using the early spring garden scene. I ended up borrowing elements of plants and flowers that were blooming in one of the garden areas on the property during the summer months and used that information to create my new idea for a backdrop for the dogs.


Looking at the final scene, viewers might not realize what often goes into the planning and design process when doing an animal portrait. Animals don't necessarily pose in the most perfect setting. In this case, since the dogs' poses were the most important ingredient, I began with them and then created a background that I felt worked with them. All in all, a challenging but enjoyable project.


A final postscript: Lucy, the dog on the right passed away a few months after I had taken her photos. Her owner had had the premonition that she had better move forward quickly with her idea to have the dogs painted and was so glad that she didn't put it off.

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French Bulldog Sitting Drawing

A second portrait drawing of Maurice, the very peppy and affectionate French Bulldog I was commissioned to draw for Minna, a very special client I have worked with many times.


Portraits can lend themselves to establishing strong connections between the artist and his or her client, since the commissioned subject is often very meaningful to the client or to someone close to the client who will receive the portrait as a gift.

There is much discussion and planning that goes on before the portrait is begun. In my case, there are photos to be taken or instructions to my client about what they need to send me. Then there is the choice of the main reference photo to work from. So the job becomes more of a collaboration between the client and the artist than when someone buys a finished painting conceived strictly by the artist.

Before final acceptance, there may be requests for some adjustments to be made to the portrait. Not knowing the subject as well as my client, I might not see some subtle nuance that my client spots right away. If I can see what they are seeing, I am happy to make those changes in order to end with the client being very happy with the portrait and I feeling gratified that I was able to provide this very meaningful service.

When it comes to the subject him, her, or itself, there is also another level of pleasure and connection. So, for me, as the artist, there's a lot to be said for creating portraits for people.


I've included a photo of 5 drawings of dogs in Minna's family that I've done through the years for her. Even the hanging of the last two drawings became a collaboration as Minna and I worked together to hang the two outer drawings of Maurice, the French Bulldog. On the carpet below lies the subject himself, serenely napping while we worked hard.

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Letting an Animal Take the Lead

 I've been painting and drawing dogs and cats for many years now, and most of the time, I've worked from photos that I've taken. What I've learned in that time is that, unless you're working with a highly trained animal, and that's rare, you are going to have to allow the animal some leeway about poses to take.


What I've found is that some animals really like to stand and move a lot, some favor sitting poses, and some are couch potatoes and love to lie down. You can get any of them to take one of their less favorite poses for an instant or two, but I've found that the best and most natural poses are the ones the animal chooses and is most comfortable with. It also really helps with some animals to have the animal's owner working along with you to encourage some interesting facial expressions. Bribes, in the form of little food treats, are fine in my book too.


Riley, the beautiful golden retriever, in the pictured example, is a case in point about finding the perfect pose. She was getting on in age and really liked taking it easy. Her owner thought at first that she'd like a sitting pose but Riley kept on plunking down on the porch floor. As I watched and took photos, I saw her shifting her body and her head in various ways that were simply stunning. Suddenly, I felt as if I were working with a trained model who knew that angling the body and head a bit makes for a dynamic pose. No one had to direct her once she was allowed to enjoy her choice. She was the one who came up with the wonderful pose that was chosen for the painting.

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Portraits of a Brother and Sister


I recently had the good fortune to create this head and shoulders graphite pencil portrait of Matthew and another of his sister, Welyn. This came about years after having drawn two earlier portraits of the client's two older boys when they were young, pre-schoolers. How interesting to be reminded of the differences between capturing good photos to work from with very young children and those from older children. In some cases an older child can be more self-conscious but easier to control as far as posture and pose, but in this case, both brother and sister were very open to posing for my camera shots and I think you can see that in their relaxed expressions.


I continue to find that I would much rather allow a child's inner personality to shine out in their expressions rather than try for formal and somewhat stiff poses with never a smile allowed. I also feel that a parent's choice should be strongly taken into account because they see something in one pose over another that I might not recognize as totally capturing some truth about that child.

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Fun Photographing Animals

I always feel lucky when I'm commissioned to create a portrait and am able to take my own photographs and meet my subjects. That's just as true for animals as it is for people. By meeting the animals, I can get a sense of their personalities and look for poses that capture their nature as well as show them off at their best.


I had never even heard of ragdoll cats before meeting Ben and Jerry, the two cats in this portrait montage. They turned out to be very relaxed subjects who calmly posed for me on the kitchen counter in their home. Rex, the mixed breed dog, on the other hand, was a very lively, cheerful two-year-old and had to be kept on a leash for me to have any luck at all in photographing him. Since you can't tell an animal which way to look or turn, you just have to try your best to capture a few good poses of each and then find one for each animal that works well with the others when creating a montage. I like to include the owners in my decision about which poses to work from but also have a hand in explaining what needs to be considered when making the images work together in a pleasing composition.



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Photos of a Skittish Cat

 Boo, the cat in this drawing, is the upstairs neighbor of the three cats I recently discussed in my earlier blog about photographing cats. Trying to be efficient with my time,  I had already tried photographing him on the day that I arrived to take photos of two of the cats living downstairs. That time, he dashed under the bed in the bedroom and stayed there until I left.


This time I came better prepared, I thought. I asked that the bedroom door be closed before I arrived to prevent that possibility from occurring again, but Boo being a shrewd cat headed for the space behind the couch in the living room. His owner (the same lovely woman who had commissioned me to draw her daughter's three cats) and I managed to get him out from behind the couch only to see him dash into a small computer room with several tables and a low lying bench against the wall which he tucked himself under. Now, this time, I finally had a better chance of getting the photos I needed. I asked for some cat treats and quickly brought my standing photo flood lamp, myself, and my camera into the room and closed the door.


Once inside with the door closed, I turned on the light to help me add light to the room but also to create warmth because flood lamp bulbs are hot and cats like the warmth they radiate. I then placed a little trail of cat treats on the rug. Starting very near the bench where Boo was crouched, I spread them a few inches apart and out into the room. Then I sat down about 8 feet away and waited with my camera ready for action. Nothing happened for quite some time but then Boo moved forward a little and, still crouching, ate the nearest treat. I took a shot or two and waited again. He moved more fully into the room, still crouching and ate up the treats, then standing up, he turned back toward the bench and suddenly sat still in front of it and looked at me. I was ready and took a couple of shots with his head at different angles, and then, back he went under the bench. That did it! I had the photos I needed. I could see that I had captured a couple of nice poses and would be able to work from one of them. I sent the best ones to Boo's owner via email a few days later and asked her to pick her favorite. That became the one I used as my reference for this portrait of Boo.

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Photographic Reference for a Children's Portrait

I find photographing children in order to get good reference for a portrait is both challenging and a great pleasure. It's important to not feel rushed and to not expect perfect behavior or cooperation. Patience is a great virtue when photographing children, as is a sense of humor.


Working with a softened main light and a secondary dimmer light, I'm able to obtain the kind of soft shadows across a child's face that greatly aid my job of developing a lovely, well modeled head. There are some portrait artists that hold to the old tradition of only working from life. For me, that misses out on being able to just watch a child behaving naturally while I look for that special moment when just the right expression and mood brings out the child's personality and character. I'm looking for a sense of life and that may present itself as a smiling pose or a serious one depending on the child. Working with a digital camera, I can keep snapping away as I watch for those special moments.


Especially with young children, I've found having a collection of small stuffed animals can be very useful. They can talk to a child or a parent can hold one and do something funny with it. For a shy child, I may ask him or her to hold an animal so it can have it's picture taken. A promise of a treat after the session for good behavior can be a very useful. A nervous or angry parent can take all the fun out of the session for me and the child, so if I sense that's starting to happen, I try to get the parent out of the room.


I don't always agree with the final reference choice a parent makes because I might see a pose I think is more perfect or more beautiful, but I fully understand when I'm told that that particular pose says it all about their child.

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The Challenge of Cat Portraits

 I usually find that I'm able to get much better reference for an animal portrait when I take my own photos, but when it comes to cats, there's another challenge that comes into play. Cats have minds of their own and aren't necessarily amenable to posing for you when you want them to. That was the case with this portrait of three cat's heads. The portrait was to be a surprise Christmas present for the daughter of a very lovely woman I met at a show early in the Fall. One of the cats had been temporarily removed to another location because it wasn't getting along with the other two cats. It was also rather skittish so even her owner had trouble photographing her. In that case, I had to work from the daugther's photos which were far from clear and very dark. Luckily, Photoshop can work wonders to improve the quality of an image.


I set up an appointment to meet with the other two cats who lived downstairs from my client. They were usually let out in the morning but I was assured that this particular morning they would be kept in. I arrived and we went down to the daughter's half of the two-family house to find that one cat was there but the other wasn't. I followed the cat around after we closed off some rooms and sat down in a sunny room to see if the cat would cooperate by coming into that room. She finally did and I proceeded to click away while crouching down and following her around.


I went home knowing that it was very likely I would be going back for another session with the missing cat. Since I wasn't satisfied with the photos my client took, back I went a couple of weeks later. The other cat, an orange tabby, was unwilling to be cooperative and was hiding during most of my visit. I waited and watched with camera at the ready and at some point, the cat went into the kitchen looking for food and for a few seconds stood still in a very nice pose. I don't like to use flash because it further unnerves animals, so I had set my camera with a very high ISO setting and hoped I had enough light to capture him in the dimly lit area where he was sitting. Once again, Photoshop plus the high setting saved the day.


Patience is an absolute necessity when photographing animals and children and it usually pays off if you don't get discouraged too soon. I finally had the reference I needed to complete my portrait.

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