Painting the Unfamiliar: Gail Sibley, "Cavelier," Mount Vision pastels on Pastel Premier (white) paper, 9 x 9 in

Painting the Unfamiliar – Scary and Confirming

Painting the unfamiliar – what do I mean by that? Let me give you a bit of backstory first.

I’ve been working really hard on preparing my newest online course. It was supposed to be ready for this week but tech glitches and miscommunications with my tech person meant a delay. Sooooo disappointing! I felt deflated and numbed. I started wasting time on Facebook (you know that right?) and after about 30 plus minutes realized what I was doing. And even though I caught myself, I continued to scroll. I was so frustrated with the delay that I was drowning myself in the wasteland of Facebook! But after about 15 minutes, I knew I had to get off Facebook and DO something!

I took the opportunity to slip into my studio where I hadn’t been in days. Work on the computer had taken me away from place of creation and intention. Ironic since I’m always encouraging you to get thee to thy studio! I started preparing paintings for shipping to a client. I even got my hands dirty with pastels when I realized one of the pieces hadn’t been signed! And that felt soooooo incredibly good, far out of proportion with the actual time spent with a pastel in hand.

Well that was a sign – painting time! But what to paint? My sister had recently sent me a few photos of American foxhounds. Hmmmmm…. what about painting something unfamiliar? Certainly painting hounds or any kind of dog fits this category for me. I think I’ve painted exactly one dog portrait before this and that was part of a human portrait!

So what’s so special about painting the unfamiliar? Well first off, if you’re painting a subject you aren’t familiar with, you can be relieved of any expectation of a good outcome. You don’t know the ins and outs of the subject so why should it result in a stunning end?

Second, this puts your artistic skills to good use. When you’re painting, you’re applying pigment to a ground. That’s it! It’s a 2D surface and no matter what you paint, it’s all colour, value, texture and pattern on a flat surface.

And third, painting the unfamiliar means jumping out of your comfort zone and taking some risk. This is ALWAYS good for your growth as an artist!

So how was my experience painting the unfamiliar? Let’s have a look. I can tell you, I was definitely not in a comfortable place with the subject but I was comfortable with my tools. This time I’m using Mount Vision pastels (from their workshop set of 50) on Pastel Premier paper.


Painting the unfamiliar: 1.Here’s the image I used as my source material. (Thanks Andrea!)
1.Here’s the image I used as my source material. (Thanks Andrea!)


Painting the Unfamiliar: 2. Here’s the quick thumbnail I did.
2. Here’s the quick thumbnail I did.


I did a couple other thumbnails of other photos but I liked this one the best.



Painting the Unfamiliar: 3. Drawing up the image on Pastel Premier paper
3. Drawing up the image on Pastel Premier paper

Ugh! Looks more like a Dachshund than an American Foxhound! But I’m diving in. Painting the unfamiliar means I’m not going to be concerned with the outcome. Yes, I want it to look good but this is about pastels to paper more than a perfect painting!



Painting the Unfamiliar: 4. Applying the three main value.
4. Applying the three main value.

For the first layer, I picked a few pastels based on the colours of the hound. I really was having a hard time choosing how to start. So I just stuck with values and went from there.



Painting the Unfamiliar: 5. Adding a second layer
5. Adding a second layer

Thinking it’s time to quit now as I’m awed by the ugliness of this! But wait, this is the ugly stage right? Yes! Keep going. Surrender to the process. Stop judging. Get that pastel on!



Painting the Unfamiliar: 6. More pastel applied
6. More pastel applied

Big question at this point was: what to do about the background? If you notice, in my thumbnail I chose to keep the background pretty much a middle value. I decided to follow the map as it looks fine and shows off the dog’s head. So I chose middle value colours that I was using on the head itself – green, blue, ochre. I didn’t really have a plan. I looked at the photo and started there – yellower and slightly lighter on the left, cooler and slightly darker on the right.



7. Painting the Unfamiliar: Starting to add more detail
7. Starting to add more detail

I started honing in on detail. I especially focused on the eyes and getting the shape of the jaw right. I feel a possibility that this may actually come to something ….but that’s not important right? Remember, painting the unfamiliar is about painting. It’s also about getting familiar with a new subject.



Painting the Unfamiliar: 8. More tweaking
8. More tweaking

I began to carefully observe the shape of the head and the ears. Also I paid a bit more attention to the background and also the fur on the dog’s back.



Painting the Unfamiliar: 8b. More tweaking - seen in black and white
8b. More tweaking – seen in black and white

Looking at the black and white image, I feel I’m on the right track.



Painting the Unfamiliar: Gail Sibley, "Cavelier," Mount Vision pastels on Pastel Premier (white) paper, 9 x 9 in
Gail Sibley, “Cavelier,” Mount Vision pastels on Pastel Premier (white) paper, 9 x 9 in

I spent the last part of the painting time, looking at the drawing and adjusting say the back contour of the head, the shape of the ear on the right, the chin.



Painting the Unfamiliar: And the pastels I used.
And the pastels I used.


Well that’s it for me. I could keep fiddling!  Unless I see something glaringly wrong or Andrea asks me to correct something that doesn’t read right, it’s done! And I am feeling good! I surrendered to the discomfort of painting the unfamiliar for the purpose of putting pastel to paper and not being under any pressure. And even so, I’m happy with the result. And being in the studio, pastel in hand, that’s what made me happiest!

Have you painted something that isn’t your regular subject matter? How did that feel? Please share your experience in a comment. Love hearing from you I do!

All for now.

Until next time,
~ Gail


PS. A big thanks to my friend Julia for seeing the symbolism of my movement from wasting time on Facebook (from disappointment at not having the course ready to offer you) to working in the studio. Creative core!

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44 thoughts on “Painting the Unfamiliar – Scary and Confirming”

  1. This is very good, and I am not surprised. Glad you rescued yourself from the technical bit bucket by firing up the creative spirit. Nearly everything I do is outside my comfort zone as I am deep into my first experiences with shapes, values, composition and hues. I do a lot of experimenting and that’s okay.

    1. Thanks Marsha 🙂 And yeah, love how you put it – “Firing up the creative spirit”!!
      And sorry, had to laugh and also think ‘Yay!’ when I read that you are always outside your comfort zone because you are in deep experimentation. Good for you!!

    2. I’m with Marsha, I’m so new to painting that everything I try is out of my comfort zone, but I love the thrill of it…taking it from the ugly to the complete is still amazing to me. Thanks for the post. Nice to see that someone with your mad skills has the same angst.

      1. Hi Susan, I am glad you enjoy that thrill of taking a piece from start to finish. It really is an amazing process isn’t it, to go from nothing and create something to add to the world!! And yes, I feel the angst most of the time! It’s easy to look back and see the path you’ve taken but when you are on the journey, the path ahead is invisible and you have no idea where you’ll end up!

  2. I love it! While I am normally a pet portrait artist, I am now trying to paint a very detailed cut-glass pitcher. I am writing this in solidarity. My husband said that “maybe detail just isn’t your thing”. It definitely isn’t, but I need the stretching and the discipline that comes from truly seeing detail. You are absolutely right about stepping out of one’s comfort zone in order to grow. As for your dog portrait – it’s very fine. Watch out! Dog portraits can become addictive :-).

    1. Wow – great step into painting the unfamiliar Andrea!!! You will certainly learn to “see” more working on a cut-glass pitcher.
      And thanks! I could almost see myself doing more of these 😀

  3. So interesting! Before reading your blog, I started a landscape painting tonight. Now, you of all people know how uncomfortable I am with that! Kudos to you and kudos to me, too, although you’re finished and I’m not….yet!

  4. I love your foxhound and the background particularly interested me. Animal portraits ARE my comfort zone and I like to actually meet the animal first to know his personality too. All my commissions have been animals, but I enjoy a challenge and strangely enough landscapes are uncomfortable for me. So,hey ho! I’ll give them a try this summer…as soon as the 40 days and nights of rain stop! I’d love to see more of your birds and animals Gail.

    1. Thanks Mary-Anne! I know what you mean about meeting an animal. I have met a few of these hounds. Cavalier loves to sit in a barrel-bathtub and often seems to be saying, Don’t even think about getting me out of here… Perhaps you can start in on landscapes as backgrounds to your animal portraits? Pull back and let some of the landscape/surroundings in. Perhaps this won’t work for commissions but it might please you to do it for yourself. Just to see what happens. Or go full in with an animal-free landscape!!
      And you never know, you may see more animal paintings….

  5. Dear Gail, thank you for posting this. As a fur mum to my wonderful golden retrievers I constantly try to capture them in pastel and I constantly get disheartened as my paintings don’t ever seem to match the perfect renditions of those photo realistic pawtrait artists whose work is simply outstanding. I can’t seem to find a way to render each strand of fur, each curl as they do and I also sometimes feel that my choice of subject is seen as “light weight” and not as worthy as say the “landscape”. The process you have shared is very familiar to me in that I regularly reach “the ugly stage” and I’m often not sure how to push through this, and I lose confidence/hope that I can do so. So I will take my lead from your lovely painterly approach and continue with my exploration of pastels and goldens 👍😄

    1. That’s lovely to hear Kerrie! Yes, I agree, there are some artists who do incredible portraits with great detail. I am not and won’t be, one of those artists. It’s just not in me to do. Perhaps if I persevered I could but it’s not my creative voice. So I admire that work and do what comes out of me. I hope you see that you don’t have to render every hair. Impressions work too 🙂 As I push through the ugly stage, I continue to look and then refine – colours, the drawing and shapes, the textures, the values. I use negative space a lot with shapes.
      Please do keep pushing and exploring – you will improve as you learn and paint!

  6. What a wonderful message, Gail! It’s funny because just a couple of days ago our mutual friend Elaine challenged me to do a portrait. Now, she excels in portraits, whereas I love landscapes. So I bit the bullet and did one of my mother-in-law. It was probably the most difficult thing I have ever done. I was timid and terrified, imagining a disaster. Ok, it’s not a masterpiece for sure, but I DO feel good about branching out. Once I got near the end I figured that was as good as I was going to get it…but after seeing your progression shots here, I am having second thoughts of going back to it and making improvements…or maybe even trying another one! Thank you for sharing your struggles and triumphs. It always helps to know that our teachers (while being superheroes) are human too 😊

    1. Love that a) Elaine challenged you, b) that you took up the challenge, and c) that the timing of my post is so perfect. I know exactly the way you felt as you worked on your portrait – timid and terrified! And feeling so good after for doing it! I hope you go back to your piece and perhaps work on it. I think sometimes we stop too soon (and yes, I also know we can easily overwork pieces). As you saw with mine, it got to a place where it was sort of finished but then I went away for a day (I forgot to mention that!) and came back with clearer eyes. I could see what needed to be refined.
      And yes, I’m definitely human!!

  7. Thank you again Gail for sharing your experiences! This one in particular I could completely relate to and it was interesting to see that our roles are reversed. I mainly do pet portraits and am currently challenging myself to do objects and materials such as glass and ice! Your pet portrait by the way is fabulous! Venturing outside the box and out of my norm certainly is fun indeed as you mentioned and applies to my experience which is that I do not have expectations for the final outcome, only hope that it turns out looking even just remotely like the subject matter;) I am curious to see what your next outside-the-box challenge is that you will delve into 😀

    1. You are welcome Berdine and thank you!
      Funny about our roles being reversed! Happy to hear you are challenging yourself by venturing beyond what you know best. And glad to hear you find it fun to do so 😀
      I’m curious too!

  8. Of all your work that I have seen this is the one that I love best! I love the colours and the atmosphere that the drawing has. I would love to have seen a video of the work.

    1. Wow thanks Kerry – you made my day!! I am sure surprised that it turned out so well. Perhaps that speaks to letting go and just painting.
      By the way, I did record a video so we shall see!!

      1. I would love to see it if you have time. 🙂 My first reaction on seeing the drawing was ‘Wow!’ and my second reaction was ‘I would love to be able to use pastels as effectively and creatively.’

  9. I like your dog portrait and background! As you know, I have also been trying unfamiliar subjects. Normally I shy away from cityscape and rocks or boats but I have enjoyed working on them and they turned out surprisingly well! Actually doing more wildlife such as horses is on my new subjects to do list too! It has been an exciting and rewarding experience.

    1. Thanks so much Susan! Yes, you certainly have been trying out different subjects and doing well at it. Can’t wait to see what you do with horses!

  10. Love how this pooch came out!! I can’t tell that you were out of your comfort zone. I agree with what Marsha said about how everything feels like it’s out of my comfort zone. I guess my most uncomfortable zone is portraits. I’m taking a class in May to help me get over that discomfort. Love your blog!!

    1. Thanks Ruth 😀
      If you’d been in my studio (or in my head!) you would have known I was out of my comfort zone – lots of mumbling about how awful it was looking, and why did I think about taking on a dog portrait, and on and on.
      Good for you going into your discomfort with portraits by taking a class. You go girl!! And tell us all about it.

    1. Thanks Heather – I sure do appreciate you taking the time to respond with your Academy schedule! Good to know it’s useful. And YES, comfort zones are great…for a time….but leap out to groooooooow!

      1. I think what I love best is your original reason – and journey – for this painting! Like you, I have been away from painting, and just needed to read your experience in “Facebook time wasting” (it could be anything, actually, that distracts) to see myself! Thanks, I needed that! So good not to feel as if I am the only artist out there who has to just get back to the easel…. whatever the reason for the absence. Thank you Gail – for all your inspiration!

        1. That’s great Kathy, to hear that my post struck a familiar chord with you and that it has inspired you to get back to the easel. Being there is where it all begins!

  11. Congratulations on drawing such a fine pawtrait out of you lack-of-comfort zone…no one would ever guess that that is where he came from, I promise! He’s wonderful. I also would be interested in seeing your video. I’ve been thinking about trying new approaches (just in my head so far) and seem to keep going back to doing things the same old way. Time for a change! The background is beautiful — lively and interesting. My studio needs to be put in order (still lots of tax info lying around) and I need to start back to working every day. Thank you for sharing so much of yourself and your art. It is most appreciated and truly inspirational.

    1. Awww Wendy, I sure appreciate your very kind words! It’s easy to think about doing things (don’t I know!) without taking any action. It’s taking that first step though that starts the momentum. I hope you can take some time to go to the edge a bit. No one else need know you’re going there. And just see what happens!

  12. I was recently asked to demo at Canada Blooms, a flower/gardening show. I was honored, but I told them that I don’t do florals. They didn’t seem to care, but I felt obligated to do couple. So I did a floral and a cardinal in a tree (sort of floral). I was quite happy with the outcome, but struggled with the subject, as I usually do animals and pet portraits. The experience gave me confidence to do more and, although the show was OK, I was glad for the challenge. Your hound, Gail, is quite good.

    1. That’s wonderful to hear Ingrid! I think we forget that as we paint and paint, we gather skills that will translate across subjects. And like a muscle often used, the sooner we go there and try different things, the more flexible we can be in our range.

  13. Wow. I love this piece for a different reason: because it has a link to “the ugly stage” which bedeviled me yesterday as I tried a landscape for a class project. I ripped up a couple of starts, then wiped one “clean” and started to see that it wasn’t so bad! This is also in the vein of “paint what is unfamiliar” since my class so far has been focusing on still lifes and portraits.

    Thank you so much, Gail!

    1. Gosh, I’m glad I put that link in Pam! It’s a subject that I think we need to be reminded about often. When you know there’s going to be an ugly stage, you can accept it(grudgingly!) when it comes and by doing so, move through it more easily and quickly.
      And good for you sing with the challenge of painting what is unfamiliar!!

  14. Dominique paillardet

    Thank you so much Gail! it’s so rare to find a really helpful demo : they’re either too fast, or lame, or lack comments. Like you, I’ve been spending a lot of time on facebook but not having your mastery I now feel a bit out of my league on the howtopastel site. Will go back to work!
    thanks again for letting us have a look from the inside.

    1. Thanks so much Dominique! I am so glad you found it helpful!!
      Don’t ever worry about what your work looks like when posting to the HTP FB group – we’re all at different stages and as you know, most people there are supportive and encouraging. So go paint and then post 😀

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Gail Sibley

Artist. Blogger. Teacher.

My love of pastel and the enjoyment I receive from teaching about pastel inspired the creation of this blog. It has tips, reviews, some opinions:), and all manner of information regarding their use through the years – old and new. Please enjoy!

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