Animal portraits. Every now and again I get a request for information on how to paint animal portraits. In these cases, it’s best to go to the experts…like Heather Laws.
A few years ago, I was taken by one of her cat portraits and featured it in one of my monthly round-ups. You can see it here.
When I look at pastel paintings by Heather Laws, I’m introduced to the character and attitude of her subject. On top of that, I can also feel the velvety smoothness of an elegant horse’s neck, or the silky fur of a purring cat, or the coarse hair of an attentive dog. I’m not sure how she does it but this painter knows her stuff!
Join me as Heather takes us on her journey as a commissioned animal portraitist. She shares her work and her tips to create better studies of our human companions.
If you don’t know Heather’s work, here’s a teaser of what’s to come!
Heather Laws Bio
Heather Laws launched her career as an animal painter on a Tottenham horse farm. Her animal companions, Maggie, a 3-year-old Clydesdale/Thoroughbred mare, and Jesse, a year-old Labrador/Great Dane cross, became her ‘muses’. Heather devoted time developing work for display at local horse shows and art festivals: This exposure brought increasing recognition.
Heather’s father and mentor, the late Norman Laws, a successful commercial artist in his own right, nurtured her artistic talents and provided her with unfailing support and constructive artistic guidance. For that unique collaboration, she is forever grateful.
Heather is an elected member of the Ontario Society of Artists (OSA); an associate member of the Colorado-based Society of Animal Artists (SAA), and has achieved Master Pastelist status with Pastel Artists Canada (PAC, MPAC). You can see and learn more on her website.
And now, let’s see what Heather Laws has to share about her work as a commissioned animal painter!
Thank you Gail for asking me to share some of my experiences as a commissioned animal painter; it is an honour.
It has taken me some time to comb through the 30 years I have been at this profession, and to recall moments of interest, along with some “common” challenges, that occur when engaging with clients. It is my hope that the experiences which I have briefly sketched will be of help and interest to those who might wish to embark on a similar career.
It all began when I received a call from a woman who owned a local food emporium, requesting to view my portfolio. She had taken on some animal portrait commissions which she was unable to complete in time for Christmas. She had heard l could draw well and needed a competent artist to complete the unfinished works. The portraits were to be done in soft pastels. This was a medium with which I had little familiarity having used it only once or twice during life drawing classes to fill broad areas with color. Nevertheless, the eventual final result met with approval.
At the outset let me state that from my earliest beginnings, my love for and, indeed, ”obsession” with animals, especially dogs and horses, governed my worldview of what was important to me. It remains deeply ingrained in my blood to this day. The idea of combining my two passions of painting and love of animals greatly intrigued me, and I became excited about the prospect of earning a living conjoining them.
When I started, I only possessed a handful of pastels, mostly the workhorses like NuPastel, Rembrandt, and some Conte pencils. The colour selection was rather grim, so I borrowed some from my father’s studio. He very rarely used pastels so he was more than happy to give me his collection which included some vintage Grumbacher half sticks and Winsor Newtons. These additional sticks did wonders to plump up my meagre pile. With that in place, I was ready to begin!
For the substrate, I used light-coloured matboard and continued using this surface for several years. It served its purpose but it had its limitations. For instance, I had difficulty achieving those brightest lights in the final stages of a painting to make things “pop”, especially the specular highlights in the eyes, the crisp line of white whiskers, and the lightest lights in the hair. For those, I employed acrylic paint.
One day my father asked if I wanted to add anything to an order he was submitting to Daniel Smith Artist Materials in Seattle, Washington. Their catalogue had all manner of surfaces for pastel, including Ampersand pastelboards, a German-made paper called Ersta, and Sennelier LaCarte. Even though I had never felt the texture of these papers, their description was enough. I ordered several of each brand.
What a treat it was when they arrived! I immediately fell in love with the LaCarte paper. The natural earthy tones of the vegetable fibre coating became a perfect backdrop to my portraits. The tooth this paper provided allowed me to fully develop the language of the hair on those particularly shaggy dogs. Even after several layers, I could still add in the final details with either a fresh broken fragment of a chunk of pastel or even a pastel pencil. I have used other surfaces but the LaCarte is the one surface that I use most often.
A subsequent move back to Toronto accelerated my career exposure. My portrait business grew once I decided I needed to start a direct mail campaign. I couldn’t afford Canada Post to deliver my flyers so I decided I would deliver them myself. I focused on affluent areas and most days, my dog Jess would accompany me on these expeditions. He was the perfect companion to have along. I had spent many months training him after I adopted him from the Toronto Humane Society so he would patiently wait on the sidewalk while I canvassed each home. He always came with me wherever I went.
I had several thousand flyers printed. Most were hand-delivered into mailboxes. I had no computer or website at that time (circa 1996) but I did include a hotmail address on the flyer, and I used the local library terminals for the purpose of answering emails. The rest of the flyers were used as handouts when exhibiting my work at art festivals and horse shows. Enquires were sporadic at first but by late Summer/early Fall of that year, calls came flooding in. Long hours were spent in the studio working to meet commission deadlines and this meant I no longer had the time nor the need to deliver flyers.
Eventually I did purchase a computer and shortly after that my first website was born. Naturally, it made communication with customers easier. (I admit though that I am still a bit of a dinosaur when it comes to computer technology.) To this day, I do not possess any photo editing software to aid in the creation of a painting. I do wish I had the aptitude for it though; it would save me a great deal of time.
Gathering Photographic Reference
Photographing animals can present an interesting challenge. Lighting conditions, time constraints, weather, and the general mood of the animal are all factors that one must take into consideration. In some cases, you may be required to come back a second or third time. Some examples are: a shy kitty who refuses to reveal him or herself; your camera fails; a storm moves in while photographing horses; or the animal you are working with just isn’t in the mood for the paparazzi.
Patience and perseverance is the key in your pursuit of good reference photos. They are really half the battle when it comes to commissioned work. It’s always a pleasure meeting my “subjects,” getting a glimpse of their personality, feeling the energy they exude, and seeing how they interact with their people. Meeting them in the flesh makes a world of difference when creating a portrait.
Whether the photos are provided by the customer or taken myself, often times there is not that one photo that gives you everything. This is especially true when working from a handful of photos provided by the customer. I always tell the customer to provide as many photos as they possibly can, even ones they may feel are unsuitable. I ask this because each photo may offer up elements that will help round out my overall vision for the portrait and how I ultimately want to portray them. To further my knowledge of my subjects I always ask the customer to provide some stories about the animal to give further insight into their character.
In some cases you may find that the photos just don’t give you enough information. I have become a lot more discriminating over the years, but for many years I would work from whatever reference was provided. To be honest, working from substandard photos really tests your salt and can take months off your lifespan, but when you’re successful in pulling it off, it can really elevate your confidence.
It’s really a difficult choice to make; it’s not easy telling a potential client you are unable to accept the commission. Also, if I feel that if what I have created does not meet my standards, even after several attempts, I will not package it up and deliver it to the client. I have always held firmly to this, even when pressure is applied by the client. As artists we all have to protect ourselves and our reputations.
The Process: How I Think Through the Creation of a Portrait From Photo Selection to Final Piece
Gretchen, Keri, & Jake
The clients for this portrait lived in Toronto where I was living at the time so I went to them to photograph Keri and Jake. However, one of their dogs, Gretchen, had passed away. The photos provided were not great but fortunately, there was enough information for me to include her in the portrait.
Some clients like to leave everything to my creative call, but in this case, they wanted to be involved in every aspect of the preliminary stages of the portrait. Once the initial photo session was complete and the photos of Keri and Jake developed, the clients came to my home and the lengthy process of picking their favourite photos began.
Because their photos of Gretchen were substandard, I offered to produce three different sketches of her from which they could to pick their favourite. The pose they chose surprised me because I really had to embellish it. The head pose I used was taken with a flash (see reference photo #1) that had bleached out all the tonal variations and a pillow blocked her neck and shoulders.
To compensate for this I superimposed the body from the second sketch onto this head. I then added more dimension to her face and softened the highlight in her eyes. Changes also needed to be made to the photos that I had taken.
Keri hadn’t been groomed in quite some time, so you couldn’t see her eyes. I had the customer pull back the hair to reveal her eyes so I could take photos of them. As the clients also wanted Jake to look a little younger, I had to add more golden tones to his fur to give him a more youthful glow.
As a rule, once I move beyond the preliminary stage of a painting and begin with the pastels, I ask the client to wait until it’s complete. It’s far too disruptive for me to keep sending images of the various stages. By now, the customer should have enough confidence to trust in my abilities.
To compose a painting such as this involving three dogs in the same painting, I start by tracing each sketch on a separate piece of transparent paper and place them all on a white background. I continue to shuffle until I arrive at a pleasing arrangement. Once I’m happy, I place another sheet of transparent paper over top and trace the threesome together on one piece. I then flip the paper over and retrace the lines with a pastel pencil or vine charcoal and transfer the drawing onto the pastel paper. I often make small revisions to the drawing with vine charcoal before I begin the layers of pastel.
For the background, I chose to do something less- complicated than what’s seen in the photograph. A colour field with hues that complimented the colours seen in their coats worked best in this case.
In this example, the photos were provided by the customer. They were quite good and taken at my most favorite time of the day – the late afternoon when the sun casts its warm golden glow. So, already half the battle was won.
My only issue was what to do with the background. I wasn’t enamoured with what was visible in the photo chosen for me by the customer. I wanted to incorporate a bit of sky to play up the warm and cool tones in the painting. I did find the elements I needed for the background from another reference photo provided.
In order to pull it off and make it look convincing, before starting I needed to create a tonal drawing of the incorporated elements. This drawing becomes my map during the painting process. It is concrete and eliminates the guess work.
I often don’t forward these drawings to the client because things don’t always work out and changes may be needed. I’m not one that feels comfortable having the customer perched on my shoulder every step of the way.
In this example I had taken the photos myself but the background really didn’t offer anything to the concept of the painting. I felt I needed to incorporate some water because all labs are water dogs. His pose and expression also suggested anticipation, like someone was about the throw a stick into the water.
To gain some inspiration in creating a background I flipped through magazines and books to see if anything would spark the creative flow. I finally found a painting of a marshy scene in one of my favourite Albert Handel books called Painting the Landscape in Pastel (page 98). This painting was all I needed to give me the confidence to begin.
At this point I already had the drawing of Dallas transferred onto the painting surface. Instead of a tonal drawing I played around with the placement of the sky, the marshy area, and the water with some transparent paper placed over my drawing of Dallas. I then traced it onto the tissue and begin experimenting until I arrived at something pleasing to my eye.
Using this tissue prevents me from having to “muck-up” the painting surface with a lot of search lines. I can explore a lot more scenarios this way. If one doesn’t work out, I can throw out that piece and begin again with a fresh one. Again I try and have everything in place to prevent too much guesswork during the painting process.
Sometimes, even despite all the preparatory work, paintings will fail. I’ve had some epic struggles in the past where I’ve had to start fresh several times. Some of these I will keep. Occasionally I’ll dredge them out of the closet to look them over to see where I went wrong and perhaps learn something from them.
In this example I drove a distance to the farm to take my own photos. It started out lightly overcast, then things took a turn. By the time I got there, it was considerably darker and quite cold. Although the lighting conditions were far from ideal, the mare was beautifully turned out so I gave it a go. I had to be quick because Bunny had a full body clip and I didn’t want her to freeze.
We pulled back her blanket just enough to reveal her shoulder. Although the lighting that day was bleak, I had great poses to work from and with a little imagination I was able to create a believable environment for Bunny’s portrait.
I would normally have chosen a colour field as background, but I decided to try something different and create something from my imagination. I was very happy with the result.
During the last 30 years I have completed a few hundred portrait commissions. There were many good years working as a full time self-employed artist, but at times, other external factors would interrupt my career and take me in other directions. Despite the current economic downturns and a devastating cancer diagnosis, I still keep my hand in it and never give up.
In recent years I even overcame a two-year monumental artist block where I felt that nearly everything I created was garbage. During this time, I perhaps produced one or two good paintings a year. I persevered through times where I really just wanted to pack it all in.
Thankfully I overcame whatever demon had eaten away all my confidence. Now I feel my energy and passion has been restored once again and I’m ready to take on new challenges, including developing a body of work just for myself.
Thank you Gail and everyone for taking the time to read this. Take good care.
WOW! Thank you Heather for sharing your process of creating commissioned work along with your own journey to becoming an animal portrait artist. We’re thankful you continue to be one in spite of your struggles in the most recent years. The world needs your beautiful work!
Now, we’d love to hear from YOU!! Do you have any questions or comments for Heather? If so, please leave them as a comment below.
As always, thanks for being here 😀
Until next time,