Buster is a little Quarter Horse that I photographed at a show at the local fairgrounds. He had a string of ribbons across the front of his stall, and a very long, complicated name tag that ended in “AKA Buster.” When I snapped the photo, Buster was standing in his stall, a little tired and prepping for a nap.
While all of Buster was captured in the original photo, I decided to crop down to get an almost life-sized painting of his sweet face. In the reference photo, you can see his lovely chestnut coloring. I wanted to boost the contrast a bit, and bring in shades of blue and purple that would play off all of the red tones.
The very first step for me in any portrait is to paint the eye(s). I feel that if the eyes aren’t right, the finished painting just won’t work, so it’s a good place to start! From there, I’ll paint out towards the ears and muzzle. Since this is such a tight crop, the typical ears/eyes/muzzle center of interest isn’t visible, so the eye really had to carry the painting.
Do you notice that I’ve bent one of the rules of composition? The center of interest shouldn’t be in the literal center of the painting, yet his eye is very close to center from top-to-bottom. If you were to divide the painting into thirds vertically though, it is to the right of center. The white blaze and dark background are strong elements on the left side of the painting, which helps balance the detailed eye. So, rules can be pushed a little, if done with intention.
This painting is on a half sheet of paper (15 x 22″), so it was painted in large sections. A lot of it was painted wet-into-wet, meaning the paper was wet with clear water, then color dropped or brushed in. The speckled area at the top left was done with a spritz of water as that section was nearly dry. Once the entire sheet had been filled with initial washes, the real fun of layering and creating texture began.
This is what I call “trainwreck” stage. All of the elements are there, but the different areas don’t blend together, and the value map is all over the place. Some areas need to be lighter, some darker, and the warm chestnut color needed to be more prominent to balance the coolness of the dark tones.
The final step was to compare it to the reference and make sure the underlying structure of the face was correct. You can take a lot of liberty with color, value, texture, etc. in a painting, but if you’re going for a representational portrait, it has to look like the subject!