My Labradoodle Pet Portrait

Sometimes one good experience leads to another. This was the case when my first time participating as vendor at Artspring Festival art market in Davis, West Virginia lead to a challenging but rewarding commission of a pet portrait of Blanche the golden Labradoodle. Also rewarding was that the art commission came from what had to be one of the world’s nicest customers. There were trials and tribulations along the way while creating the detailed Labradoodle pet portrait, brought on by dealing with neuromuscular disease (which I detail in my blog Living with Myasthenia Gravis from a Patient’s Perspective). In the end the job was successfully completed and everyone was happy. Blanche, the model pup, looks happy about it too. Watch the video below and read on for my drawing techniques, physical trials during composition, how I became ambidextrous again.

Watch Blanche the Labradoodle’s pet portrait develop before your eyes. See the happy starlet at the end.

Discovered at Artspring 2019 Festival

I was overjoyed to be selected to participate in the art market at the Artspring 2019 Festival in Davis / Thomas, West Virginia. It was my first big art splash in the art filled area that my heart calls home in Tucker County. I participated in the art market at the Fire Hall in Davis with a table staked out at the entrance. I was excited to offer my handmade jewelry, original paintings, illustrations, and digital abstract art along with donating a handmade necklace whose bid money went to support Artspring and its efforts in the area. Many of my illustrations on display at my booth were crowd pleasing pet portrait illustrations of dogs and cats. My sales that weekend were restricted to jewelry, but, as I said, sometimes one good thing leads to another.

The next morning I was greeted by an e-mail from a festival goer who had seen my art at Artspring. He had been excited by my ever popular Black Lab dog pet portrait called “Ajax Watches the World Go By.” In his desire to be stealthy about a gift, he did not approach me directly regarding commissioning pet portrait work.

Popular from Melasdesign on Society6 - Ajax Watches the World Go By - Canvas Print - dog drawing - pet portrait
Ajax Watches the World Go By – Pet portrait Black Labrador Retriever illustration art print available on Society6.

He asked if I could draw a similar pet portrait to Ajax’s, drawing his beautiful golden Labradoodle Blanche (named for the Golden Girls character – Appropriate, no?) instead. He provided an excellent photograph of the pup in all her golden curly glory, sitting by a window watching the world go by just like dear Ajax, the Black Lab. This was a great way to start. My pet portrait illustrations are only ever as good as the original photograph presented to me. That’s all I have to go by in creating the beloved pet’s likeness. I draw what I see.

Blanche the Labradoodle; pet portrait model; golden Labradoodle;
A great quality photo makes for the best drawing experience for an artist creating a pet portrait.

Complications with the Labradoodle Portrait

I took the job on happily, but made it clear that it would very possibly take a while. I have a neuromuscular diseases called Myasthenia Gravis. It causes weakness and double vision. The other thing going on is the polar opposite with painful muscle spasms and spasticity. We settled on a date 5 months later at the latest, in time for the portrait to be a birthday gift. This timing turned out to be totally necessary through a hot summer of MG weakness and the stressful events of trying to determine the cause of the spasms. Spinal taps are no fun (among other tests, trials, and tribulations of life). Thankfully in the end it was not the suggested Stiff Person Syndrome at the root of the cause.

How I Became Ambidextrous (Again)

My method of drawing pet portraits is by using a grid to help aide me with scale and proportion. I used to keep quiet about that, but I’ve since seen many fine artists using the technique. If I tried the “judge by your thumb” technique, I’d often see two thumbs, so that’s a no go. My worst double vision from Myasthenia Gravis is in my peripheral to low vision, so at some point with all the curls and grid lines, I had trouble keeping golden Labradoodle Blanche’s paw area correct initially in the illustration. Watch the WIP montage, and you might notice the shift.

Another grid that gave me problems. My brain was telling me I was on 45, but my muscles said otherwise. Imagine this when drawing.

This golden Labradoodle pet portrait was the way I become ambidextrous again. I have been told I initially used both hands for drawing and creating before I settled on my left hand. This Summer I was losing control of my left hand, either through the pain of gripping a stylus the wide stylus that came stock with the Wacom Bamboo tablet (they’ve since created a narrower one), or through spastic jerks. I took to using my right hand to draw with my mouse to try to give my left a rest. There were a few days where I exclusively worked with my right. Through all of this I think of Chuck Close improvising his working method after paralysis and stay on the job.

Composition

With this golden Labradoodle portrait I fleshed in quite a bit of the room details at the same time I was getting Blanche’s outline down. I was concerned about scale and as well as coloration. I know that I have had a hard time conquering orange cats in pet portraits. Blanche had just enough orange undertones that I wanted to have other colors around her drawn already to keep my tones within range of each other.

Work in Progress; golden labradoodle; drawing
WIP 1 – It’s a start.

I love the fact that Blanche’s coat has both curls and silky, wavy fur. She was my first ever curly critter. My last pet portrait had been a Yorkie, so I had already practiced my chops with silky faces there. The room Blanche was sitting in was much easier to draw than the pupper herself. I did have to re-invent the scene through the right window. In the original photograph, a grill cover was the main object visible through the righthand window. I’m Blanche loves those steaks, but I asked if the customer had any shots of the view that were more aesthetically pleasing. He obliged and I did some Photoshop magic to meld the old and new pics for my drawing model.

After realizing my drawing technique mistake with the gridline and paw placement (mentioned above), I chose to switch to my iMac, using Photoshop and a Wacom Bamboo drawing tablet. Having the model picture nearer to me was helpful. In photoshop I could have the model photograph of Blanche and my drawing open simultaneously, side by side. This made my eyes move much less, which helped greatly me fight my muscles’ myasthenic tendencies.

Labradoodle; pet portrait; work in progress; dog drawing; technique
WIP 3 of my Labradoodle drawing. See video at start for all stages.

Did I happen to mention the great customer?

Susan Hicks

I have nothing but gratitude for my customer’s patience, because I had predicted 3 WIPS and then a final proof. I gave the first two WIPs in much quicker procession than I might ought to have in early Summer. The drawing then took much longer than I had anticipated. I’ve had jobs where I go over by a day, but this time the additional work was considerably more. My customer never complained a bit, and I enjoyed the challenge of all those golden Labradoodle curls when I could work. Summer is the worst time of year for any MG patient, and I was out of commission for most of it, literally. <wink>

I had just started hitting the pet portrait illustration end phase in early Fall when I got a polite email making sure I was still aiming for the given latest due day. Refreshing. It would indeed be a good birthday for Blanche the Labradoodle’s dad.

In the end I decided to make Blanche’s golden Labradoodle curls more stylized than I had initially planned. Honestly, I could still be working today to get absolute photorealism of her gorgeous coat. My husband pointed out that the photo already looked like a photo, and I might allow myself to loosen up a bit with my illustrated interpretation in this case. After experimenting with brushes, feathering, and layers, I hit upon a style I liked.

Detail; golden Labradoodle portrait; dog drawing; Susan Hicks art; dog portrait; pet portrait
Illustration detail. I finished the face last.
The Final Portrait

The hardest part of the illustration ended up being the face, and I always save that for the end on any pet portrait. Interestingly enough, her eye placement was quite tricky. I used the Photoshop smudge tool a lot for Blanche’s pet portrait. The black of the eye would shift slightly when I smudged the fur detail close to that area, and there was so much detail to define around the eyes. This combined with the celtic knot nature of layers of silky, wavy curls was indeed an artistic challenge. The smudging helped me retain depth and texture to the fur on Blanche’s face, extending the shadows along with the golden streaks, a bit as if they were being finger painted. That tool is also a great way to inadvertently make your furry subject gain weight. I kept a pretty good handle on that with Blanche. No doggie diet needed here.

So I made deadline and helped the customer find a good place to get a print made. We went with CanvasPop, by the way. I had good luck with them in the past. The happy commission ended on the happy note of the gift being very well received. See the full portrait in the video at the top of this post. The nicest surprise of all was this wonderful photo:

Labradoodle; pet portrait; dog drawing; artist Susan Hicks; Blanche the Labradoodle; fan picture
Best Fan Photo Ever 🙂

Ain’t she a doll baby? What do you think? Please write your comments and questions in the comment section below. I’d love your input.

Be sure to see more of my work in my pet portrait collections in the Melasdesign shops on Society6 and RedBubble. Each site offers slightly different merchandise with my dog and cat portraits printed to order. Until this health nonsense gets straightened out, I won’t be offering any work by commission. I do hope to still participate in the next Artspring Festival. Stay tuned. Fingers crossed for the future.

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Susan Hicks | Alexandria, Virginia | Thomas, West Virginia

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