I remember the day we got our first family dog. I was 6 and my younger brother was 4. We drove up to my grandparents’ house in Virginia, and as we piled out of the station wagon, a Golden Retriever bounded up to greet us. This was not my grandparents’ dog. They lived in the country, and this retriever liked to break away from his owners and come hang out at my grandpa’s place. Grandpa is a dog person in that all dogs love and respect him…and many strays have found their way to him over the years. The dog’s name was Beauregard (a proper southern name, but way too fancy for the countryside). Everyone called him “Bo-jack” or “Bo.” Golden Retrievers are one of the most family friendly breeds, and Bo lived up to that. We fell in love with him at once (including Jonathan, who had always cried or been scared around dogs in the past). When asked where he came from, Grandpa told us that Bo belonged to a farm nearby. The farmer had several dogs, most of them very aggressive. Being gentle, Bo didn’t like the other dogs. So, he’d break free every chance he got, and would come to visit Grandpa’s house.
Needless to say, we begged our dad to let us keep him. Bo obviously didn’t like his home. Maybe the farmer would sell him! Better than that, the owner actually GAVE the dog to us, saying he was too much trouble to keep since he ran away all the time. With Bo now part of the family, we took a long walk while discussing a new name for him. My older brother, Jeremy, said, “He looks like a lion with that orange mane of fur around his collar. What if we name him ‘Aslan’ like the lion in the Chronicles of Narnia?” So, Aslan he became!
Aslan was my puppy love as a child. Childhood memories are full of him: building a fence on a muddy/rainy day to give him a safe area in our backyard; plucking slugs off of his dogfood bowl before feeding him each evening; being dragged down the street when he’d practically pull us off our feet on a walk; tennis balls chomped in half that would get caught on low tree branches when we tried to toss them for him; Aslan digging holes in the yard to lay in the cool dirt on a summer afternoon; and (best of all) the retriever tendency to lay his head on your foot so that he knew you were close by. I wouldn’t trade those memories (even possibly the gross slug memories) for anything.
Today’s illustration is from a candid moment of my niece with my Golden Doodle, Jack. Jack leaned in to sniff her, and her hands went instinctively up under her chin, with an expression of pure glee on her face. I can’t believe we caught that on camera! The photo has been hanging next to my desk at work for several months. When I saw that the SCBWI drawing prompt for February was love, I thought, “What a perfect chance to paint that portrait!” I also happened to need a portrait to demo for my Painting 2 class. So, timing worked out well. My niece has known Jack her entire life. His name was one of her first words. And, when she and I took Jack for a walk yesterday, she enjoyed repeating his name at an obnoxious volume all the way down my street (she’s 2, so she can pull off “loud and repetitive” without driving the neighbors crazy). She tried to “help” me walk him by holding part of his leash. Like Aslan, Jack likes to pull hard on a walk. I made sure that her attempts to “help” didn’t get her pulled off her feet.
Watercolor Portrait Tips: when demonstrating to my painting class, I reiterated several tips that any of my “old” students reading this will recognize. 1. White paint is a “no-no” in my classroom. Watercolor paper is white. Simply leave the white paper where you want highlights or bright whites. Do not mix white with red to make pink. Instead, water down the red to let more of the white paper show through…thus, pink. 2. Most white areas aren’t a pure white. Example: the shorts and the chair. For the shorts and chair, I mixed a cream or a pale grey, building up subtle shadows. 3. Shadows in skin should be blue-violet or red-violet. Using too much brown in skin shadows makes the skin tone look cold or lifeless. Think of the red blood flowing through our veins…there should be a pink tone, even in the shadows. My student had a good question: “What if the person you’re painting is brown or black skin tone?” Well, still use a peachy pink or pale yellow for the lightest highlights. Then mix red-violet and blue-violet with your browns in the midtones and shadows. 4. Textures like dog fur should be done by layering different tones, creating a haphazard pattern of fur and shadow shapes. You still need to pay attention to the bone structure and the way the light hits the body (even if he looks like a ball of fur). Several layers of small strokes, following the direction and flow of the fur, will give the desired effect. 5. It’s always about contrast. Darken tones behind lighter objects to help the lighter object stand out. 6. The pen & ink (if used) should highlight lines and details you want to accentuate or tighten. But I’d stay away from a full outline in ink. Particularly, facial features and highlighted fur should have very little ink added. Too much ink, or too solid an outline, can make soft features look harsh. The way my masters’ profs put it: “Either the ink or the watercolor should take center-stage. Fun ink outline with very basic color washes. Or, detailed watercolor with very little ink.” 7. Last but not least: do not be a slave to your reference! In this illustration, I eliminated several distracting objects from the background. I also changed the colors in her shirt and hat to better match the room where this will hang. Use artistic license to decide what to keep and what to tweak, change, or eliminate from your reference image.
“Arrival” is a word steeped in anticipation. It’s the long sigh when you hadn’t even realized you were holding your breath. It’s a first breath, followed by the unmistakable newborn cry, proclaiming: “I’m here, and it’s been a traumatic few hours! So, wrap me snuggly and hold me close.” It is awed joy as you stare at the tiny creation in your arms. It’s nearly imperceptible toenails and invisible eyelashes, a trusting fist gripping your finger. It’s the fluff of silky hair. It’s the expanding walls of your heart as you suddenly love in a new and deeper way.
And this arrival is actually the beginning of a journey.
I saw this month’s prompt for SCBWI – “Arrival” – and thought, “my new niece just might make it in time for me to base a painting on her!” My sister-in-law’s due date was the 27th, my illustration deadline was the 20th, and baby girl arrived on the 13th. Perfect timing! Needless to say, this is the youngest model I’ve ever photographed and painted. She was both cooperative and photogenic, which made my job easy!
The calligraphy verse is a line from a Michael Card lullaby. Twenty-something years ago, I rocked my baby brother to sleep while singing that song. Perhaps that’s why it came to mind when I started this painting. The full chorus says, “I would wander weary miles, would welcome ridicule my child, to simply see the sunrise of your smile. To see the light behind your eyes, the happy thought that makes you fly. Yes, I would wander weary miles, if I could see the sunrise of your smile.” (Poiema, Sparrow Records, 1994) That moment when a smile first quirks the corners of a child’s mouth – that is the sunrise. And as their face lights up with humor or happiness, the glow warms those of us who love them. It is partly why I love teaching and working with kids. And it’s definitely something I love about being an aunt! So, as my brother and sister-in-law start on this new journey of baby #2, I enjoy watching and being a part of it all.
This portrait will be on the SCBWI Draw This page in early April. The prompt for this month was “Lucky.” As I brainstormed ideas, I looked up synonyms for lucky, which brought me to “Blessed.” The funny thing is, my friend and I had just been having a conversation recently about the phrase “Good Luck,” and the meaning behind it. Luck can be such an abstract concept with superstitious connotations. We all say, “Good Luck!” without thinking anything of it. It’s a cultural nicety basically used to mean, “I wish you well.” My friend comes from a Jewish background, so I half-jokingly offered “Mazel Tov” as an alternative. We laughed and our conversation moved on. But, in a way, I really like the message of “Mazel Tov,” which (according to Fiddler on the Roof) means: “a blessing on your head.” Now, I think even that phrase is basically taken as good luck or congratulations. But I like the imagery of a blessing being place on your head! There is something a little more meaningful about blessing someone. Placing that blessing on their head is like crowning them with encouragement. I know I can always use encouragement! I also know I don’t always give it out to others as I should. We can be a blessing or a curse to those around us…and much of that has to do with our words.
All syntactical debate aside, when I think of how I’m blessed, my littlest niece quickly comes to mind. She (along with her parents) has been living with me for several months while my brother sells their townhouse and looks for a bigger place. Entering into this living arrangement, I looked forward to her toddler age and stage. My time with her has been even more of a blessing than I’d imagined! Nighttime routines, snuggles, kisses, playing make-believe with her baby doll, eating pretend food, building cardboard houses, coloring (mostly, she tries to eat the marker), dancing to nursery songs, all the new words she says weekly (including her name for me…which started as Memew and is transitioning now to Mahyee). Last, but not least, I LOVE reading books with her! The portrait above is from a moment caught on camera by my mom. It belies my niece’s inability to sit still. Yet, it perfectly captures the trust, the gentleness, the wonder of time spent reading with a child. As a writer and illustrator, story time has always been my favorite time. As an aunt, story time will always be a blessing.
“In all things of nature there is something of the marvelous.” Such a simple statement. Yet, in a few words, Aristotle sums up an expansive truth. What is it about the perfect sunset that will cause us to pull off on the side of the road, stop our car and stand in awe? Even lightning storms, their jagged electricity radiating the night, will keep our faces pressed against windows…watching heaven’s firework show. There is something about nature that leaves us breathless, enchanted by its beauty, its power, its intricacy. And this is no new phenomenon. King David, in Psalm 19 wrote: “The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands. Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they display knowledge. There is no speech or language where their voice is not heard.” (v. 1-3) That voice is more than the rumble of thunder in a storm, more than the rustle of leaves on a breezy day; it’s also in the silent moments of sunrise, calling out in crimson and coral, beams of light breaking through clouds. According to David, that voice declares God’s glory. It points to the author, artist, scientist who first put this globe into orbit. 3,100 years before Discovery Channel would enable us to observe wild animals in their natural habitats, God unfolded for Job a rich, panoramic tapestry of nature. From shutting the sea behind doors, to journeying to the springs of the sea. From binding the Pleiades and loosing the cords of Orion, to counting clouds and tipping the water jars of the heavens. From knowing when the mountain goat gives birth, to commanding eagles to soar. 125 verses, spread through 4 chapters (38-41) in the book of Job consist of a documentary account of the marvels of nature.
The painting above stems from an illustration prompt given by SCBWI (The Society of Children’s Book Writers & Illustrators). Each month, members have the opportunity to submit a piece that will be posted to SCBWI’s online illustration gallery. The piece you see here will go live in that gallery on October 1st. The prompt was “Enchanted,” and my initial ideas headed toward the fairy tale realm. As a big fan of Trina Schart Hyman, I would love to illustrate fairy tales. Perhaps some day I will. Before I’d settled on any solid idea, I came across a photo that my cousin had posted to Facebook. It’s a shot of her granddaughter who appears to have stopped mid-spin, her attention captured by something off-screen. My first thought was, “I love the rim lighting, and I want to paint that expression on her face!” My next thought was of the Aristotle quote, which is on my favorite stationery at home. That took me to the question: “What is she looking at? What causes children to stop, stare, and study? For me, as a child, it would have been a cicada, caterpillar, or butterfly. And, so the illustration came to be.
I sketched out the quote in calligraphy format. Having pieced together photo references in Photoshop, I transferred my reference to watercolor paper. Then I could project my calligraphy onto the paper, playing with placement and size. The child’s face and hair, being the focal point, were the first things I painted. Moving to the background, I blocked in dark green foliage behind her, then faded down to a basic wash of grass. From there I jumped over to the caterpillar and his flowers. Her dress pattern was daunting, and I honestly planned to replace it with a simple pale blue. However, I needed the rich blue to complement her reddish-orange hair. As I worked, the pattern came together, warping as it hit each fold in her skirt. One key to this illustration was to keep everything (except her face and the caterpillar) in soft-focus. This meant a loose, soft background behind the caterpillar, fading out completely where the calligraphy would begin. Calligraphy came last. Marvelous was an easy choice…the color needed to pop as it tied in with the lighting around her hair. To balance that coral tone, blue became the thin letters of there is something. Earth tones made sense for of nature, though I pulled a few strokes of coral into that as well to tie in with the other lettering. Finally, I chose yellow for In all things, knowing it would be enough contrast to the white sky behind it without drawing attention away from my focal point word.
Need I say it?…I love watercolor! Yes, the piece was inspired by an SCBWI prompt. But I painted it for me; for fun; as a personal illustration challenge. I know I’ve mentioned it before on this blog…there is something about the story-lined wrinkles in the old, and the innocent expressiveness of the young, that pulls me right in. I enjoyed every moment of this painting.
As a side note for those who haven’t heard already: my blog was chosen to be featured for the month of September on SCBWI’s homepage! If you look on the left-hand side, in their BlogRoll section, you’ll see a link to this blog there. Mine is the 6th one down – they feature a few blogs each month, from members across the nation.