Monday 30 April 2012

Where's Duke?

This morning I opened my e-mail to find a message from my advertising representative at Canadian Horse Journals, urging me to look at an attachment. I figured it was going to be a copy of the latest ad that I'd booked with them — nothing too earth-shattering but worth viewing over my cup of coffee before getting down to work for the day.

The attachment turned out to be the cover of the latest edition of the annual Equine Consumers' Guide (pictured below). As you can see, it features a collage of photos depicting various content from this year's edition. Nothing too remarkable... then I looked a little closer. Just like in the popular "Where's Waldo?" game, I spotted a familiar face. Can you see it? Look at the bottom third of the page, just slightly right of centre.

People who know me and know my artwork are aware of the fact that horses have always been an important part of my life. While I'm currently horse-less, for many years I was the proud owner of a wonderful palomino Saddlebred/Quarterhorse gelding named Duke. His portrait graces the new home page of my website, and it's his face that greeted me this morning, peeking out from the magazine cover. What a lovely way to start the day - like receiving a surprise visit from an old friend!

When people enquire about commissioning an animal portrait, I often tell them about my own experience. I made Duke's portrait when he was in his prime and it has always graced my walls (except for a period after he passed away and I had to put the portrait out of sight for a few months - I was just too sad to look at it). Now each time I see it, it makes me smile and remember my sweet boy. I know first-hand that a portrait can be a pretty special legacy that only gets better with age. It's that proverbial gift that keeps on giving.

Isn't art a wonderful thing? Not that I'm at all biased, of course.

Note: The Equine Consumers' Guide is published annually by Canadian Horse Journals (

Thursday 26 April 2012

Evolution of a Portrait

For the past several weeks I've been working on a coloured pencil portrait of an absolutely stunning dog - a big male Rottweiler. I was fortunate to have the opportunity to meet this dog prior to starting work, giving me a chance to experience his energy and dynamic personality first-hand. He's a smart, strong, athletic dog who I found to be quite charming and who is totally devoted to his person.

Lucky for me his person is also a very competent photographer so in addition to the photos I took when they visited, I was also supplied with a selection of great shots that gave me insight into the dog's younger years. For the portrait pose we selected a photo that was taken recently but it was the owner's wish that the dog, who is now getting on in years and looking a bit grey around the muzzle, be given a more youthful look. For that, I referred to the earier photographs.

I often intend to photograph a portrait in progress but it usually goes out of my head completely once I get engrossed in the project. However I'm pleased that I documented several stages of the process of creating this particular portrait. (I apologize that that  the quality of some of the photos is not great; the lighting I use at my drawing table is ideal for drawing but not for photography.)

Step 1 - Soft drawing in medium French Grey.

Step 2 - Mapping out the values and beginning to add colour
(I like to understand the anatomy of my subjects, hence the image of the skull)

Step 3 - The portrait begins to come to life

Step 4 - Further refinement

Step 5 - Almost there!

With helpful input from the dog's owner I'm now in the final stages of making some subtle adjustments, but here is the more-or-less finished portrait:

Step 6 - 99% complete!

Creating any portrait is, for me, like embarking on a long trip with a new acquaintance. There's a saying that "A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step" and in this context that single step is my first pencil stroke. As the journey progresses and I fill in the details, we get better and better acquainted, and by the time we reach our destination we've become firm friends. That's how I feel about this big guy!

I hope you've enjoyed sharing this particular journey with me.

Monday 16 April 2012

All zoos are not created equal

I just got back from an over-night trip to Seattle. My primary goal was to see the exhibition "Gauguin in the South Pacific" at the Seattle Art Museum (it was terrific), but en route I stopped at an old childhood haunt: the Woodland Park Zoo, a place to which we journeyed for occasional family outings when I was growing up. As good as the Gauguin exhibition was, it is the zoo that I keep thinking about.

As an individual who has a strong personal interest/affinity for animals, and as an artist whose practice revolves around depictions of animals, I have a love-hate relationship with zoos. I'm drawn to them as a way to see/experience spiecies I would never have a chance to encounter in the wild. I appreciate that they have become havens for species whose existence in the wild is tenuous, and I am particularly pleased when zoos engage in programs that help bolster wild populations. I also feel that zoos can give children unique opportunities to experience animals and can be important to helping them build empathy and understanding, and thereby offer hope for the safety of future generations of wild creatures. After all, zoos were important to me as a child and contributed to my development as an artist. However, all-too-often I am repulsed and saddened when I see animals living sad lives of captivity in conditions that range from less-than-ideal to downright horrific. Thankfully, this was not the case in Seattle. I have visited zoos in many places but rarely have I had such a positive experience as at the Woodland Park Zoo this week.

Giraffes in their "savannah" enclosure.
I think the really unique thing about this zoo is that the comfort of animals appears to be the number one priority. The enclosures I observed do a good job of emulating natural habitats and they are, for the most part, spacious and allow the animals room to move or to seek out areas of privacy should they wish to. Monkeys can be seen perched high in trees where they nibble on foliage; giraffes stroll around their "savannah" tasting twigs from high branches and comfortably sharing their space with ostriches, zebras and the like; birds in the tropical rainforest fly about, courting and nesting. Lush vegitation throughout the park makes the journey from enclosure to enclosure often feel like walking through a forest. The fences, moats and barriers are often integrated into the exhibits in such a way that, in many cases, viewers are oblivious to their existence. While I wasn't able to see the entire park, what I did see gave me warm, fuzzy feelings that this is a good place for animals - at least as good as possible in a zoo environment. 

South American toucans interacting (notice the grape in
the bill of the bird on the left - a gift from his/her mate).
A magnificent Russian eagle - larger than a bald eagle and endangered in wild.
The Woodland Park Zoo engages in a breeding program to help support wild populations.
One of the most striking experiences I had was observing the brown bears (aka grizzlies). There are two of them and they were actively engaged in gnawing on what they obviously found to be delicious raw bones. Their large enclosure is designed to emulate a river valley (and I'm told by a local Seattle-ite that it's going to be expanded). One bear gave up his bone and slipped into the pond, which is enclosed by glass that allows viewers to see below the surface of the water, and he actually went hunting for large, nervous-looking fish (trout?). He splashed and swam, stole the bone of his grizzly companion, toyed with a huge log, and appeared for all the world to be as happy and content as such a magnificant creature can be in a captive setting. The children on the scene were delighted, as were the adults, and I felt privileged to have the experience of being within inches of a very lively grizzly without the concern that he would be the last thing I ever saw!

It's been several decades since I last visited the Woodland Park Zoo but I know I'll be going back soon, camera and sketchbook in hand, to again observe its residents. I offer kudos to the zoo society, its staff and volunteers, and the people of Seattle for supporting this exceptional place.

If you are interested in visiting the Woodland Park Zoo, it's located on the north side of Seattle and only a two-hour drive from the Lower Mainland of BC. Visit for more information.

Sunday 1 April 2012

Rascally Rupert: A cat like no other

It has been raining here for several days and nights. Maybe it's a cruel April Fool's Day joke but this morning the rain has let up and glimpses of blue sky can be seen! Hopefully this means the end of this dreary, soggy spell. However, I'm not getting my hopes up just yet only to have them dashed - I'll wait with my fingers crossed to see how the day unfolds.

Needless to say, the weather has confined me to my studio. Not a bad thing at all, given it's pretty much my favourite place to be. I've been photographing a coloured pencil work-in-progress that I'll feature in a future blog, but today I'd like to introduce one of my own four-legged companions - one who has offered much entertainment and artistic inspiration over the 16+ years he's spent with me. I'm talking about Rupert, my elderly gentleman cat (and I do use the word "gentleman" loosely).

"Prince" Rupert at rest.
I adopted Rupert when he was about 6 months old. He had been rescued as a wee kitten, half-drowned, half-starved and near death, from a roadside ditch. His rescuer nursed the foundling back to health but a few months later suffered a housing crisis and was forced to re-home most of her animals. Having met and been charmed by the young cat with the big personality, I offered to give Rupert - then named Fraser after the roadside where he was found - a home. Had I known just how big his personality really was, I might have thought twice! As anyone who has met Rupert will attest, he's a feline force to be reckoned with.

Rupert, as you'll see by his photos, is an orange tabby, medium haired - a fairly ordinary looking guy. What doesn't show is that he is quite possibly the most outgoing cat in the world. Those who think that cats are stand-offish, independent creatures have never met Rupert. He craves constant attention, loves everyone, and is completely confident that everyone loves him and will give him their undivided attention any time, any place. He asserts his feelings by pawing at human legs, grabbing at hands, walking on keyboards, shoving his head between pages of books or newspapers, clambering onto laps, and purring at decibel levels that rival a jet engine. Despite frequent rejection (after all, nobody can give a cat their full attention 100% of the time, 24/7), Rupert does not take it personally and always comes back for more. And if there is mischief to be made, he will make it - plus he'll check to see that someone's watching him do it!

My coloured pencil drawing of Rupert in a paper bag.
Rupert was absolute best friends with his younger "brother" Jasper, another orange tabby who joined our household in 2001 and who, to our sorrow, succumbed to cancer last year. They were a great match - Jasper was every bit as timid as Rupert is outgoing, and so despite outweighing Rupert by a considerable amount and having the advantage of youth on his side, Jasper deferred to his smaller, more-assertive older housemate.

Jasper (left) and best friend Rupert (right).

My coloured pencil drawing of the two best buddies.

Jasper and Rupert - together as one.

A photo of Rupert and the silk painting he inspired. Rupert provided
the pose but it was Jasper who became the subject of the painting

When Jasper passed away last April, Rupert was devastated (as, of course, was I). He would roam the house crying as though searching for his lost friend. He was off his food and out of sorts, and I greatly feared for his well-being. To placate Rupert and to bring some joyful new energy into the house, 12-week-old kitten Archie joined our family, thanks to the good folks at the Katie's Place cat shelter. Archie is a topic all to himself and will be featured in a future blog post, and thankfully his presence gave Rupert a new lease on life (again, people who think cats prefer solitude to the company of other cats have never met Rupert).

Rupert and new friend Archie

Rupert will turn 17 in a month or so and for an old geezer he's doing pretty well. He's a bit scrawny due to a thyroid imbalance that's controlled by daily medication, plus he has an ongoing sinus problem that causes him to sneeze mightily every so often (usually when he's snuggled up to me... yuck). He still gets into lots of trouble on a regular basis and manages to keep youngster Archie somewhat in line. For having had a rough start, or maybe because of it, Rupert has gone through life with a philosophy that we could all take to heart:
  • never take no for an answer;
  • have as much fun as you can;
  • get in as much trouble as you can without coming to, or causing, great harm; and
  • be confident that the world loves you
Rupert, the party animal.
The sun is now really, truly shining and the outdoors beckons.