This was originally published on The Creative Cat and refers to several articles published there, which are linked.
Tommy was another portrait from 2016, and he and his family were very special customers. I’ve known his person, Melanie for several years as a rescuer, corresponded with her and assisted her efforts as much as I could. Because I knew her I also knew Tommy, virtually, through following his rescue and his health for the years he was with her. It’s not that all portraits, especially memorials, aren’t special. Each one is an individual identity for me to explore, know, love and interpret, that’s my joy in creating a portrait. But usually I don’t know my portrait subjects very well when I’m commissioned and I often don’t know the people who commission me. Though I’d never met Melanie or Tommy face to face, I knew Tommy’s sad history, his rescue and his joyous and loving personality through it all over the course of his last two years, and I knew how deeply Melanie and her husband had felt for him. I also knew how I felt about Tommy. For that reason, you get to hear a little bit about him before I talk about his portrait.
Tommy the survivor
You’ve met Tommy here a couple of times. In 2014 he was rescued by Melanie, literally right off the street as he’d been neglected and discarded by a careless owner. She nursed him back to health, and then he was so happy and she and her husband loved him so much she couldn’t let him go to be adopted. He became a permanent member of her large household of rescued animals.
You met him again in June 2015 when he suffered a saddle thrombus, and by patience, lots of care from veterinarians and Melanie herself, and possibly a little bit of a miracle, he not only survived the thrombus but he also regained use of his hind legs and went back to living pretty much the same life he had before, just as active and playful and affectionate with his people and his cat and dog roomies.
A cat who has suffered a saddle thrombus and survived is at high odds to suffer another one, and even though Tommy had regular checkups they are unpredictable so Melanie and her husband kept watch. Tommy lived eight months before the next thrombus, and there was no way to save him the second time, in February 2016.
A cat who can survive the neglect that had nearly killed him the first time, then survive a saddle thrombus has one huge will to live, and generally one huge personality. How do you capture all that in a portrait?
But Melanie knew what she wanted. She wanted those eyes, that expression of love, in much the same way I tried to capture what I called Namir’s “bedroom eyes”. She sent me as many photos as she could for both his expression and his other qualities, and I felt this photo captured him best.
Of course, the focus is on Tommy so all else is removed from the image. From there, what best supports the focus on that expression? Views from above can be awkward and oddly foreshortened, but that can also help to focus on a portion of the image. In this case I decided to fade him out and blur him into the background with just enough of his coloring and markings to remember those as well. Initially I had his tail wrapped completely around as a somewhat abstract way of creating a cloud of orange and white, but Melanie and her husband wanted to see his paws. I love those little mittens and I initially had them in there, so I just added them back in. The background is just a marbled application of different shades of blue pastel blended with my fingers to complement his orange fur and yellow green eyes.
Because most of my portraits are highly realistic, I relate as many details as possible, but focus on the ones I call “the details of love”. When I paint an animal subject’s face, I obviously take great care to capture markings and structure, but there are details that are so important which the average photo doesn’t capture, although a professional photo would, that make the face feel dimensional, real and full of expression. It’s what portrait artists in all media try to find in a subject.
The shape and color of the eyes are important, but the shadows and reflections within them, the changing colors and highlights, fill them with life. And of course, the final strokes are the whiskers, as each animal’s whiskers are unique in length and thickness, color and curves, from the short little wisps right around the mouth to those longest ones near the jaw, and even the ones on the cheekbones and brows if pets have them.
While painting and finishing a portrait I pay special attention to the little hairs around the nose and mouth, on the chin and cheeks and around the eyes. Often I can’t see these in the photos I’m given but I know they are there and how important they are in making an animal face speak, and am guided in visualization of these minute details by both technical familiarity and a knowledge that must come from the animal itself. People have asked me how I knew about that one white hair in the midst of the black, or how the eyes glowed red and gold in the light, when photo references didn’t show it.
I want them to look back at me. I want to feel they could take a breath any moment, whiskers quiver and ear flick or swivel to hear something behind them, and their eyes blink at me in that universal expression of love and trust. I want that because I’m sure the portrait subjects who come to me would want to convey those memories to their humans.
I scanned Tommy’s portrait, as I do all portraits, at very high resolution, a more accurate reproduction than cameras will often capture, and even here whole sections of detail are lost that are in the actual portrait. The lightest area across the top of his nose are a matte white with slight shadings in color that show his facial structure. But you get the point. It’s the face Melanie and her husband want to remember.
I have Tommy’s portrait framed and will be delivering him to them in a week or so. For all our online conversations dating back to 2011 when Melanie was helping longtime rescuer Dorothy with brain cancer rehome her remaining cats and dogs, I actually just met Melanie in person when they came to see the finished portrait. I’ll finally get to meet Melanie’s animal household, including little Princess Ophelia Powderpuff, another rescue who managed to survive with a genetic and often fatal birth anomaly, but she’s a whole other story.
Take a look at other portraits and read other stories
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