A few years ago, my little Australian cattle dog, Sadie, experienced rapid onset glaucoma. In a matter of hours she was blinded and in considerable pain. Our veterinarian said the only way to treat her pain was to remove her eyes. I wanted her out of pain but was grief stricken at the thought of never again being able to look into those beautiful brown eyes. As she underwent surgery, I worked out some of my own pain by creating a sketch of a man and his dog. The human figure consists of a shadowy shape whose trusty companion sits beside him, bright and eager and hopeful, as dogs so often do.
Although my own dog was in surgery, depicting a happy canine spirit next to the shrouded human figure lifted my spirits and offered me comfort that all would be okay. Sadie recovered and moves about in the world easily and without pain. I realised later it wasn’t Sadie’s eyes that let me understand her feelings. Her bodily movements and postures expressed all I needed to know.
Thinking of Sadie, pencil sketch, (18x12.5cm)
Shapes into forms
Including animals in my paintings is one way that I try to instil a bit of the life, joy or whimsy they offer into our day-today lives. How often do we walk down a city street or through a park and see a human walking a dog, only to find the focus of our attention moving from the human to the animal. Maybe we make eye contact with the walker. Perhaps we offer a smile. After that, however, almost everyone notices the happy gait, lifted appreciative tail, or contented, lolled out tongue of a dog on a walk.
Watch Out Trout, watercolour on paper, (30.5x23cm)
In the same way I paint shapes into forms that read as human figures, I also paint shapes into forms that read as dogs, cats, or other animals. Animals can be tricky. The shapes, movements and animation are different from the human figure and can require a bit more care to capture. I follow a number of steps in order to capture the mood or story of animals. Sometimes I include only one animal but other times I include several, depending on the scene.
Reel It In, watercolour on paper, (23x30.5cm)
Because some animals are so fluid, they can take on a number of different shapes or poses in a relatively short period of time. A more sedentary or still animal isn’t necessarily easier to capture because it is often the tilt of a head, wag of a tail, or perk of an ear that captivates the viewer and sparks an emotion. When I’m observing how animals move and behave, I take note of how or why their ears move in a certain way or how they stretch and lift or lower their head or tail. What different shapes or poses do animals adopt in their natural way of living?
Once I understand the shapes and postures, I look for additional visual cues that will read as a particular species or breed. Is it a large dog or a small one? Does its fur add bulk or is it sleek? Do its ears droop or stand up?
As it is when I’m painting people, the goal is never to paint a specific animal or try to capture an exact portrait but instead to convey shapes and actions that instil memories or feelings in the viewer. When I plan to incorporate an animal into my paintings, I use these steps to develop the shape and form needed to tell their part of the story.
In the paintings of a fly fisherman and his dog (see above), I’ve painted the dog looking directly at the viewer. To one viewer the dog might be a Labrador, to another it might be a Newfoundland, based somewhat on the visual cues of size and shape, but primarily based on the context of their memory or experience.
Sometimes, as a way to familiarise myself with a subject, I will visit a place where I can see and experience it first-hand. For example, dog parks, downtown coffee shops and nature parks are great places at which to observe animals in action. With my sketchbook and some simple materials in hand, I spend time watching dogs and people interact.
A Familiar Walk, watercolour on paper, (56x38cm)
When I’m ready to sketch, I start with some simple gestural drawing, very fluid and easy. At this point I am trying to capture the simple structure and shape of the animals in motion. I will draw these in my sketchbook as basic reference pictures. This serves as a warm-up exercise, getting my hands moving and reminding me to see and draw shapes rather than icons.
I live on the western side of the United States, in Colorado, where we have vast geological changes that provide space for abundant farms and parks, mountains peaks and flat open spaces.
Our state is rich in wildlife such as elk, deer, sheep, mountain goats, cows and even buffalo. Painting this variety of animal life can be challenging as each species has a very distinct shape, form, and movement. Nevertheless, including them can dramatically add to a landscape and aid in rich storytelling, as in the sketch of a farmer feeding his chickens on a windswept prairie (see below).
Farmer and Chicken, sketch
Develop and understand
At home, along with Sadie, we usually have three or four cats doing cat things, so I have a ready supply of domestic animals available for study. When I am preparing to paint, I use the reference drawings from my sketchbook to practise, pushing and pulling the shapes to understand how the animal would move through space. I typically work in warm or cool greys, at this stage, keeping my work simple and fluid. I paint the animal repeatedly, trying out a variety of movement and poses.
While I work on capturing the shapes, I also think about how to include the animal in an appropriate scene. It makes sense to see a dog on a leash or standing in the river with his fishing human.
Urban Escape, watercolour on paper, (35.5x56cm)
Once, when I was doing a painting demonstration of a cityscape, I asked the audience to give me three different elements to add at the end, in order to enhance the story and add visual interest. Someone said ‘Cat!’ While the idea of a cat walking down the middle of a city street seemed funny at the time, I added it and, for the most part, it worked. Context matters, however. I paint a lot of sailboats. While a chicken on a sailboat isn’t impossible to see, it is unlikely!
Once I have practised the shapes and have a good understanding of how to represent the intended animal, in a context-relevant scene, I am ready to incorporate all the elements such as people, geological shapes, structures, and human-made objects in order to tell a rich story.
Happy Hour at the Dog Park, watercolour on paper, (25.5x35.5cm)
In the same way animals can add joy, beauty and whimsy to our lives, they can also bring those emotions to our paintings. When I look at the sketch I did on the day of Sadie’s surgery, I remember my feelings of fear and sadness, but the little dog in the sketch is hopeful and expectant. Today Sadie is thriving and healthy. Her expressions of love and excitement and her utter joy at being alive are all communicated through her movements. I’ve learned that it wasn’t through looking into Sadie’s eyes that I felt a connection, it was through watching how she moves through space and time with quirky and quizzical head tilts, an incessantly wagging tail and a happy little gait, that I know what she is feeling. By capturing the shape, movement and action of animals we can tell a different and often more human story through our art.
Dog on a Leash, watercolour sketch
Now it is time for you to try your hand at painting animals. After observing a dog or cat and doing some reference sketches, take a piece of (20.5x25.5cm) paper and sketch the animal, focusing on capturing the shape or silhouette in action or sitting. Do a page of quick movements and poses similar to the cat example below.
Next, using what you learned from the practice exercise, do a fast sketch painting of a cityscape with at least one or two people walking dogs. Focus on the shapes, not the detail. Try to capture the people and animals mid-stride in order to show movement and action.
Sketch for Happy Hour at the Dog Park
Read Steve's advice for painting moving figures in watercolour.
Read top tips on sketching loose, lively animals from Gary Geraths.