My Dog Fred
My dog Fred weighs about 18 pounds. He’s a mixed breed of, I don’t know, part scruffy dog and part handsome dog. He has the type of eyes that dance in his head and gives his plain face expression. He’s older now, but even as a pup he gave me the sense that he expects big things from me. Stupid I fear, since he’s just a dog; yet somehow a dog with wisdom? I don’t know, it’s probably just me. Anyway, I woke up this morning and there he was laying on my bed staring into my face.
“Good morning Fred. Today, I have to write an article about pallet knife painting and if you’re up for it, I’ll use you as my subject.” I lay there for another moment face to face with Fred and I swear I saw him raise his eyebrows. It’s probably just me.
In my studio is a white canvas, my paints, assorted brushes and my one and only pallet knife. Fred was at my heels as the rising sun glinted off the small lake beyond my studio window. I pushed an ottoman next to my easel and told Fred to hop up and face me. He barked. “Fred, today I am going to show the world what you look like. Please sit still.”
My canvas was a ready-made 16X20 that I bought through dickblick.com. I generally paint with five colors, black, white, yellow red, blue and brown (Burnt Sienna). Keep it simple. My pallet knife is a Master’s Touch medium knife I believe I picked up at Michael’s Craft Store for $2.50. In any case, I had everything I needed as Fred patiently waits on the ottoman.
I explained to Fred that there are two planes of painting; background and foreground. We begin with the background because we’re going to paint over part of it with the foreground, in this case Fred. I am going to paint a dog portrait, so the background can be anything I want and today it will be muted splashes of two colors, white and yellow. In real life Fred is brown, white with streaks of black, so my background will compliment his natural coloring. I load my pallet knife with yellow and smear it heavily in the left corner of my canvas (because I always start there). Smearing may not be an artistic word but painting with a pallet knife is like buttering bread. I continue across the top to the right side. Cleaning my knife with a wet paper towel I reload white paint and smear the white below the yellow dragging it through the yellow to mix the two colors but not blending them too much. I work my way through the entire canvas alternating the two colors until I am satisfied that the background has a “knock-down” appeal. This only takes a few minutes. I use a hair dryer to dry the background, and Fred jumps off the ottoman in alarm.
Painting Fred is simple if for no other reason that I keep it simple. Essentially, Fred is all circles and ovals, there’s nothing square about him. “Fred,” I yell out. “Come back in here.” I glanced around and found Fred at his water bowl. We looked at each other and I said, “We’re ready for our close-up Mr. DeMille.” I swear I saw him smirk. It’s probably just me. Back on the ottoman Fred sat still. I looked at him and at my canvas and using black paint I formed two small black circles. His eyes. Just below them another slightly larger back circle, his nose. Three simple back circles in an almost perfect triangle. Just below his nose, a happy face smile (really his lower lip). Fred’s mouth was slightly open and I could see part of his tongue. Fred was calm as he always is although occasionally his back foot fanned his ear to scratch an itch. “Turn slightly to left,” I commanded and as I expected, Fred turned slightly on the ottoman. “Look at me Fred and sit still.” The fur from the top of Fred’s nose and along the sides of his jowls ended in a cute little beard. All together the shape itself is an oval. Using Burnt Sienna and white I sketched it in using the edge of my pallet knife. The fur on top of his head was parted in the middle and included his floppy ears. They looked like two more ovals. I sketched them in too. So far Fred looked a bit like Olympic rings. We were at this about a half hour and Fred began to bark. He had to pee.
Fred jumped off the ottoman and I opened the back door of my studio. There’s a green expanse of lawn and a fishing dock on the edge of the lake. Fred ran outside and stopped to look back at me. “Go ahead,” I said and he happily sniffed the ground. I left the door open and returned to the canvas. I didn’t need Fred to sketch in his body because once again it was a larger oval that started just below his right ear circled down and around ending up just below his left ear. All that was left was painting the three legs, but for these I needed Fred.
I left Fred unleashed for a number of reasons. One, we have no neighbors. Two, he can’t be distracted by the lizards and Iguana’s that are common here. And, third, Fred and me have purpose. When he is done, he’ll poke his head back through the door and look for me. He’ll try to get me to laugh by not coming in when he knows I expect it. He’ll poke his head in and retreat, poke his head in and retreat yet again. When he hears my chuckle, he presents himself in a dah, dah fashion. I’m sure Fred can hear drum-rolls in his little head, but it’s probably just me.
“Back on the ottoman,” I commanded and of course he complied. “Turn around please,” I asked and he complied. “Sit still please. “You know Fred, you’re a handsome guy.” As Fred sat quietly on the ottoman I needed to spend a few minutes filling in and coloring his fur. I use the same pallet knife technique as I did on the background. Load my knife with a mixture of Burnt Sienna and white and broadly stroke the shape of his fur. The appealing quality of a pallet knife is the affect I get by using two colors at once. There is a dappling affect that I cannot get with a brush. There is no wrong or right way to use a pallet knife and it’s in process that great things happen. I’ve completed the underpainting and only the details are left. “Okay, Fred, you can go.” With a tiny grunt, Fred jumps off the ottoman and heads to his bowl for the treat I left him. I finish my painting using a small paintbrush to dab highlights of white in in his eyes and on his nose, paint in some shadows and give his finished work definition. I am sure the painting spoke to me about my love for Fred. It’s probably just me.
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