Pet portrait and people portrait in one: Willeke and Phélan the Great
Updated: Apr 18
Let me tell you the story of how I created the custom-made portrait of Willeke and a Petit Brabançon called Phélan the Great. When I saw the reference photo for this portrait I was very enthusiastic to start this new pastel artwork. I adore Phélan, I have been following him on Facebook and Instagram for a while now. Like many Petit Brabançons or Brussels Griffons, he has a lot of personality and his pouty face is so cute. Willeke is the mum of Phélan's owner Nicole, who is an abstract artist.
Composition and colour selection
As with every portrait I draw, I start with a thorough preparation before I even put the easel and the pastels in place. I study the reference photo and think about the best suitable composition and which elements should be left out. In this case, I left out the newspaper on the couch and the smartphone near the elbow which you see in the reference above. I also cropped the original photo significantly to leave out a colourful blanket on the right and a coffee table with bowls of grapes in the front to firmly put the focus on a smiling Willeke and a proud Phélan.
The background colour should be complementary to the subject. Here I decided to keep it a neutral blue-grey with a hint of green as is reflected on the wall in the reference. There is probably a lawn or shrubbery outside the window. Blue is also the colour of Willeke's sweater. And as luck would have it, Phélan's coat is an intense rusty tan colour. The dark blue from the sweater and the dark orange hues make ideal complimentary colours.
One step at a time
The first step in the process is to put the background colour in. For this I use pastel sticks and mix the colours with sponge applicators on the pastel paper until I get the result I am looking for both in tone and value. The left side is near the light source, a window in this case, and therefore should be lighter in value than the right side.
Once that is done, I gradually work my way from the top left corner to the bottom right corner. This is to avoid smudging the parts I have already worked on as pastel is like wet paint that never dries.
The eyes make the pastel painting come alive
As always, I like to start with the eyes. By putting in the eyes first, it gives me the impression that the soul of the painting is coming alive. When the details of the face were added with pastel pencils, I asked Willeke to guide me and to tell me why she is smiling at Phélan. I can take a good guess, he is sitting there, no not just sitting, he is posing to the camera and showing his famous attitude.
Next up is Willeke's sweater, with the first layer of dark blue pigment applied with a pastel stick and smoothed out with sponge applicators before adding the lines in dark and light blue with pastel pencils. The armrest is done similarly with soft pastels forming the base and details such as light reflection, creases and stitching of the leather are added with pencils. My ring finger is the perfect tool to smooth colour transitions in small areas. Before I can start on Phélan, I put in the Willeke's right arm and hand.
Portraying the dog
Just like for Willeke, I start with Phélan's eyes, followed by his ears and then his nose and lovely pouty muzzle full of character. And again, I am having this conversation with the subject that I am creating stroke by stroke. In my mind, I heard Phélan say: "So you are the woman who published these books about my ancestors? Some of the pictures in your book look like me, but they are not half as handsome you know. Didn't dogs wear clothes in those days? I do like a cool jacket myself."
"I see what you mean Phélan. Am I getting the shape of your knee correct and what about your paws?" As I have seen many photos of Phélan in all kinds of light, I know that his coat colour is a very intense burnt sienna and I have to check myself constantly not to forget the light reflections and the shadows. The shadows are easy as it just needs some glazing with dark green, the opposite or complementary colour, if the red russet tones are too intense. For the light reflections, I use a lot of ivory and pink. Yes, pink, you wouldn't think it, but it works wonders on top of sienna hues.
Finishing the artwork is like saying goodbye. I take my time to do that by adjusting a pencil stroke left and right. Verifying with squinting eyes that the proportions and values are right. Sleeping on it and checking again.
After having spent over 30 hours in silent discussion with Willeke and Phélan, our time together is over. Before I put my signature on the painting I want to make sure that they will be happy with the result and that I have done everything within my skillset, before I hand the artwork over. It is a sad and joyous moment at the same time. I am content with the result and yet tears come to my eyes. I always work from the heART.