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Updated: Mar 31, 2023

This blog is about the making of Hera, a portrait commissioned by Murielle. Hera is a beautiful old Labrador. I painted in oil on a 140 x 100 cm large size canvas, early 2021. It is by far the biggest oil painting I created of a dog. I loved making it!

Check out this blog and learn how the painting of Hera progressed and how the process of a portrait commission looks like.

"A very special request and by far the biggest portrait I painted!"

Hera lives with Murielle for a long time already. When they came over for the photoshoot, I could really sense the special bond they have together. Knowing that Hera will pass on to another dimension not long from now, I was asked to portray her. To be remembered of her presence.

I felt very honoured!

"I noticed I had that same feeling again, from being with Hera. Once that happens, I know I am on the right track."

"Did you work with reference material?"

"I took many photo's of Hera and together we picked the best. Murielle first shared some photos she made herself. But I prefer to study different viewing angles myself and play with light fall. And above all, meeting Hera and having felt her presence brought me additional sensitive information I do not get from a photo. In such moment I try to use all my senses and capture a feeling. I use that to reflect on, while painting. It is magical how that works. While painting, suddenly the portrait started to resonate with me. I noticed that I had that same feeling again, from being with Hera. Once that happens, I know that I am on the right track."

"A handmade canvas is part of the creative flow."

"What is your first practical step when it comes to painting?"

"It starts with the canvas. Sometimes I use a prepared canvas but crafting my own by hand is a nice part of the proces. I already tune in on the portrait, feel the material, connect with it and almost meditatively get in the creative flow."

"This is a very large canvas!"

"Yes, It was Murielle's wish to have it large. I will be hanged on a large wall in her new house. I thought it would be great to go pretty bold and even zoom in onto the head of Hera. Even from a distance you will get the feeling of being near."

"Starting a new painting is thrilling."

"Once the canvas is ready, it is time for me to grab some charcoal and lay out the bigger lines, finding the right proportions and determine the key features of the personality. It is a thrilling phase! A good first drawing is the fundament of a strong portrait (speaking for myself here!). If I am not able to 'crack the nut' and find those features that matter, it will be hard to fix that at a later stage. So I am going back and forth quite a few times in this phase with as much patience as possible."

"A good first drawing is the fundament of a strong portrait"

"I search for the bigger lines and gestures in charcoal, look for rhyme and rhythm and first set mostly straight lines. What do I want the viewer to see, follow, catch, I ask myself."

"What do I want the viewer to see, follow, catch, I ask myself."

"Details and curves, are abstracted out. I take a distance from the canvas now and then. As you can see I blocked in some shading here to get a volume impression and feeling for highlights. It is a first step working on the surfaces in stead of composition and lines. I want to understand what elements I should play up or down, to emphasise perceived depth.

Lastly, I start to connect the lines, blowing life into the drawing, making it organic, like the flesh and bones and skin."

"This 'grid' makes me feel secure during the first passes of painting and keep the brushstrokes loosely and natural. I like to have some spontaneity in my brushwork. A solid grid, allows me to paint freely."

"Looking for a landscape."

"Once you are mixing colours and painting, what makes you know you are doing it right?"

"After the previous considerate phase of drawing, this may sound odd, but I just start 'somewhere' with blocking in the darker shadow parts, and 'play' with the values, slowly working towards the mid-tones and wait, wait, wait, with highlights. Most time I spend on the important mid-tones! Once I get those right, the darkest dark and lightest highlights are easy. The mid tones deserve the most attention, because these will make the volume appear."

Just had 2 passes of paint blocking in darker values and first search for mid tone greys.

"It is a delicate process of finding those values that will work together generating a fluid 'routing' for the viewers eye, across the portrait. It will determine where the eye will stop and go, how the skin will unfold itself as a landscape with hight's and low's. The forehead of Hera is quite light for that reason. The gloss in the right eye and on the nose are the lightest lights, functioning as 'landmarks'. These points will be drawing attention first and are key starting points of the eye's journey. The distances in between these points, must be positioned correctly, for likeliness. Just like the overall silhouette. The rest can be more blurry, or abstract, less defined."

The values are starting to work together, with lightest greys on the head, slowly becoming darker going downwards on top of the head, leading the eye, just like in a landscape.

"The darkest darks, the shadow parts under the ear, in the nose, mouth and details in the eye, help tremendously in generating the perception of volume. They work as little 'caves'.

I liked playing with the very dark greys at the lower neck, aiming for having just enough information to suggest the volume, avoiding a massive black undefined surface."

Large brush strokes versus small brush strokes.

"A photo can never evoke the experience of seeing a piece of art in real life. So much more is going on inside when you are standing in front of it. One have to be creative with pictures, to reveal more 'hidden' elements within the buildup of the painting. In this lower angle, you can see how larger brushstrokes, made with a much bigger brush, are doing their work in leaving much bigger textures on the canvas, compared to the brushstrokes in het head itself. The contrast supports the perception of depth and sets the head of Hera even more on the foreground.

"Working for Philips as a designer and creative lead for over 10 years, has its influence on how I paint a portrait."

"Do you have an explanation for your wish to build a portrait with layers and a visual hierarchy?"

"I care a lot about hierarchy in my work indeed. I was trained as an industrial design engineer. (TUDelft). Working for Philips as a designer and creative lead for more than 10 years, has it impact on how I paint. It is the responsibility of a designer to design a product in a way such that it sells its story (functionalities) by looking at it. The best way of doing that need, is to have a design rationale in place. Where do you want to draw attention to and how. It is not just about a nice shape. In case of a portrait: it is not just about likeliness."

"This butterfly made my day!"

3D Nature drawn to 2D nature, I take this as a compliment!

"What about the background?"

"At first is did not know what information or colours to put in the background. But Hera is an old lady. She is becoming quite fragile and sensitive, or even vulnerable. I decided to celebrate that and make her entirely the centre of the piece and pop out. She is now pictured in this white space, filled with gentle strokes of warm white that match the soft browns of the tiny short hairs on top her nose and the color of her eyes. That should frame her clean and crisp, emphasising her nice head contours. I feel I could stroke her."

"Celebrate and use emptiness."

The full 140 x 100cm portrait of Hera in oil, framed in natural beech wood.

"Soon after I finished Hera's portrait, I came across a portrait of an influential British painter George Stubbs who lived in the eighteenth century. He was an English painter, best known for his paintings of horses. Also self-trained. He preferred to keep a clean background in some of his portraits as well, giving visual priority to the horse depicted and the background clearly comes second. He also painted the painting in that same order what was very unusual for artists a that time! I love it especially if the shape of the 'empty space' is well defined and proportioned, supporting the expression of the subject."

This champion racehorse was owned by the 2nd Marquess of Rockingham who commissioned Stubbs to paint many of the horses in his stables. The scale (around 10 feet high) and pose is typical of an equestrian portrait without the rider. It was suggested at the time that the rider should have been George III but there is no evidence to confirm this. The quality of this painting lifts it out of the equestrian genre and elevates it to the status of portraiture. This wonderful horse has a more dynamic personality and glows with more vitality than most portraits you could think of.
Stubbs' most famous painting of a horse is 'Whistlejacket'.

"What is the thinking behind the natural wooden frame?"

"I looked at different materials, colours and combinations of each. In the end, just building on the thinking of giving priority of putting Hera in the centre, I kept the framing simple and rather minimalistic."

"This is a 100% solid, natural colour, beech wooden frame with a warm hue, fitting the warmth of her brown eyes. It is not a fat frame but slender, going well together with the elegancy of her gender and age. I had the framing done by Lijstenmakerij Frans van den Heuvel in Schijndel who did a perfect job."

Beech revealing its own beautiful natural marks and patterns of ageing.

"How is the painting delivered?"

"After signing the portrait, I deliver it preferably myself, if that is geographically a logical thing to do. Otherwise it is packaged firmly, shipped with a tracking number and arriving at the doorstep, ready to hang. And all art comes with a certificate of authenticity."

"How was Hera received by Murielle?"

"It was a very special moment. She wanted to pick it up herself. I had hung it on the wall and soon after she arrived, my daughters took the blanket off and revealed the portrait to her. She was emotionally touched. Her comment saying that she could feel Hera's presence was a very big compliment I cherish."

The picture was taken by my 11 year old daughter. She was very helpful thinking with me about composition, pose and expression! So nice! : )

Thank you for reading it all the way through! In case you have an interest in learning more or consider to commission a portrait yourself, do not hesitate to contact me directly, happy to assist you without obligation.

Hit the like button at the top of the page in case you have enjoyed the read and please forward it to anyone who might like to read it too!

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