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Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Courting the Barn Cat

The pretty wild kitty.

O.C. and Syd in the stable.
I've gone back to grooming Drifter once a week as I rebuild the strength needed to get back in the saddle, but truth be told, I think I've spent nearly as much time grooming the barn cat as I've spent on Drifter! I'm trying to win her over, you see, and that takes time.

O.C. is one very attractive kitty, with a long, soft coat and an amazing pair of luminous green eyes. She's not what you think of when you think "barn cat." But she was born to a feral mother and has been virtually wild since she was a kitten, so she's happiest in and around the stable, keeping vermin at bay. She's extremely skittish, wary of the slightest noise, alert to the littlest movement, and does not trust people. That isn't to say she doesn't like people; it's just that if you startle her (and she startles easily), she's going to object with her teeth and her claws before making a run for it!

Snoozing on horse blankets.
Naturally, this interest in people and petting coupled with her extreme skittishness intrigues me and makes me want to win her over. I haven't had any cats in my life since the Ancient Kitty passed away last year, so I was feeling ready to make a new cat friend. I may prefer dogs over cats, but that doesn't mean I'll pass up an opportunity to pet one. And O.C. has heavenly, soft-as-a-cloud fur.

O.C. looks very silly with her leg stuck up in the air.
It was her fur, in fact, that brought us together in recent weeks. It just so happens that I not only like to pet animals, I also like to groom them, especially when it comes to working matted and shed fur out of an animal's coat. I find it deeply satisfying and animals tend to like it, too. So when I noticed that O.C. had several large mats in the long fur behind her head, I had to have a go at them! She will jump up on a lap readily enough, but I was concerned that the inevitable pulling on her fur that would occur when I started working the mats out would provoke a painful response. I therefore went to work rather gingerly, but she made it quite clear that she loved what I was doing! I think the mats had gotten to the point that they were causing her some discomfort and she seemed to understand what I was about. She purred and purred as I worked the matted fur free, pushing her head into my hands, begging for more.

O.C. is now sporting a shorn spot on the back of her head.
I was able to get most of the mats out with my fingers, but there was a particularly large and stubborn one that could only be removed with scissors. I hated to evict O.C. from my lap, knowing that there was a good chance this would constitute a criminal attack in her eyes and she wouldn't let me come near her again, but off she went, much to her displeasure. It did take some time to persuade her to come back for further ministrations and for some reason when she DID get back up on my lap, she decided that my left hand was not to be trusted. It is rather difficult to snip mats out of the fur of a cat using only one hand, but every time I moved my left hand, she'd try to bite it. It was protected by the sleeve of my winter coat, so no harm was done, and she only managed to sink her teeth into me once. The stable owner told me that they'd given up on trying to cut her mats out because she so frequently drew blood, so I was quite pleased to learn that I'd been able to provide this service to O.C. with minimal acrimony and bloodshed! I don't mind when she tries to bite or scratch me because I know she's just scared and doesn't know what else to do.

O.C. on the alert!
So each time that I've come to groom Drifter since, O.C. has been around and I've immediately sat down and invited her up for a little bit of petting. I work out any mats that are starting to form, massage her ears and her skull, tickle her under her chin, and give all manner of physical affection around the head. She's made it clear to me that I am not to run my hand along the length of her body (that's how I got bitten), touch her anywhere other than the head, or make any sudden moves, but if I abide by those rules, she wants nothing more than to snuggle.

The contented kitty.
When I came by the stable yesterday to groom Drifter, we followed our usual pattern. She meowed when she saw me and jumped up on my lap as soon as I sat down on the bench. I separated some hairs on the back of her neck that were starting to get matted and then gave her lots and lots of petting. She was purring so fiercely that she began to drool, which made me laugh. Benny, the Ancient Kitty, would do the same thing when he was happy. It made me glad to know that O.C. was enjoying my caresses to such an extent! At length, I decided that since I was here to look after a horse, I ought to get to it, and dislodged O.C. from my lap. She stayed nearby, however, curling up to snooze in my coat when I took it off, but what really made me happy was that when I was bending down to clean Drifter's hooves, with my hands near the ground, O.C. came over and tried to persuade me to pet her some more. She actually trilled! I suspect that O.C. has not trilled for many human beings, so I felt very honored. When I was finished with Drifter, I sat back down on the bench and O.C. immediately got back in my lap, butting her head against me, purring and drooling, snuggling her little face into the crook of my elbow, licking my jeans, and even, at one point, playing with the strings of my hooded sweatshirt.

O.C. watches a flurry of falling snow through the open barn door.

And so I sat on the bench in the chilly stable, listening to the sound of steady rain falling on the metal roof, the vibration of O.C.'s purr traveling up through my hands, marveling at her warm but virtually weightless presence on my lap. I could see Bear's steaming breath wreathing his head as he stood at his stall door, pondering the rain that fell beyond, and hear the quiet but solid noises of the horses shifting their bulk from hoof to hoof as they dozed away the afternoon. The air was full of the sweet perfume of the hay stored in the room behind my bench and my skin and clothing were imbued with the scent of horse. As O.C. writhed in my lap, seeming to ache with an urgency to get as much pleasure from my touch as she possibly could, my soul broke free and my being opened to a sense of peace.

Evil kitty ears.
After half an hour of this quiet meditation through interspecies physical connection, I decided, rather reluctantly, that I ought to go before my blood sugar dropped or I got too tired to drive. I began the delicate process of trying to persuade O.C. to leave my lap. She did not wish to do so, and when I incautiously moved my hand to give her the classic feline eviction nudge, she perceived it as an attack and responded in kind, drawing blood on the back of my hand with her claws. I was sorry that our wonderful session had to end with blood and misunderstanding, but was glad when O.C. immediately began to clamor for my attention. I do not know cat vocalizations and body language as well as I know the language of dogs, but I am pretty sure she was pleading for a return to my lap and more petting and was quite sorry to see me go!

O.C. has the most beautiful green eyes with glittering gold undertones.

And so I am happy. Altruistic joy has a particular keen-edged sweetness. I felt it very strongly during the Ancient Kitty's final years, when he was old and greasy and bony and my pleasure in touching him had to come from knowing that my doing so made him happy. I'm feeling that again with O.C. I don't need to own her or coo over her or tame her of all her wild ways. I just want her to know that I wish her no harm, that I will happily untangle her fur, and that I only seek to give her pleasure with my touch. It is immensely gratifying to me to that her trill, her head butts, and her drooling purr all would indicate that O.C. has come to understand my intentions and is, in my hands, knowing joy.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Drawing Dogs: A Portrait Process

Photography has become my primary mode of creative expression in recent years, but for much of my life, including the period when I was studying art in college, drawing was my preferred medium. Between the migraines and the medications I take to treat them, I have felt that I haven't had the cognitive capacity to answer to the demands of drawing. Photography has been perfect for me because all the effort it requires is for me to be alert in observing the world around me and I am never out of alert mode! So drawing has fallen by the wayside.

But then one of the foster parents for a dog rescue I follow on Facebook started up a project of drawing a dog every single day. Apparently, she, too, had once studied art with a focus on drawing, but had put it aside in recent years. I was so delighted and inspired by the drawings she posts daily on her blog,, that I had to start sketching dogs, too. I don't draw one a day, since my intellectual and creative faculties are not always equal to the task, but I've really enjoyed getting back into drawing. Most of the drawings are small sketches of the dogs I dog-sit, some from photographs and some from life. I've been working a lot in pencil, which is more forgiving than ink, my previous preferred drawing method. I've been posting the dog drawings on my photography Facebook page and they've been a huge hit, so much so that my sister asked if I'd be willing to make a large, custom portrait of her friends' dog for a gift. I agreed and received a photograph of their sweet mutt, Kora, and got to work. I documented my progress because I always like seeing images of works as they progress and thought readers of this blog might enjoy seeing the process.

Sweetheart sketches.
Until I began this portrait, all of my drawings had been made in a 5.5x8.5" sketchbook, so they were, by necessity, rather small. I realized, when I confronted my smooth expanse of 90 lb. vellum paper, that creating a 8x10 image would be too difficult for me to scale accurately in a freehand fashion. My drawing skills were returning as I had made more and more sketches, but I still wasn't up to whipping out a larger scale drawing, especially one that needed to be a realistic likeness, without some assistance. So I took the photo of Kora, pasted it into a Pages (the Mac program) document, enlarged it to 8x10, and drew a 1x1" grid over the image. I then used a ruler and placed a small, faint dot at where each intersection would be on the paper. I then went square by square, lightly sketching in the outlines of the dog's main features and markings. When I was finished, I had a properly proportioned guide of faint lines ready to be filled and transformed.

The original photo with the grid.

The faint outline ensures that my drawing
will be properly proportioned for a realistic look.

For the bulk of the drawing, I used a relatively soft 4B graphite pencil sharpened to a fine point. I am right-handed, so I started in the upper left edge of the image, working my way down and across so that I wouldn't drag my hand through the soft graphite, which will smudge. The smudges are erasable, but the less you have to clean up, the better!

And so it begins!

To make the drawing, I opened the photo without the grid on my computer and expanded it so that it filled my entire screen. I then sat down in my easy chair, some ten feet away, put my cousin's new album on (Jameson & Co.'s "Out of the Canyon on Crutches"), and went to work, typically two hours at a time, which was as much work as my brain and eyes could handle.

The left eye emerges.

One of the ways in which drawing differs from photography is that there are so many different ways to go about it. You can draw realistically or choose a more loosely evocative style. You can make an image extremely detailed or minimally detailed. You have to decide how you will convey textures, colors, and shadows. It made me laugh when a Facebook commenter referenced Magritte's famous "The Treachery of Images" when I posted one of my collie sketches because I'd already been thinking about how, unlike when you photograph something, when you draw it, you are always making an interpretation, a translation of the object. I choose to point my camera in such a way that it shows people things that they don't necessarily see themselves, but everything I photograph is there, in the present, completely real. When I make a drawing, even if the end result is recognizable, it must come THROUGH me.

The left half of the face has been sketched in!

Drawing in a realistic fashion is not something I ever spent much time doing, even when I was drawing a great deal. I was interested in the emotionally evocative power of inked lines, so this way of drawing was new to me. So I thought back to my days of Life Drawing class in college (that's drawing humans from nude models, for those of you who weren't art students) and decided the best way to create a realistic look without messing it up was to draw the light and dark areas. You see, if you try to draw an eye, for example, you will end up drawing your idea of an eye, and chances are, your idea of an eye is not going to look right at all. If you want to draw an eye that looks like an eye and feels like an eye, you are best off drawing the curves, the shadows, the light, the dark, making yourself blind, as it were, to what the thing is, focusing instead on what is there. Part of why I seated myself at a distance from the computer screen displaying the image as I worked was because at a distance, I could more easily shift my focus to see not a dog with eyes and ears and charming spectacle markings, but an abstract form of shapes and shades.

We have a right eye!

Once I had drawn the entire face with the 4B pencil, I used an even blacker and softer 8B pencil to increased the blackness of the dark areas around the eyes and nose. I also smudged gentle layers of the soft 8B graphite over various parts of the fur and features to increase the depth and dimension of the figure.

Dark details have been added; it is now time to start erasing and refining!
You can see some of my fingerprints about the right ear.

I spent a great deal of time fine-tuning the piece, trying to get exactly the right balance of dark to light. I must confess that the right side of the face gave me a great deal of trouble: I erased and redrew it several times trying to get the highlights of the white fur near the eye just right! Ultimately, deciding when to stop working was one of the hardest parts of the process. It's tempting for a perfectionist to simply refine and refine and refine without committing to a final version.

This detail allows you to see the layers of cross-hatching and smudging and erasing that went into giving the muzzle its appearance of three dimensions.

A detail of the work around the eye.

I ended up being extremely pleased with the final result. As I said, I'd never attempted something exactly like this before and was rather impressed by how well it turned out! The many short pencil strokes I'd used for the base layer of the fur on her ears and forehead ended up working perfectly to capture the velvet texture of her fur and my concerted effort to capture the shapes of the light and dark areas on her face paid off as far as giving her muzzle a beautiful, natural, three-dimensional feeling. I'm pleased to report that Kora's owners have received this drawing and love it! I'll still be working on informal sketches, but it looks like there will be more formal dog portraits in my future. Thanks, Laurelin at A Dog A Day, for bringing drawing back into my life!

The finished portrait of Kora.

Interested in commissioning a dog portrait? 
You can contact me through my artist's Facebook page.
Visit my Etsy photo store at!

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

From Sunrise to Sunset, Nothing But Dogs!

I recently finished up a marathon stretch of dog-sitting gigs. As of Monday, I had been looking after either Sweetheart or Mr. Gorgeous for 17 out of the last 22 days. That's a lot of dog-sitting! And of course, that means a lot of dog photos.

Happy-go-lucky Sweetheart!

She continues to practice the philosophy that two toys are better than one. Here she experiments with the idea that three toys played with together are even better than two!

She was in the mood to chew, so I got her this rope bone to work on. She went at it with gusto, as is her approach to all things!

Sweetheart is a very handsome German Shepherd!

I transitioned straight from Sweetheart's house to Mr. Gorgeous', so I took Sweetheart along with me when I transferred some of my belongings and fed Mr. Gorgeous his dinner before finishing up at Sweetheart's house. Dusk was falling and I only took along my point-and-shoot, so this is the only picture of their meeting that turned out. Of course, this IS how dogs get to know each other!

The collie introduces himself to the German Shepherd in traditional canine fashion.

I spent a few days with Mr. Gorgeous and then went back to my house for a quick breather...

Mr. Gorgeous, resplendent in all his fur, indulges in a bit of sport.

...and then it was back to the collie's house again!

This is why I have given him the pseudonym "Mr. Gorgeous."

Pensive collie.

Action collie!

It was while I was at Mr. Gorgeous' lakefront house that I had a great view of all the weather. The first few days, the view looked a lot like this:

Rain obscures the opposite shore of the lake.

But then cold, clear weather moved in. I already highlighted one exceptionally beautiful morning in my previous post, but there were many more wonderful sunrises and sunsets. Unfortunately, part of the beauty of the sunsets is caused by poor air quality, as the high pressure system sits unmoving atop the pollution produced by people burning wood. But that aside, it was wonderful to watch the skies over the glassy lake!

Delicately tinted clouds at dawn.

On this evening, skies were clear over downtown Seattle while dark clouds brooded low over Mr. Gorgeous' house.

Those dark clouds soon produced a torrent of hail that was lit gold by the setting sun.

A low bank of purply clouds provided the perfect canvas for a sunset of radiant pinks touched with orange.

An utterly still day on the lake.

Another intense sunset, which morphed from orange to pink to this smoldering red, provides a dramatic backdrop for a bare tree.

While I was out and about with Sweetheart and Mr. Gorgeous, I also encountered some other great dogs. I didn't have my camera along (it was already too dark for taking pictures) on the evening when Mr. Gorgeous encountered a 10-month-old Rhodesian Ridgeback girl and engaged in a lovely bit of flirtatious play, but I managed to snap a few pictures of other dogs.

I was utterly delighted with this bulldog; Sweetheart was less delighted with this bulldog's companion, who used her dense bulldog bulk to say hello with a body slam!

This fellow is a regular at the park where I often take Mr. Gorgeous for a walk.

And where was my own dog all this time? At home, feeling rather stressed. She usually waits patiently in a resigned fashion for me to return when I'm off dog-sitting, but the length of my stay away, coupled with the fact that I'd been sick in bed for two months prior AND that she had a yellow dog to look after proved to be a bit much. Her yellow dog is a squeaky toy that she received for Christmas that she has taken to treating like a puppy. Unfortunately, she finds caring for a puppy, especially when I'm away, a worrisome burden. When I came home to visit, she would restlessly carry the yellow dog around in her mouth while softly crying. In the end, we had to put the yellow dog away in the cupboard so she wouldn't have to worry about it so much.

Abbey and her "puppy."

She didn't want to chew up her rawhide stick, either, carrying it around and whimpering during one of my visits.

I'm glad to report that now that I'm back home, Abbey has returned to her relaxed and playful self. As I write this, she is sleeping soundly on the pillow here in my study. While I'm excited to meet with a new client next week, I'm glad to be back home with only my own dog (and some dog art) to contend with for the time being!

Friday, January 11, 2013

Winter Morning on the Lake

The view of the lake from Mr. Gorgeous' house is lovely in any weather, but the world I saw when I rose this morning was the most beautiful I've ever witnessed there.

The temperature had dropped below freezing overnight and thick frost covered the grass and trees. 

As the early morning sun touched the lake, fog began to rise off the water.

As the fog rose in the frigid air, it froze and fell again as tiny flakes of snow.

I fumbled for my camera--too late--to photograph a trumpeter swan winging through the mist.

It was a sight so exquisite that I kept vigil at the window for two hours, camera at the ready, should the swan see fit to fly by again.

A flock of crows rent the morning with their caws...

...goldeneyes took flight...

...mergansers tipped their crested heads below the water...

...and Canada geese came ashore to feed upon the frozen grass, but nary a swan passed through the morning mist. 

Rather abruptly at 11:00 the frost began to thaw, so I took my camera out into the chilly air to capture images of the ephemeral frozen world while they still lasted.