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Every once in a while a commission comes my way and I’ll get really jazzed up about the subject matter. A gal was flipping through matted prints of my acrylic animals during my last show. After a while she showed me a photo of her pup, Viola. I’ve always wanted to paint a French bulldog – I mean, how can you not love that face? We exchanged information and I was crossing my fingers that she’d commission a painting. I was excited to get a message from her later that day saying “Start!”

I am notorious to take forever and a day to complete commissions so it was quite unusual for me to begin gathering materials as soon as I got her message. From the photo she sent I selected my colors and prepared my canvas. The only question I asked her was “What is Viola’s favorite color?” Our animals have favorite snacks, sleeping spots, tv shows, windowsills to sit on and music to sing along to. Of course they have favorite colors! Viola’s favorite colors were soft pink, purple and a touch of peacock blue.

Materials: 12″ x 12″ deep canvas, decorative collage paper, red colored pencil, matte medium acrylic brushes: very small round, 1/2″ wide bright, 1″ wide bright acrylic paint: dioxazine purple, Pthalo blue, titanium white, yellow ochre, cadmium red light. I always get my materials from University Art Center in San Jose – shop local homegrown businesses and keep our art supply stores around for the long haul!

STEP 1: I covered my 12″ x 12″ deep canvas with a variety of collage paper in the pink family and glued them in place using matte medium. Matte medium is a wonderful glue and sealant in addition to being a superb painting medium. I then stained the collage paper with a glaze of dioxazine purple and Pthalo blue. I also made sure to cover the sides of the canvas at this stage for continuity. When everything was dry to the touch (which only takes a few minutes) I sketched Viola with my red colored pencil.

STEP 2: Dioxazine purple and Pthalo blue make a lovely violet. Using this combination I blocked in the shadows and darks in varying degrees of saturation. Viola’s eyes being the darkest point in the painting begin to establish them as a focal point. I use the matte medium to increase transparency where needed.

STEP 3: Now I add the highlights by mixing yellow ochre and titanium white. During these beginning stages I am using my 1/2″ wide brush to keep the brush strokes loose and bold. It’s so much fun to get the paint on the canvas that sometimes I start to get lost in the details. By using a bigger brush I can keep myself on track. I am a sucker for complementary colors – I just love how the yellow and purple play off each other.

STEP 4: One of the many things I preach in my classes is “Change your water!” I use a big water bucket so I need to go to the sink less-often. It’s funny though, changing your water is a refreshing way to clear your mind for a few moments away from your painting. I’ll usually change my water before I begin the next phase of my project. In this case, before I flesh out the muscles and the detailing the rest of the fur. P.S. STILL using the 1/2″ wide brush…

The final touches…Here is where I use a hint of cadmium red light. This is a powerful, warm red and I use it sparingly in her ears, nose, around the eyes and in her toenails. Now I use my smallest round brush to mix a variety of muted tones to add detail. I am such a fan of using “limited palettes” as my color schemes. You can’t help but have color harmony if you limit yourself to a few select colors. I can easily jump between color combinations and tweak by increasing one color or another. Here are some examples:


In my mind, the eyes are the most exciting element in any portrait, animal or human. They are my dessert and I like to save them for last. I’ll know the painting is complete when the eyes are perfect. The highlight is vital – placement, intensity and color all have to be thought out. If the highlight is in the exact center of the pupil the painting can look like a bad family photo before red-eye was autocorrected. If there is no highlight then the subject tends to look a little zombie-ish. I take my highlights very seriously. With Viola’s eyes finished I add a flourish of a bow for personality and composition.


When I unwrapped her for my client I could see a wave of emotions on her face. She held my hand and said, “It’s her!” I’m so glad that I was able to paint this pretty little girl and capture her personality. Thanks, Viola, for being as adorable as you are!

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