Thinking about Painting Sheep

May 27, 2011

110507SheepB Left: A journal page of sketches of one of the sheep I saw at the recent Shepherd's Festival. This is from a journal I made using Nideggen. It's approximately 7 x 10 inches. I used Staedtler Pigment Liner and Schmincke gouache.

I am way behind in scanning pages from my journal. This is a good thing because it means that I'm getting a lot of sketching done. It's a bad thing in the sense that I'm also behind in posting "current events." On May 7, 2011 I went to sketch out at the Shepherd's Festival (it has longer title but frankly I have no patience for typing it) in Lake Elmo. I was joined during the day by 7 other sketchers and it was fun to chat and see some work get done!

I thought I would take a short moment to talk about why I make all these pages and pages of sketches, most of which no one else ever sees!

First it's simply too fun not too. I mean, really, look at the lovely ewe on the journal page, those adorable eyes, the elegant ears. She was putting out wool like there was no tomorrow for the weaver who owned her!

So it's fun.

But also I'm always sketching because I never know when someone will ask me to sketch something for them and actually pay me! Practice becomes essential, but also, having your own reference material is essential.

When you draw something from life you see things that you wouldn't normally see, even if the light is poor as it was in the bar on this day.

You see the way the skin folds, you see the way the muscles flex beneath the skin. How the fur grows—the direction, the quality of thickness or brilliancy or curl—you see it all, in a way that you can't see in a photo (unless you are one of 4 superb photographers I know taking the photographs). There is also movement that happens and gets absorbed by you when you observe. And you see nuances in color that are essential for the understanding of the animal.

So second, I draw because I need the information.

If you are going to take your own photos during a sketching trip recommend that you always sketch first and take photos afterward. Your time will probably be limited and it's more important to spend the bulk of your time really looking and absorbing the details from life. If you run out of time it's better to shortchange photo time.

When I am out at events like this I also have a small (small) camera with me. On this day I took a couple photos after sketching the animal. There wasn't enough light (you don't want to use flash to startle the animal) to get much detail, and the photos are a bit blurry because of the movement. They are, however, sufficiently good, when coupled with my on-site sketches, to allow me to create a portrait or painting of this animal.

When I decide that I want to paint an animal I go and sketch it from life as I've done here. Then I come back to the studio and using my sketches and any photos I took while on site, I start to do studies and thumbnail sketches. The second image in this post is one of those studies. You can read about it in the caption.

SheepStudy3790 Left: Photo (because the 9 x 12 inch book is too large for me to scan) of a study of a sheep's head. I sketched this head using my journal sketches and a on-site photo that I put up on my computer screen. I used a Pentel Pocket Brush Pen and then painted over the ink lines with gouache. Because I had sketched from life earlier I could include the white eye lashes which were not visible on the photo. Also I had notes about the eye which I could then use to capture it in detail. The photo showed only a solid darkness.

Studies help me decide the scale I want to work in, the detail, the media, the surface, the many things that go into making a final decision about how you want the painting to be.

At the same time I do studies I also do thumbnail sketches. I don't have any of those to show you for this sheep because I haven't decided if I want to paint her or not. How I want to portray her hasn't popped into my mind yet: portrait only, full body in a scene, etc. Until I have a sense of that I won't paint her. This study was actually an enormous thumbnail sketch, to see if I liked the cropping and to judge what I would do with detail. And it also served as a trial run to see whether or not I liked working with a looser approach.

Thumbnail sketches are small sketches that are used to plan out a painting. Typically they are smaller than 2 x 3 inches, but every artist has his own approach. They are useful for working out a value scheme, notan, and composition.

You can see how I turn a thumbnail sketch into a painting here with Day 29 of my bird a day painting project. Use the link on that page to toggle back and forth between the thumbnail I referred to when painting and the painting. Another fun transformation can be seen in Day 20's bird (again use the link on that page to toggle between the life-drawing sketch I made on-site at the Minnesota State Fair, and the painting it became). The two paintings referenced in this paragraph are actually from the same journal card, depicting the same bird. It shows how you can utilize your sketches as reference material  for totally different results. (You can see the 30 Birds in 30 Days Show installed here.)

SheepEyeDetail3796 Left: a detail of the ewe's eye so that you can see I'm playing with dry brush on this textured paper, to create my shading. During this process I'm deciding how I want to handle paint, what type of paint, and what colors I want to use.

I haven't decided what I'm going to do about this ewe. I do know that I want to go large—perhaps because the art supply store as a sale on really, really large canvases right now? Or just because it would be fun.

I don't know when I'll have time to pursue this, however, now that I have sketched from life and done a study, I have a sense of the direction I want to go. If you could observe me in my spare time you would probably see me fiddling with thumbnail sketches. Then it will be time to go get one of those canvases. We'll see. I think I'm going to go do some thumbnail sketches right now.

    • judith
    • May 27, 2011

    Roz-you really are the most generous blogger-with your time, with sharing thoughts, with process and with these wonderful images. I learn and enjoy so much from you. Thank you.

  1. Reply

    Thank you Judith. I should have perhaps waited to write this until I had a finished painting, but I don’t want to “get behind.” I’m glad you find the blog interesting and helpful. I can’t stop chatting. I figure the blog takes the pressure off my in-town friends. Otherwise I’d be eating up all their time chatting about art-related stuff!

  2. Reply

    Lovely sketches! Now how did you know I was thinking about sheep? lol! Sheep may look docile and meek, but they have a lot of personality underneath that fleece and are anything but silly! Ask anyone with a small flock how different they can be with their little quirks and habits. I shall be very interested in seeing any follow up you do and whether you find any other breeds to sketch.
    BTW, Leicester is my very favourite spinning fleece!

  3. Reply

    Caroline, It’s great to know that these sheep produce great wool! It makes me happy. They sure were lovely.

    • Lauren Wilson
    • May 28, 2011

    Hi Roz,A friend forwarded your link to me to have a look at the sheep. I am impressed. How refreshing that someone takes the time to pay attention to detail such as eyelashes. Super. I am a sheep breeder,and, your detail is excellent. You have captured “expression”. A lot of people don’t realize that sheep all have different expressions. Well done.Lauren

  4. Reply

    Lauren, thank you very much. I’m glad a sheep breeder liked these. I think all animals are individual so I like to find bits about them, even when I’m stylizing them.

    I hope you’ll check back in September, I’ll be posting my State Fair sketches then and I’m sure to have some sheep in the mix!!!!!

  5. Reply

    Love your sheep sketches. I don’t see well enough to see the details without taking a photo or getting quite close to the animal and using reading glasses. (The doctor says I see 20/20 in my right eye but I can’t possibly or I’d see what my kids see which I do not). Blown up photos help me out although I’d love to get close enough to see those details in person. I can get close enough to my goats but I am still having trouble with them moving around too much. Guess I need to get out and practice more. I would sure love to see what you end up painting sheepwise.

  6. I have been talking about this subject a lot lately with my father so hopefully this will get him to see my point of view. Fingers crossed!

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