Sketching at Como Conservatory

February 5, 2012


Above: Photo of a 9 x 12 sheet of Nostalgie (Hahnemühle) on which I used a .3 (and then for the right eye on our left I used a .005) Staedtler Pigment Liner. You can see warm up sketches with the .3 pen at various places on the page. The eye at the bottom of the page was a test run before I put the eye in on the finished sketch. (I'd left the iris and pupil blank until the very end. Typically I start with the eye and work outward when I am working from life, but the proportions of Becca's head were stumping me—a good case of draw what you see, not what you think you see! I did a rough shape of the head, like the central aborted drawing, and then kept working up from there with details.) I worked on loose sheets so I could give the sketch to my friend. Becca is wearing a little service vest that I only started to sketch. I took this photo in the greenhouse at a cloudy moment so it is a bit gray. Nostalgie is actually a very white paper.

Saturday I had a pleasant afternoon diversion. A friend was kind enough to meet me at the Como Conservatory with her service dog Becca for a drawing session. I sat on the edge of a fountain opposite where they sat on a bench (well Becca was on the ground at my friend's feet) and did warm up sketches with a Pentel Pocket Brush Pen. My friend pulled out her journal and sketched me: Project Journal Infiltration lives!

After a few sheets of practice sketches I started to work on sketches I hoped I could actually finish (by that I mean I hoped that Becca would return to a certain pose which I could then complete). But my hand wasn't liking the PPBP or my Faber-Castell Pitt Artist's Calligraphy pen on this day, so I went for a more detailed approach with the Staedtler Pigment Liner. 

Becca, as service dogs must be, is very calm, and while she would upon occasion look up at her owner and look around at the pedestrians, and at one point joined me in regarding a child speaking in tongues, intent upon making a connection with the three of us, Becca remained basically still. She was a wonderfully patient model.

Becca is a black lab, a very petite one. The lighting in the conservatory was actually quite nice for sketching a black dog. The overcast sky provided plenty of light, some spotty sunlight, but always enough light to show values and planes.

I haven't drawn a black lab for a long while and my tendency was to make her a little more "fluffy" than she is (though she actually does have some lovely fluffy fur). The head of this breed is actually more round and at the same time more square than the breeds I'm used to drawing. So Becca remains an interesting puzzle I hope to have many opportunities to sketch. I think it would also be great fun to play with blue gouache and create this face in different poses. 

As you know, one isn't supposed to pet service dogs. When I arrived I asked, wanting to be respectful, if I couldn't at some point pet Becca before we were finished. My friend said, "We could do that now." And I said, looking down at Becca's lovely, lovely eyes, "Yes I think we'd better." The moment the release word was spoken Becca started to wiggle and came forward gently to greet me. It was wonderful. And all the more miraculous that she can perform her job so well. 

    • Sheryl C
    • February 5, 2012

    What a lovely, sensitive drawing! Your narrative makes me wish I could’ve been there – “a child speaking in tongues” 😀

  1. Reply

    Thanks Sheryl. It was a very pleasant chat and sketching time for me. I have very patient friends. I’m struck by that every day, and grateful. There was a lot going on around us. But that child—direct eye contact and firm belief in the power of words.

    If one were making a film it would be the moment when we would shift into flashback—but would it be a flashback from my point of view or from Becca’s? Since I’m older I’d be the logical choice, but I think Becca’s past and view and interpretation would be more interesting. How assured are children that everyone understands them, whether that everyone is another person or a dog.

    • Leslie Schramm
    • February 5, 2012

    My neighbour is a dog walker/dog taxi and occasionally has a dog in emergencies. She had a service dog (Guide dog here) Without the code word that dog would work all day. When she went to the loo the dog came too, and fetched the toilet roll. Dog was pretty much silent, and amazing to be with. Set off the code word and she ran around full of the joys of Spring.My hat goes off to the trainers, quite amazing work. Not so impressed by the lady with the 300lb donkey sized mountain of black curly hair of a dog. I go to help pull this thing into the van; so it can get a shampoo. I think I’d clip it like a sheep and knit jumpers

    • February 5, 2012

    AWESOME. sketch and dog.

    • PeggySu
    • February 5, 2012

    Thanks for this cheering post.

    By coincidence today’s NYT Sunday Magazine has a wonderful article about an organization that trains service dogs for disabled childen. There is also a video showing some of the dogs!

    I hope this link works!

  2. Reply

    PeggySu, thanks for sending the link to the very interesting article about the service dog and the child with fetal alcohol syndrome. I found it very interesting. I disagree with the last paragraph however, and I believe, having lived with two dogs and worked to help train hundreds of others (in tracking) that the dog does know the child is impaired. I think to say otherwise is to ignore the intelligence of the animal. Dogs respond differently (as the article makes clear) than humans, but the response is still based on the concrete knowledge that the child is impaired. They just don’t judge it.

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