Back to Black

with Vic Bearcroft


Vic Bearcroft offers some helpful advice for painting a black cat on a black background

Materials

Paper

  • Hahnemühle black velour pastel paper

Ashby Artists’ Soft Pastels:

  • Prussian
  • Blue (5)
  • Blue Grey (5)
  • Sap Green
  • Tint (5)

Faber Castell Polychromos Artists’ Pastels:

  • White
  • Light Green
  • Black

Extra:

  • Sandpaper block

Marley on black velour

The two most problematic aspects of painting animals are white and black fur. The main problems of course, are how to create depth in what are basically non-colours, but with extreme tonal values.

OK, before things get too technical, let me introduce you to Marley.

Marley is one of our family of rescue cats, and one of two black cats that we have. He came to us as a very young kitten a couple of years ago, with a bent nose and a busted upper lip; not the cutest of kittens. He has since turned into a very handsome cat, with quite a bit of ‘attitude’ thrown in.

Being totally black, drawing or painting Marley presents the usual problems – how to get depth and form while still conveying the darkness of his fur. Of course, as I have said before, if we were to paint him in natural light, we would have to ‘search out’ the underlying tones – blues or browns. There is, however, another way of painting black-coated animals, and that is to use a black support.

Using black paper means that you have to work in a totally different way than usual, but the end results can be quite atmospheric, even dramatic. If you have ever seen paintings by Caravaggio, with their intense black shadows and backgrounds, together with very light areas of highlight, then you’ll know what I mean.

Unfortunately, it seems that not a lot of people use the black velour; maybe they are a little apprehensive, because a totally black surface can look a little intimidating. I am hoping, therefore, that I can take away some of that concern, and show you how easy it is to produce a painting with relatively little effort, but with great rewards.

Let’s start by understanding the surface we will be working on.

When you look at a sheet of velour, it’s easy to imagine that it could appear intimidating; it is very black with quite a thick nap, and you begin to wonder how you could paint fine details on such a surface.

I’m not suggesting that it is the easiest support to work on, but that is more due to the colour than the actual velour surface. Any black surface is very absorbent, and you may find that you will have to apply more layers than usual to achieve the intensity of hue that you want. However, I still believe that the end results are worth the challenge; and, as artists, we all like a challenge, don’t we?

So, we have our paper, we have our materials, let’s get going.

1 First of all, trim the paper to size, in this case, 25 x 35 cm. Then, using a hard white pastel, sketch in a simple outline without fine details; the only detail inside the outline being the eye, nose and mouth. Remember, we’re trying to create an atmospheric sketch, rather than painting all the fur; the black velour is going to take care of that.

2 We could, of course, simply draw in the highlights of Marley’s fur with the white hard pastel; that too would look effective. However, I want to add some tone and depth to the black fur. If I imagine that Marley is ‘star-gazing’ at night, then his fur would take on a blue-ish tone, rather than the brown hints it shows in sunlight. So, with that in mind, loosely sketch in the same mid tone highlights as in the reference photo, but using the Prussian Blue soft pastel, giving a cool night-time appearance. Don’t be nervous about applying quite a bit of blue, as the paper will absorb it when you rub it in with your finger. At this time, apply a good layer of the soft Sap Green to the eye.

3 As we are working from dark to light, which is the usual way I work with pastels, use the Blue Grey soft pastel to paint in the next level highlight around the eye, nose and mouth in particular. The trick with black velour is to keep rubbing the pastel into the paper, which then holds it in the nap. By doing this of course, you may need to add more layers, as I said earlier, to achieve the hue you need. At this point add in the Light Green to the lower part of Marley’s eye to create a highlight on the iris.

4 Now it’s time for the next light layer. Use the hard white pastel now to paint in most of the final highlights in Marley’s fur, leaving the whiskers for now. Usually the lightest tone, in this case white, is what people will see first, so this is the point where you need to put in fine, drawing detail. The blues and greys should now start to recede, where they belong.

5 Now you will start to see the dramatic transformation that black velour gives you. Take the hard black pastel – yes, you can use black on black – re-define the slit pupil in the eye, as well as tidying up around the iris; it should be neat and crisp to make the eye stand out. Do the same around the nose, especially the nostril. Incidentally, you can use the side of the black pastel to shade over any unsightly marks on your paper; this is easier than trying to rub them out. Then, with the white hard pastel, put the reflection into Marley’s eye; I suppose this could always be moonlight through the window.

6 Make sure your white pastel is sharp now. To do this, hold it upright on an SAA sanding block and square the end off again, giving you four sharp corners to work with. Then you can draw in the delicate hairs and whiskers to finish Marley’s moonlight portrait.

I really hope that you will have a go at this demonstration. There isn’t an awful lot of drawing or pastel painting involved; but, because you concentrate on the highlights, the black velour takes care of the black fur for you.

Above all, I encourage you to be bold and try something a little different. If you have your own version of Marley at home, try this technique; Marley and I would love to see the results!