You would think that having co-authored a book on how to needle felt animals would give me the skill, confidence and speed to quickly turn out a pet portrait. No such luck!
I understand that people may be deceived in thinking making a pet portrait is a piece of cake especially when they have seen the 'true-to-life animals' that I have needle felted! In truth there is quite a skill to turn any Labrador into the loved pet Labrador so familiar to its adoring owners. And this is where the problem lies: the owner of such pets will know whether that needle felted mini version of their companion does indeed look and feel like the original. I get sweaty hands just thinking about the moment when first glances of expectation are cast onto the needle felted replicas of loved and adored pets!
And so I resisted these particular customers for a year to make a pet cat portrait until I could no longer find an excuse why I could not make them a cat like the one I made in our book Making Needle Felted Animals
The truth that I withheld from them is I struggle immensely when it comes to capturing the essence that makes a cat, dog, rabbit etc look exactly like the owner's pet. Biscuit, the cat was no different. And as some of you may know, cats are especially difficult to capture, in real life and as a needle felt scupture!
It all seemed straight forward to start with. My customers even came to See me to point out the colour wool which I realise In retrospect was perhaps were the problem started as it rendered me less flexible to divert from that chosen colour. The said cat which had the charming name of Biscuit was a ginger tabby cat and I received by email about 8 different photos of Biscuit sitting up, lying down, looking into the camera, looking away, upside down... On each photo he looked a slightly different shade depending on where the photo was taken and the light that was around.
That In itself provided the first problem. How ginger was biscuit? And did you know that ginger coloured sheep wool is almost impossible to find? Yes, there is alpaca and of course you dye your own with onion skins but I did not have the time nor access to the alpaca fleece.
There I was with my lying down cat covered in a neutral beige (karakul merino mix) ready to receive his ginger stripes. It was a friend who saved me (not for the first time!) She pointed out that the base colour I had chosen (well, that was chosen for me, somebody needs to be blamed!) was a cool colour and any ginger that I would add would have to be mixed with the base colour but it just did not look right mixing a cool colour with a warm colour. I found just what I needed (how lucky am I to co-own a needlefelting supplies shop). I covered Biscuit in a warm honey karakul and decided to use our fox rust brown dyed New Zealand merino the colour of a warm reddish brown to create the nuances of ginger by mixing my base colour into it. This I did by hand but I could have done it with small steel wired dog brushes too (link to tutorial how to mix wool).
As I had already made the head and eyes I thought I was nearly there! Wrong again! Once I realised that I found the right colour for the body I also realised that the reason why Biscuit still did not look like Biscuit the cat was because the head was wrong as well. It was too small, the ears positioned wrongly and were too thick, the eyes too superficial. It was a good learning curve for me though painful too because I had to work loads of the head again including removing eyes and ears. It showed me that the wrong colouring of the cat distorted my picture of him and at that point I could not see what was wrong with his head. I made his cheeks bigger by layering more wool over it and built up more layers at the back of the head too to increase the size. It was a real pain as I had already put hours into working his face and eyes. Ah, yes that reminds me, cat's eyes! Tricky if you decide to needle felt them. In Biscuit's case it was almost impossible to determine whether they were Yellow or green or something in between. I had to check with his owners which confirmed what I already guessed, they were a green yellow or a yellow green! And that is what I did. I mixed a pale green with a golden yellow and that seemed to do the trick. Also giving him proper round pupils rather than slits worked in his case (reference to book about making eyes). Adding the tiniest of a white fleck for the reflection brought the eyes alive..
Don't ever underestimate the time it takes to add patterns to any Animal you are making! It catches me out regularly and Biscuit the cat was no different. Whether it is stripes or spots or lines, it takes time. The reason for that is that they have to be integrated and with cats cannot be superficial. This meant that I had to mix different shades of ginger and copy as best as I could directly from the images that I had received. I took guidance by photos that were clearly taken in daylight and decided that Biscuit was a light Ginger cat. Funny that I kept thinking about real ginger biscuits and what colour they are. There must have been a reason why he was called Biscuit! And this leads me to the most Important and most challenging aspect of making an actual portrait: trying to capture the personality, temperament and essence of this particular much loved animal. No easy task and certainly no piece of cake! It took me hours to look beyond the photographic evidence and really see the cat's being. He looked like a gentle giant, confident and full of himself, loving and loved. At that point it probably would have been helpful to check back with the owners how they would describe him and if you are attempting a pet portrait for people you don't know definitely ask how they would describe the pet's personality! My only way of communicating with my customers was via email as they lived a long way away and I never even thought to talk to them On the phone.... My proudest moment arrived when I found a tiny blue bell (size) and a little tag that said 'handmade' to double up as the tag Biscuit wore. I also had a 3mm light blue velvet ribbon In the shop (told you I am lucky!) and I made an exact copy of the collar Biscuit wears!
[links to portrait needle filters! our book and website]