Portable mural process: Cheetah cut-out

Blank cheetah cut-out

Blank cheetah cut-out

Woke up with a new idea on Saturday morning (1/13/13). One thing about being a commercial artist was I always needed to do designs that other people wanted done for the sake of income. Now, in a new town with few connections and no present clients, I decided to take the plunge and paint a subject I would really love, as a wooden cutout suitable as a portable “mini-mural,” and try to market that.

Walked out into the garage to fetch morning juice from the extra ‘frig and there were the perfect boards–former temporary countertops from my parents’ kitchen remodel! They are some form of reconstituted wood, finer than particle board.

The next task was wondering what tool to use to cut. After a little crowdsourcing on Facebook plus an experiment of my own, and I had the answer: the hand-held jigsaw my dad already had on hand. By the afternoon I had a life-sized cheetah cut out.

Next, I put a couple of layers of dark, almost-black base coat on the backside and the front. I already had several suitable half-gals of latex housepaint I had picked up as “mistints” for $1 each at Sherwin-Williams. I had to let the cheetah sit untouched for several days while working at my part-time job and taking care of my grandmother, but was able to transfer the details, e.g., eyes, spots, etc., over the base coat using my opaque projector at night. I finally had time (and plucked up the courage) to start painting Thursday night (1/17/13).


Cheetah eye

I started out not knowing how to paint fur, but I did know that I could do fine if I had a nice photo reference. I used at least four for this cheetah. I started with the face, since I knew that would be the heart of its personality, and what people would respond to right away. Also, every mural painter knows you paint from the top down, so that you are never in danger of dripping on parts you already completed. Even though I could move this little cutout in any position, it seemed best to stick to my rule-of-thumb.

To get the eye to have the same brilliance as the real eye, I used gold metallic craft paint mixed in with my acrylics. They really do shimmer!

Cheetah face minus a few finishing details. 1/18/13

Cheetah face minus a few finishing details

By the following evening the face was mostly complete.

By somewhat of an accident I started brushing on the fur lightly with a different brush and found the fur effect I wanted to go for. Cheetah have lightly coarse fur. The individual hairs are not smooth and silky, but very slightly wavy, which I know from petting the famous late Chewbakka from the Cheetah Conservation Fund, and from working with other cheetah there.  With the dark background already in place, a great deal of depth and shading was easy to achieve with the light -colored brush strokes against the near-black, reminding one of a black-velvet painting. Progress went very quickly after that, and soon most of the body was covered. The spots at this point were just places I had not covered with the lighter fur paint. I would also go back later and put additional layers of fur, so the light areas would be more opaque against the dark background.

Cheetah's body nearly covered, and Sidney the large housecat standing in for scale.

Cheetah’s body nearly covered, and Sidney the large house cat standing in for scale

The next day was the most difficult part since beginning the process–the feet. I had saved them for last for more reasons than that they were at the bottom of the piece. There are very few good photo-references for feet, and almost none for a cheetah in this exact pose and lighting conditions. After a couple of tense hours, they were in. Then, I went back and retouched the spots, adding many that got covered up or were never drawn on in the beginning.

Finally, I added details to the face–more spots, some subtle details around the eyes and nose, and whiskers. It really brought the cheetah to life!

Cheetah in backyard

All done!

Here is the final product! I’ve since opened an Etsy store from which to sell this and other similar pieces, with the intent to give part of the proceeds to my favorite wildlife conservation organizations, like the Cheetah Conservation Fund, where I spent two weeks volunteering in Namibia.

It feels riskier than what I’ve done in the past to make art first, and then find a buyer, but really that is the  business model of fine-artists everywhere! I’m going to follow my heart and paint what I love, give towards what is important to me, and trust that the people who find value in what I offer will appear.


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