Lucy Tidbury paints stunningly true to life portraits that capture not only the image of the animal but the essence of their characters, too.
Full article from edition 8, Spring-Summer 2015
By Geoffrey Stubbs
Images scanned by Sansoms
Meet Jed. Jed is a working, short-haired collie employed at Steeple Leaze Farm in the rolling heart of Purbeck, just a stone’s throw from picturesque Kimmeridge. As far as serious dogs go, he does have a slightly dopey-Staffie countenance, for which his portraitist Lucy Tidbury is unapologetic. ‘He’s a working dog but he’s completely daft as a brush, he’s so soppy – as soon as you go to see him he just rolls over and wants to have cuddles. You wouldn’t really know he’s a proper working dog to look at him, although he’s very intelligent, he’s also a bit dippy and kind of clumsy, and I think that’s what I tried to capture in this painting.’
Normally, we might expect the situation to be the reverse but for contrast we introduce Willow. ‘The spaniel, Willow, is a working cocker, a gun dog – always alert, always ready to go and get whatever there is to get, and even when he’s relaxing he’s always got one eye open to see what’s going on.’ Two dogs, both workers, two very different personalities; Lucy manages to capture them equally. ‘I always ask to meet the dog first; I know it sounds a bit daft but I kind of need to get to know their quirks and their little personalities and all their little traits so that I can get that across in the painting.’
Daft? Not a bit. Perhaps this comment betrays her training in painting landscape. There is little difference between people and animals when it comes to portraiture and in getting to know ‘their quirks and little personalities’ Lucy follows ancient tradition. It is this element of insight rather than superior technical proficiency, which is more or less readily obtainable (don’t we wish), that delineates her paintings from the crowd. Between reality and the artist’s perception lies the execution; and the work is modified yet again in the minds of its viewers. So it is the artist’s interpretation that must carry through for a work to have impact, and that may be achieved via meticulous labour or with a single brushstroke.
So, what is going on, technically? ‘I always use oil paints but I mix them with linseed oil to thin it out a bit; then you can get the fine lines. I use a flat brush so that I can get that edge that looks like hair. Where I want to make it look a bit finer, around the nose for example, I add a little more oil to thin it out so you get the richness of texture, but when I want more depth of colour, like the ears of the spaniel, I use less of the oil and more of the colour (i.e. thicker paint). But it’s all about the brush. You’ve got to have a really good brush, and then it’s down to technique, getting into it and having a play, really.’
Lucy also uses ‘a very, very fine tipped brush for details in the eyes, and before I start a painting I’ll often use a big brush to create a wash, particularly if they require a background… so you’re not starting with a blank. It also depends on the dog – if it’s a bulldog, for example, it’s not so much about the hair as the wrinkles, so I use a finer set of brushes.’
It’s not just what we see in these images that lend them a sense of immediacy, but what we don’t. ‘I tend to keep the background plain because it makes the dog stand out more and also looks a bit more modern, in some ways. I’m happy to do a background but I feel, personally, that it can detract a bit from the dog; it’s up to the individual. It’s all about the face and the character of the animals.’
Speaking of which – we haven’t mentioned a certain symbol of Britishness on these pages. ‘That’s Marley, the bulldog. Unfortunately, I couldn’t get to meet him because his owner lives in Colchester. She found me on the internet… she sent loads and loads of pictures of Marley and his sister Nellie. Because she sent so many photographs I kind of got to know their characters and I spoke to her on the phone quite a lot, which helped. So you can do it without a meeting but I prefer to, if possible. It’s not always; I paint a lot of portrait of dogs that have passed away, too.’
Pet portraiture is an area Lucy seems to have fallen into. ‘When I left college, it was all landscapes… I visited my mum in Wales where there was a field of cows behind her home, and I just thought – I’ll paint them, because they were just really inquisitive. And I found I really liked painting them. So from cows I went to other animals. Someone asked me to paint their dog (portrait, not coat, readers) and they were so happy with it, it just kind of snowballed from there.
‘I like painting things with character, particularly dogs. I mean, I like cats, horses, ducks – which I’ve done recently; anything that has personality. Dogs are probably most popular because so many people have them – and they just love their dogs. I’ve actually done someone’s fish, which was fun. It was a tropical fish, so lots of nice colours in it. I had a lady ask me the other day if I would paint frogs. I’d like to paint reptiles because you can get some really good textures and colours in them, but I don’t know if I’d really like to go and meet them.’
See more of Lucy’s beautiful portraits at lucyspetportraits.com