When my daughter Rachel was about two years old I hit upon an idea for a portrait of her — Rachel surrounded by a group of animals. I’m not sure what sparked the concept, but it’s very likely that I was inspired by Mercer Mayer’s What Do You Do With a Kangaroo, one of my all-time favorite children’s books. In that book, a young girl interacts with various animals including a kangaroo, possum, raccoon, llama, moose and tiger.
I did a quick sketch, showing Rachel standing confidently, surrounded by the wild animals. Notice the scribbled notes to myself indicating the animals I envisioned.
I quite liked the idea and the composition, so I developed it further. In these early sketches I included several animals that would end up not making the cut: the tortoise (lower-left), gorilla (top), and monkey (lower-right). The monkey was replaced by a crocodile, and I simply had no room for the other two. However, the gorilla and tortoise did make it into a similar painting I did of my daughter Eliana some years later.
I made the decision to portray the animals realistically which required research. This was 1998, and although the Web was around, there was no Google image search. Instead, I plumbed my image clip file and my collection of National Geographic magazines to create a series of fairly detailed sketches.
I then had Rachel pose for some reference photos. Initially I wanted her to stand with her hands on her hips, but she couldn’t quite get the pose right. So I had her stand with her arms crossed instead.
Finally it was time to create the painting, using my standard ink and watercolor technique. But almost immediately I found myself disappointed in the direction it was going. I had failed to capture Rachel’s likeness with the ink line, and the colors were muddy and dull. Frustrated I almost gave up.
But then I had a radical idea—to redo the piece with acrylic paints instead. I worked in acrylics only occasionally, because of the time required to paint with them. But I had had good results with the medium when I did use it, and the thought of painting the animals with the thick viscous paint somehow appealed to me.
The results were far more successful. The animals were much more colorful and lifelike. And Rachel looked like Rachel. Not that it was perfect; I was less satisfied with the left side of the painting which consisted of three brown-gray animals. So a few months later I replaced the kudu (a type of African antelope) with a mandrill, a kind of baboon with a very colorful face. I also added a flamingo, to brighten the top-left corner.