• Annalisa Rivera

Behind the Scenes: Hugo's Dream

Folks have been asking to learn more about the motivations behind my paintings, so I’m sharing more here on my blog!



Hugo's Dream, a 6x6 acrylic painting, is the smallest work I’ve done to date and is based on two fish models, that of my betta buddy Hugo, and a general fancy betta breed. It also happens to be my first ever pet portrait.


Hugo was a beautiful, shiny, blue and red dragon scale betta, sometimes known as a Siamese Fighting Fish. Contrary to that title, each betta has its own unique personality, and they are friendly -or at least indifferent- to many other kinds of fish and aquatic creatures. Males only fight other males for territory and females. So, our buddy Hugo has non-betta friends- bright little neons, cory catfish with funny mustaches, and a Siamese algae eater, Festus, who keeps the tank clean.


Hugo, like many of our betta pets, was very friendly to people, especially us. He came to the front of the tank when we came home, happily flapping his fins in excitement as a dog would wag a tail. While I won't teach my fish funny tricks like pushing an underwater soccer ball, Hugo learned some basic skills, like knowing where food with a gentle tap pattern on the glass, and to come where I directed him (sometimes for a treat). He also loved music. We discovered he loved Simon and Garfunkel songs, especially a song called Cecilia. We knew he was happy because he came over to the side where the sound is coming from and flap his fins faster, focused on it.


Last year, one of my cousins asked me to paint a small canvas with a fancy betta on it. I looked at a typical fancy betta, with oversized fins and a giant fan sized tail. They are beautiful but like many overbred pets, these marvels make the fish front or rear heavy, making it hard for the little guys to swim and often making their life span shorter. They all move with confidence though!


Bettas, especially males, like to make themselves look as big and important ​as possible, usually by stretching their fins, and sometimes, when angry or annoyed, by stretching out their gills. I call this "lion face". I thought Hugo with his practical, balanced shape might imagine himself extra large at that time by having the finds as big as a fancy betta. So I combined his unique scale pattern with the fancy betta by sketching the shape on the canvas and adding many layers of paint. In the final layers, I experimented with metallic pigments to give the painting the same kind of shine his scales have. You can't see it in still photos, but boy how it shines like the real thing when you see the original!


Once the painting dried, I held the painting up for Hugo to see. I often am nearby the tank when I work, and he hovered in the water, waiting to see what I'm up to. When I showed him this painting, he stretched his fins out and made as big a lion face as he could. That meant he recognized it as another male- almost as if I'd held up a mirror! It also meant that my painting was complete.


I'm very glad I had Hugo in my life, and I will always an extra special memory of him attached to that painting.


Though the original painting has a home, if you'd like an art print on canvas, or other home goods, you can pick up my work via my RedBubble or Fine Art America shops.


Let me know if you enjoyed reading about Hugo's Dream!


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©2020 by Annalisa Rivera