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Commissioned Portraits: Starting Over, Early Lessons in Working With Photos

Three Black and White Cats, pastel, 16 x 22 © Bernadette E. Kazmarski
Three Black and White Cats, pastel, 16 x 22 © Bernadette E. Kazmarski

“These three were littermates, and were rarely seen far from each other. My customer had commissioned it as a gift for her parents—she had given them the cats as kittens, and they lived to their teens. The positioning is a little odd, but this was a gift, and this was the only photo available, and it ended up making a very interesting portrait.”

That’s what I had to say back in 1993 when I painted this portrait and began to set up my artwork portfolios, literal photo albums of my paintings, portraits and other commissioned works with their stories and information, and sometimes even reference photos. I wanted people who wanted commissioned artwork to see my materials and inspirations and I loved to share the stories of the subjects as well as the portraits themselves.

About the lesson

But I didn’t tell the whole story of the genesis of this portrait, and the lesson I learned about composition and working with photos when I worked on this portrait, lessons I’ve used with every portrait since.

It’s one of the rare portraits where I started painting and decided it wouldn’t work, abandoned that initial effort and started over, and so I have two portraits of these three black and white cats.

One of the things I remembered one of my art teachers telling us somewhere along in school was that there are no mistakes, you should always try to make your work “work”. It’s a lesson in flexibility, learning to change your vision and reimagining a work. When I recommitted myself to working as an artist in the mid-80s I had two rules that I felt would help me be successful:

  • Don’t abandon a work and start over.
  • Don’t abandon a work and never return to it.

In the first case, you can decide you don’t like something in your work and start over a dozen times because there will always be something you don’t like. In the second it’s difficult to take a work seriously if you don’t commit to finishing it, and sometimes it means you don’t take yourself seriously. In both cases you learn far more about your skills and what skills you need to develop by “working it out”, and you develop your own self-esteem and pride in your work by finishing everything you start. The lesson for me was to take the time to really understand what I wanted to say with a work, to explore it thoroughly in my mind, whether it was a commission or not, and found that also helped me build my skills because I didn’t start wandering mid-composition, and I would be forced to experiment as I was painting. I still observe both of these today, and they made me successful in both my commercial design career as well as my fine art career.

And in summary, “perfect” is a myth. Your work will never be perfect because each of us sees things differently, and even we see things differently moment to moment. Give it up, it is what it is. Go and work on another.

About this portrait

I’ve always loved this portrait from way back at my beginnings, the simple attentiveness of three tuxedo siblings to their human. I’ve come to love that position of animals looking up because it’s so familiar, it’s what we see all the time. This was one of the first, though, and most portraits have the subjects more or less at eye level, looking at them front-on, not from above, and in fact I remember it being discouraged somewhere I’d read in my study of portraiture.

Also, most other animal portrait artists I’d seen used the photo exactly as it was given to them, and I didn’t always care for the result. So what did you do when you received a photo that didn’t fit those parameters? I didn’t know what to do, in part because I didn’t want to change an image they obviously treasured, and to date I’d always worked with references that were exactly what I needed. Even if I’d had to take a ton of photos myself or stacks of photos from the animals’ people (in fact, I asked for all the photos my customers had) I could always piece together an acceptable view. But this was the only photo they had, and spotted cats’ spots are very specific. I couldn’t just make it up, and I wasn’t skilled enough yet to do what I do now and turn them facing front.

Part of my working through this conundrum is seen in my first attempt at this portrait, and that’s the part I’ve never shared, unintentionally. I loved the clear black and white on a simple colored background, which reminded me of some of my ink sketches of black and white cats. I was new to watercolor, but the commissioned size was too big for ink for my comfort and I decided I could paint it as a watercolor instead of a pastel.

Three Black and White Cats, watercolor, 12 x 16 © Bernadette E. Kazmarski
Three Black and White Cats, watercolor, 12 x 16 © Bernadette E. Kazmarski

I set it up as a 12 x 16 using the exact photo, lightly drew the cats onto my favorite heavy watercolor board, and painted them in, adding the peach background at the request of my customer. When I got to this point I taped it up to the wall to get a perspective. How did I not realize it would look as if the middle cat was hanging upside down?! How could I make a mistake like that? It was one of the first times I realized that some things work in photos, and some things don’t. Today, I would find this perfectly acceptable, but at the beginning of my career, and with a lot of compositional guidelines on what portraits, especially pet portraits, should look like, this just would not do.

I traced out the cats in the photo, cut them out and laid them out individually on paper, changing the angle of the center cat until it looked more natural for a painting hanging on a wall. I liked it, and decided to go with it. But I couldn’t change the watercolor I’d started and knew I’d have to start over. I didn’t have another sheet of the watercolor paper I preferred and I knew I couldn’t get one in time to get this portrait done and frame it for Christmas, so I decided to go back to my most familiar medium, pastel, and produced the portrait you see at the top of this article. With the way the cats were rearranged, that portrait turned out to be 16 x 22, just about twice as big! I don’t know if I let them know or just did it, but I remember they were pleased. I painted the above portrait and another for the same person at that time called “Gizmo and Wilson”, below, both to be given as gifts. She was a rescuer and all these cats were trapped as kittens and young adults in a never-ending colony in the 70s and 80s, and the portraits were for her fosters.

Gizmo and Wilson, pastel, 12 x 16 © Bernadette E. Kazmarski
Gizmo and Wilson, pastel, 12 x 16 © Bernadette E. Kazmarski

This customer “had a thing” for black and black and white cats, and these were only two of the many she had owned. She gave me a picture of Gizmo, the black and white cat, just as she is, but the picture of Wilson was just the front half of him peeking around a doorframe. I pressed my black cat into service as a model for the rest of Gizmo. This was to hang in my customer’s bedroom, which was entirely in blue, the reason for all the blue.

Again, from my portfolio book. At that time I only photographed my portraits framed because they were examples of the finished package. It would be tedious to eliminate the oval mat after I scanned the photo so I left it. It’s nice to see the framing sometimes.

The watercolor

In working my way through my studio I’ve found many other older works that I made but left packed away. Somehow, in the first Christmas rush of my portrait career, I had managed to store the first draft in a place where pastel had dusted onto it, and then stored it in a portfolio that was shoved behind a bunch of things for years until I pulled it out and went through it. I found this painting, and the moment I saw it, even with dark pastel dusted over it, I remembered the situation and wondered, “What was wrong with this?” I put it aside determined to someday clean it up and “finish” it. But it’s another case of putting my early learning of how things “should” be instead of how they actually are and I decided to let it be. I also think the people who loved these cats for nearly two decades would have liked this version of their portrait just as much as the one they got. But we have to work our way through all these decisions to get where we are, and I’ve enjoyed puzzling my way through all these decisions over the years, and the decisions I still meet with today.

I named this “black and white cats” because that’s what we called these markings at that time—I don’t remember using the term “tuxedo cat” until later in the 90s, and I hadn’t realized that until now! I remember loving the term “tuxedo cat” as soon as I heard it.

Read about other current Commissioned Portraits and Featured Artwork

I also feature artwork which has not been commissioned, especially my paintings of my own cats. If you’d like to read more about artwork as I develop it, about my current portraits and art assignments and even historic portraits and paintings, I feature commissioned portrait or other piece of artwork on Wednesday. Choose the categories featured artwork.

Take a look at other portraits and read other stories

Read articles on The Creative Cat featuring current and past commissioned portraits.

Read about how I create commissioned portraits.

Commissioned Cat Portraits

portrait of black cat on wicker chair
Samantha, pastel, 1994 © B.E. Kazmarski
Commissioned Dog Portraits

portrait of two dogs
Sophie and Ellie, pastel, 2009 © B.E. Kazmarski
Portraits of My Cats

pastel painting of cat on table
After Dinner Nap, pastel, 1996 © B.E. Kazmarski

Visit my website to see portraits of my cats, commissioned cats, commissioned dogs, people and a demonstration of how I put a portrait together from photos.

Download a Brochure

cover of brochure
My Portraits Brochure

My brochure is an 8.5″ x 11″ two-page full-color PDF that half-folds when it’s all printed out, showing examples of portraits with an explanation of my process and basic costs.

Purchase a Gift Certificate

Sample Commissioned Portrait Certificate
Sample Commissioned Portrait Certificate

I offer gift certificates for portraits in any denomination beginning at $50.00, which is the basic cost of a small monochromatic portrait.

The certificate itself is 8.5″ x 11″ and features a collage of portrait images with the recipient’s and giver’s names, printed on parchment cover stock. The whole thing is packaged in a pocket folder and includes a brochure, a letter from me to the recipient and several business cards.The certificate package can be easily mailed or wrapped as a gift and shipped directly to your recipient.

I can also make it downloadable if you’re in a hurry.

Certificates are good for up to one year after issue.

You can purchase gift certificates here or from Portraits of Animals if you are also purchasing other animal-inspired merchandise.

I prefer to look over the work and price the portrait according to how much work will go into it, as described above, but you can either set a budget or get started by purchasing a certificate for yourself or as a gift.

How to Order

  • “Certificate A” is for a minimum-size 8 x 10 black and white or monochromatic portrait with one subject.
  • “Certificate B” is for a minimum-size 8 x 10 color portrait with one subject.
  • Choose “A” or “B” depending on whether your portrait is black and white or color.
  • If your portrait will be larger or have more subjects, add $50 or $100 or more to your certificate value with the drop-down below.


  • Size: 8 x 10
  • Subjects: One
  • Color: black and white media such as charcoal, pencil, ink, or monochromatic media such as one color of pastel, watercolor, colored pencil, etc.
  • Background or objects: none but shading or colored paper


  • Size: 8 x 10
  • Subjects: One
  • Color: full color media such as pastel, watercolor, colored pencil, etc.
  • Background or objects: none but a color or colored paper

Add to your certificate purchase

You can use the second drop down to add $50.00 or $100.00. For amounts over this we’d probably have a conversation and I can set up a custom certificate for your purchase.

You only need to enter an address if it is different from the address I’ll receive when you order. These are often surprise gifts and need to be shipped away from the home address to make sure they are a surprise.

Gifts featuring cats you know! Visit Portraits of Animals


Fine ArtPhotographyGiftsGreeting CardsBooksCommissioned Portraits & Artwork

Great Rescues Day Book:
Portraits, Rescue Stories, Holidays and Events, Essential Feline Information, All in One Book

day book with cat portraits
Great Rescues Day Book

Each month features one of my commissioned portraits of a feline or felines and their rescue story along with a kitty quote on the left page, and on the right page the month name with enough lines for all possible dates, with standard holidays and animal-themed observances and events. Great Rescues also includes a mini cat-care book illustrated with my drawings including information on finding strays or orphaned kittens, adopting for the first time or caring for a geriatric cat, a list of household toxins and toxic plants, or helping stray and feral cats and beginning with TNR.

Each book includes also 10 sheets of my “22 Cats” decorative notepaper with a collage of all the portraits in black and white so you can make your own notes or write special notes to friends.

The portraits in this book, collected as a series, won both a Certificate of Excellence and a Muse Medallion in the 2011 Cat Writers’ Association Annual Communication Contest, as well as the 22 Cats Notepaper mentioned below.

Read more and order.


All images and text used on this site are copyrighted to Bernadette E. Kazmarski unless otherwise noted and may not be used without my written permission, although links to your site are more than welcome and are shared. Please ask if you are interested in using and image or story in a print or internet publication. If you are interested in purchasing a print of an image or a product including it, check my animal and nature website Portraits of Animals to see if I have it available already. If you don’t find it there, visit Ordering Custom Artwork for more information on a custom greeting card, print or other item.

Subscribe to my e-newsletter

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© 2022 | | Published by Bernadette E. Kazmarski

Weekly schedule of features:

Sunday: Essays, Pet Loss, Poetry, The Artist’s Life

Monday: Adoptable Cats, TNR & Shelters

Tuesday: Rescue Stories

Wednesday: Commissioned Portrait or Featured Artwork

Thursday: New Merchandise

Friday: Book Review, Health and Welfare, Advocacy

Saturday: Your Backyard Wildlife Habitat, Living Green With Pets, Creating With Cats

And sometimes, I just throw my hands in the air and have fun!




Friendship Friday.


From health and welfare to rescue and adoption stories, advocacy and art, factual articles and fictional stories, "The Creative Cat" offers both visual and verbal education and entertainment about cats for people who love cats, pets and animals of all species.

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