Sunday, April 14, 2024
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That Very Special Father’s Day Portrait

Father's Day Portrait, pencil and watercolor, 18" x 24" © B.E. Kazmarski

So Bernie calls me with an idea for a portrait as a gift for Father’s Day, which is three weeks away. I’ve had less time to produce a portrait so I ask her for a few details, and then I begin to doubt.

pencil and watercolor sketch of barn animals
Harley, Buell and Nutmeg in color.

We need to have Jay, who is the “father” in question, though all his children in this portrait will be animals, including three of his cats, Tabatha, Pumpkin and Frankie, and his mini-horse Harley, his mini-donkey Buell and his goat Nutmeg, and Jay himself holding his famous tortoiseshell cat Stirfry, and Jay again, holding Bernie’s even more-famous tortoiseshell cat Steeler.

I could tell she had thought this through pretty thoroughly. I was also trying to visualize and calculate the amount of time it would take depending on various media. I also knew Bernie had had a series of losses recently, including Steeler, her son and her husband, and Jay had been instrumental in keeping her on her feet through it all. I understand the nature of grief and I knew this had to be done, no matter what.

“Okay, Bernie,” I said, “I don’t think we’re going to go with a pastel, there’s not enough time, but I can visualize a sort of a collage in pencil, and maybe we’ll add a little color, how does that sound?”

pencil and watercolor of three cats
Tabatha, Pumpkin and Frankie in color.

“Whatever you say,” she answered. I knew I could produce something more than acceptable, and I also knew that Bernie wasn’t going to say she didn’t like the medium or style or whatever, as long as it conveyed the idea she had in mind. I think I understood that idea. She had a frame, I would cut a mat, so we knew what the size would be. So the clock started ticking.

She had mentioned the two photos of Jay holding Stirfry and Jay holding Steeler, which I was familiar with from her Facebook page, and the special photo of Steeler holding her paw like a little fist up in the air. All the rest were up to me.

There have been times I’ve done portraits where I had to sneak out to a customer’s house and photograph a photograph that was taped to the refrigerator because moving it at all would be noticed, meeting customers at some lonely exit on the interstate to pick up a photo and mailing it back to a PO box and other exciting ways of gathering images for surprise portraits. As much as I whine about Facebook, this wouldn’t have happened without everyone’s galleries where I browsed for multiple images of each of the animals, one for position, others for details of faces, paws, tails, manes and hooves.

Then came the task of putting together the collage as a composition, which looks simple but is more complicated than a regular scenic portrait because you have to make something which is impossible, totally visually believable. How to make it look as if Jay didn’t have a horse sitting on his head, or three cats falling onto him on the other side? A lot of moving and resizing and squinting to make sure it made visual sense.

For the ease of that I credit PhotoShop. I used to do these by hand, sometimes using a copier to enlarge or reduce things, then later I would sit down to do rough sketches for layout which helped me familiarize myself with all the subjects and determine which features were the most important. In this case I didn’t have the luxury of several individual preliminary rough sketches before a final sketch. I pasted all the photos I wanted to start with onto a pasteboard in PS and began arranging and rearranging, sizing and cropping until I had everyone just about where and how I initially wanted them, then except for the two photos of Jay I changed each one of them at least once to a completely different photo and rearranged them within their groups to fit together better. Then I pasted the detail photos in place and blended in, then blended them all together.

composite for portrait
Composite for the portrait.
Kelly keeps the upper left corner of the portrait under control.
Kelly keeps the upper left corner of the portrait under control.

I gave it a break for a day then looked at it again and decided it worked, printing it out in tiles, full size, to tape together. Again, I didn’t have the time to start sketching right onto the paper, taking my time with each image. When the composite was ready I placed it beneath my smooth 2-ply acid-free cream drawing paper, taped it lightly in place and used my little lightbox, really just a box with lights in it that shone through both papers so that I could lightly trace the outlines onto the drawing paper using a moderately hard drawing pencil so the lines would be thin and lighter than my usual drawing pencils with softer, darker leads. This part of the portrait took a little more time than actually drawing it.

black cat watching pencil
Mewsette is just about to "get" that pencil.

I knew from the beginning that I wanted the basis of the drawing to be in pencil because it could even work without color, but it could also work quickly and, as I always say, it’s my “first and favorite medium”. I can think in pencil, looking at the image and working it out on the paper in one pass, softening and blending a little later; having just the outlines of each figure and its major features was a great help to start with.

So with the outlines in place I began adding in the dark and medium details, of course supervised and critiqued by felines. This drawing was too difficult to work on my easel and too big for my drafting table so I worked it on my work table where I have lots of light and places to put pencils and things when not in use. When I work a drawing where large areas of the paper are left uncovered with media I always place covering materials over them to avoid spills, clammy handprints, pawprints, cat hair—on that nice smooth creamy surface everything shows up. Kelly did a great job keeping the upper left corner under control, but Mewsette needed to be redirected because the cute little scratching sounds my pencils made sounded like something she likes to hunt and the big black mitten quickly flashed out at my pencil once too often.

pencil collage of person and animals
The pencil version of the portrait.

I worked the first pass with pencil, then blended for the softer shading, stopped and photographed and let it rest in case I might want to stop there. But the essence of tortie cats is black and gold and I knew I had to go on.

So I got out the watercolors and got the colors ready I knew I’d need and quickly filled each with a wash, then went over and over again until everything was pretty evenly colored and shaded and highlighted, then decided to add some brushwork to the background in between to tie them together a little better. I had to go over Stirfry’s and Steeler’s black areas because they had softened with the brush when I overpainted with the watercolor.

And just in time. Bernie was coming the next day.

pencil and watercolor of cat and person
Jay with Steeler in color.

I ended up getting a temporary frame for it as well as cutting the mat, and I had everything ready to put together, but she hadn’t seen it at all—highly unusual since I usually send progress photos while I work. Photographing this was a challenge, though, and I never got around to sending what I’d taken. So she would approve it before I’d frame it.

As it turned out, the only thing I needed to change was Pumpkin’s eyes, which were gold instead of green. I also needed to add whiskers to Stirfry and Steeler, white whiskers, and no type of opaque white watercolor, gouache or acrylic would cover the pencil evenly, so there are just hints of whiskers there.

Of all the subjects, I was very happy to be able to draw Steeler. I felt as close to her as I had to my own cats, and I grieved for her loss as well, though of course not as Bernie did. But my solace is my art and I could lovingly study and sketch Steeler’s familiar face, and my gift to others is my art and I was glad I could give that gift to Bernie and to Jay.

And what fun to have Bernie be greeted at the door by a very talkative Kelly, and get to meet the Fantastic Four! But it was Mimi who stole her attention. Kelly stayed downstairs, the boys unmade my bed to their specifications and had a nice nap there, odd because they always have to be the center of attention. Mimi and Mewsette had come downstairs to greet Bernie as well and then joined us in the studio, but Mimi decided Bernie needed Mimi on her lap. Even when Mewsette began to step on Bernie’s lap to say hello, Mimi simply walked underneath Mewsette and sat squarely on Bernie’s lap and big, gentle Mewsette understood and came over to me. Mimi curled in her comforting posture whenever possible.

I have done a number of other pencil portraits as well, and you can find some of them by browsing at the links below. Pencil has always been difficult to photograph and only in the past year or two have I become at all proficient with lighting the paper to avoid shadows and flashed areas so I’m working on rephotographing all the ones I can. In the future I’ll feature those as well.

Here’s a slideshow of more images from the portrait as well as Bernie meeting the kids!



Take a look at other portraits and read other stories

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

Read about how I create commissioned portraits.

Commissioned Cat Portraitsportrait of black cat in wicker chair Commissioned Dog Portraitspastel portrait of dogs

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.

Click here to see other daily sketches, and for a gallery of the ones available for sale, visit my Etsy shop in the “Daily Sketches” section.

All images used on this site are copyrighted to Bernadette E. Kazmarski unless otherwise noted and may not be used without my written permission. Please ask if you are interested in purchasing one as a print, or to use in a print or internet publication.


All images used on this site are copyrighted to Bernadette E. Kazmarski unless otherwise noted and may not be used without my written permission. Please ask if you are interested in purchasing one as a print, or to use in a print or internet publication.


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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