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  • Writer's pictureKevin Roeckl

Carly portrait in progress - start to finish

January 6

I’ve started a Head Study of Carly, beloved Service Dog of Phyllis Zaretzky.

After discussing the photos Phyllis has, we decided to use this one as the main reference photo for the portrait:

Client's photograph of Golden Retriever Service Dog

The problem

with many of my clients’ photos of their pets is that the camera lens distorts. The dog’s nose looks much bigger than in real life because it’s closer to the lens….their body looks smaller than real life because it’s farther away. That looks “normal” to us because we are used to looking at distorted photos. (Phone cameras distort even worse than regular cameras.) With my trained artist’s eye I see that distortion. Notice how the right eye looks like it could fit inside the right nostril. I really don’t think Carly’s nostrils were that big! And looks like her head is wider than her shoulders. Which is not likely.

Using Photoshop,

I reduced the size of Carly’s nose and made her neck bigger, so she looks as she did in real life, then I fit her into the 12 x 16 portrait shape/size the client wants. (Below). That will be my reference “sketch” that I look at as I’m working on the portrait.


I make some recommendations to the client about background color. That’s a very important decision in how the finished portrait will look. This picture shows the 4 colors I suggested that work best, so the client can get an idea of how it will look (Photoshop version). I’m limited to the colors of the Canson paper, the art paper I work on…but Canson makes many beautiful paper colors.

Which background color do you think Phyllis will choose?
Four layouts for a Head Study portrait of  Golden Retriever Service Dog

Carly portrait in progress 2

Carly’s ears.

It’s fun to do another breed besides Dobermans. Colored pencils are perfect for doing hair.

Phyllis chose “Felt Grey” for the background color. It’s a beautiful paper with little flecks and fibers in it.

Fine art head study portrait of Golden Retriever dog in progress

Carly portrait in progress 3

My monitor in front of me as I’m working. The main picture is the one I’m working from, but I have other reference photos of Carly’s eyes in front of me on the monitor, so I can truly capture her actual eye color, the look of her eyes, and the deep soul of her.

In the studio with colored pencils, working on a portrait of a  Golden Retriever dog.

Tomorrow I will share with you some of what Phyllis told me about Carly, so you can understand what a truly heart-and-soul girl Carly was to Phyllis: she was a life-saver.


Carly portrait in progress 4

I want you to know what I thought about when I worked on Carly’s eyes.

When Phyllis first contacted me in 2019 to get on my waiting list for a portrait of her beloved Service Dog, Carly, she told me:

“Carly has been my service dog for ten years, we've been side by side for ten years. She's in renal failure. I don't know what I'm going to do without her. Where ever I am there is Carly and where ever Carly is there I am also. She loves her job and loves being by my side. As long as Carly is alive I will never be alone, I will always have companionship. We have been together so long that we can read each others body language and know each other's thoughts. Everyday that passes I only love her more, she's the one I would lay down my own life for! She's everything to me! “

Sadly, while Phyllis waited her turn for a portrait, Carly’s life came to an end. When I was ready to start on the portrait, I asked Phyllis to tell me about Carly. Read her words about this amazing girl and you will understand why Carly was her heart and soul....
Fine art portrait of  Golden Retriever Service Dog, in progress
I got Carly at 6 weeks old

and she never once peed in the house. I started training her right away. At 6 months old Carly got her Canine Good Citizenship, at 8 months old she was walking the aisles of Walmart, and by the time she was a year old she got certified as a full fledged Service Dog. She was totally attached to me and lived to serve me! She also loved learning new things! It was a true match made in heaven! A dog like Carly comes once in a lifetime.

Carly knew over 200 commands....

I depended on her for everything. Before Carly came along I stayed in the house all the time. I was afraid I would get knocked down to the floor because I was unsteady on my feet. Carly could open doors, turn the light on and off, grab the phone when it rang. Carly not only helped me with my physical handicaps she helped me emotionally because of the PTSD I suffer from. She would wake me up every morning at 8:00 AM exactly with my medicine bag and made sure I took my meds, she would wake me up from a nightmare by kissing my face, she could stop a panic attack dead in it’s tracks and she would make sure I got back to bed if I started to walk in my sleep.

When we were out

she would circle around me if there was a crowd, this way people would not get too close to me. We were so deeply bonded that we could read each others minds. Carly was my independence! She went with me to Doctor's appointments, she went with me to church every Sunday and when I went up to the altar for communion she went up to the altar with me and was blessed every Sunday. I had her love, I had it all. I'm grateful for each day I had her by my side. She stood by me and never let me fall. She saw me through everything. Always by my side, the tender way she took care of me, a light in the dark shining her love into my heart. My world was a better place because of Carly.

Let me tell you a couple of memories of how Carly helped me.

Back in 2011 I got dizzy and fell and broke my left tibia. I had to fight for my right to have Carly in the hospital. Then they overdosed me and Carly was with me. They asked my husband to get out of the room and take Carly home. They didn't realize I was crashing at first they thought something was wrong with the heart monitor. Carly knew though. She was so upset and worried that my husband had to carry Carly out of my hospital room. She didn't want to leave me. My husband said Carly laid by the front door all night crying, she knew I almost died. When I finally came to in the ICU I asked for my dog. They told me dogs aren't allowed in the ICU. I told them get my dog here now or I'm going to sue you for violating the ADA Laws. They called the hospital administrator and Carly was back in my ICU Unit within an hour. Oh boy what a reunion it was when Carly knew I was okay. She hopped up on the bed and was just kissing my face and wagging her tail a mile a minute.

Another time we were in the GAP Store and I bought a pair of jeans that had ripped. The manger was giving me a hard time about the return and refused to help me. She was screaming her head off at me going nuts. Thanks to Carly I remained calm and cool. Carly saw that I was starting to get upset and nudged me to pet on her head to calm me down. So, while this manager was going nuts, thanks to Carly I was just petting my dog and was calm as could be. Carly could stop a panic attack dead in it’s tracks!


I walked into the vet's office and looked into Carly’s eyes and they told me it was time to let her go to the Bridge and rest. Without saying a word, she told me, “Come lay beside me I been holding on and waiting for you, I want you with me when I left”. Carly is my loyal dedicated servant dog and for that I’m the luckiest person alive. I laid down beside her stroked her head and told her she was the joy of my life.

The first time I saw her she took my breath away. I may not get to Heaven but I knew from the get-go she was special and I walked with an angel every day.

Some may have their riches some may have their worldly goods. As long as I had Carly, I was the richest person on earth. I’m glad I got one more opportunity to let her know she was the joy of my life.

Physically we are separated and my heart aches without your smile.

You will always own my heart.

Even though I try to be strong and not cry, the truth brings a tear to my eye.

All the words in the the world cannot express the joy you brought me throughout the years.

So, thank you my love until we meet again.

- Phyllis Zaretzky


Carly portrait in progress 5

Outlining the edge of Carly’s dark nose so I can do the left side of her pale peach muzzle up to the nose edge. I will work to that edge with light colors. So I have to put in that crisp black edge first so I can see where to stop with the peach/gold/yellow. Because those light colors will be soft and fuzzy, to capture her soft muzzle. The crisp edge gives me a guide. If I put in the blurry strokes first, it will be harder for me to tell, then, where I should start her crisp black nose.

Portrait of  Golden Retriever dog in progress, with colored pencils

So much of creating a work of art is strategy. Some paintings require a lot of strategy, through many steps. What I just described is a small strategy, a single step in a small part of the painting.

Look at all the colors I’m putting into her nose!

Close-up of dog's nose in Head Study portrait in progress
I’m working my way across the nose from left to right.
This is how Carly’s portrait looked when I finished work for the day in the studio.
Colored pencil portrait of  Golden Retriever Service Dog, in progress


Carly portrait in progress 6

I continued filling in the rest of Carly's face, then moved on to her tongue....

Her pink tongue involves a different set of pencil colors than I've been using for her golden coat and her brown eyes.

These are all the pencil colors I pulled out to use for her tongue.

I've made swatches on a scrap of the same Canson paper the portrait is on, to guide me on which color to grab as I'm looking at the reference photo of Carly.

Her tongue is a blend of those colors, lightly layered on top of eachother, and then laid on more and more thickly as I approached the shade I wanted, pressing harder to blend the colors. Since colored pencils don't involve "mixing" a color like you would with paint, layering them and then pressing solidly on the wax pencils to "smear" the colors together - once you've got the right combination of colors built up - is the way to blend them.


Carly portrait finished!

When I sent pictures of the finished portrait to Phyllis for her final approval, she wrote:

“Kevin, you did such a fantastic job capturing Carly's soul and spirit that I can't stop looking at Carly's portrait. I look at those eyes and it brings me back to when she was alive and my heart swelled with love. I want you to know how satisfied and pleased I am with how you captured Carly’s true essence and devotion.

Her eyes are just beautiful, I thought I’d never see those eyes again. I am so grateful to you for what you did and how you brought Carly back to life through the portrait. I must have looked at those eyes thousands of times, that’s how we communicated, through our eyes. I can’t thank you enough.”

Fine art portrait of Golden Retriever Service Dog, done with Prismacolor colored pencils on grey Canson Mi-Teintes pastel paper


Carly portrait - Custom notecards

The final steps

When the portrait is finished and the client approves it, the job is not finished by any means.

I mount and varnish the portrait...there are several steps which have to dry in between, that takes about a week.

Custom notecards of colored pencil portrait of Golden Retriever dog

And I make notecards of the portrait. Some of my portrait categories include custom notecards in the price.

THIS POST shows all the steps of how this set of custom notecards was made by hand in the studio.


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