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  • Writer's pictureKevin Roeckl

Cooper Addie, and Rio portrait in progress - start to finish

October 15

I’m working on a new portrait for Karen M. who has had 3 trained Search-and-Rescue dogs: Cooper, Addie, and Rio…all gone to the Bridge now. Cooper and Rio were AKC Champions.

Karen sent me 76 photos

of the three dogs to get me started. Head shots, full body shots, the dogs in SAR training and living a good life as beloved companions. When I narrowed them down to the ones that would work the best in a portrait, I asked Karen which of those were her personal favorites. That gave me 18 photos to work with.

I bring those photos into a Photoshop document

(see below), cut them out crudely, and move them around and resize them until I find a pleasing arrangement. As I move them around and try different photos in different arrangements, I discard the ones that just don’t seem to be working with the others. Finally I have narrowed it down to this. Now I have my basic composition.

Karen didn’t ask me to use the mountain photo as a backdrop,

but I knew from our conversations that location had special meaning to her. So I stuck that photo behind the figures just to give a temporary backdrop for now. It worked so well I kept it. It’s simple, so the dogs stand out, but gives depth and life to the portrait. The backdrop of the Oregon landscape where Karen and her SAR dogs worked. Karen wants this portrait to be “about Search and Rescue” that was such an important part of her and her dogs’ lives.

Photoshop layout for a portrait of 3 Search-and-Rescue Dobermans

Karen wrote:

“These three were my Search and Rescue and Human Remains Dogs. “Baddie Addie” unfortunately washed [did not pass her SAR certification], but she was still very loved. She would wait for hours for a lizard to emerge from a hole. Cooper had no fear with incredible drive. And Rio did anything I asked just because he loved me.”

(The hugging photo is Rio. He was a hugger.)

In the finished portrait

Cooper will be wearing his official SAR vest with Sheriff’s logo on it. The vest in this photo is a training vest.

This is the basic layout

but there is still design-work to be done, so their necks and Rio’s torso are not “chopped off”, and the background scene fills the whole artwork. Karen wants a pine tree on the left.


Cooper, Addie, and Rio portrait in progress 2

Putting in the underpainting of the background scene, on a rainy day.

The pine tree on the left was done first with colored pencils. Then I masked off the dogs’ heads and the standing dog on the left, where they stick up into the scene, using an adhesive masking film, cut out with a sharp x-acto knife. The rest of the artwork is covered with white paper to protect it from paint drips.

Now I’ve put in the blue-grey water for the lake, the bluish distant tree-covered slopes of the mountain, and the rocky peak of the mountain. (Photo below)

This underpainting

will save me trying to color in a lot of lighter color with pencils over the grey Canson paper. I made the underpainting by mixing white acrylic with blue-green to make a very pale blue for the lake, more blue-green to make a not-quite-so-pale color for the mountain slopes, and mixed white with purple to make an extremely pale lavender for the peak. In this pic you can see the lavender that was mixed in a little tin-foil “tray” to the right of the artwork.

All 3 colors were thinned with water

to make a very thin, transparent wash, so the grey of the paper will show through. Otherwise the colors would be too bright for the scene. The grey-ish-ness from the paper helps make the mountain scene muted and distant-looking. That’s an example of how I use the paper color in an artwork in my strategy for the whole painting.

After this dries for a day, I’ll mask off the mountain too.

Then I can do the whole sky with sweeping strokes of acrylic paint (not thinned with water) to completely cover the grey and make a luminescent sky-blue sky. That will take at least 2 coats. I had to do the underpainting of the mountain first, so I could then put the adhesive masking material over it to do the sky. Otherwise I’d have to paint very carefully up to the edge of each mountain peak and around the dog’s ears with each coat, trying not to overlap the edges. Being able to sweep a large brush smoothly across the sky will make a much smoother (more realistic) sky.

Doberman portrait in progress with masking and underpainting in Kevin's studio

The thing that makes this underpainting so tricky are the “values”.

For artists, “value” refers to how light or dark something is. I have to get the values of the mountain and the lake just right or it will look too dark in the finished painting (it won’t look far away). Having a very light value (it’s very pale) is what makes a mountain in a landscape look “far off”.

The tricky thing is that when it’s compared to the value of the grey paper, the mountain looks almost white, as you see below. But it must not be white…because the sky has to be even lighter than the mountain. So the values of the mountain - it’s forested slopes and it’s paler rock peak - have to be light enough to look far away, but dark enough that the mountain will stand out dark against a pale blue sky.

Until the pale sky is put in, the artist has to judge the values (the lightness/darkness) of the colors against something he can’t see yet.

Since I test it first on scraps of paper, I know I got the values of the distant mountain and lake right. But against the dark paper it looks much too light doesn’t it? — almost white. With a very pale sky behind it, those values of the mountain will fall into place.

Portrait of 3 Search-and-Rescue Dobermans in progress, showing underpainting with watercolor wash

Wow, what a difference the sky makes!

This is the exact same mountain as you saw in the previous pic. It looked too pale against the grey paper. Now it looks quite dark against the blue sky.

Once the sky was in, now the “values” of the mountain slopes and mountain peak are just right.

Being able to get values precisely right is what artists refer to as having “good value control”. It takes many years of practice.

Portrait of 3 Search-and-Rescue Dobermans in progress, showing underpainting with watercolor wash and acrylic sky

Remember, the dogs’ heads are masked off so I could make broad strokes with the sky-blue acrylic paint using a large brush. The sky is darker at the top, and being able to make those long sweeping strokes side to side allowed me to blend the sky smoothly, even though acrylic paint dries really fast. When the masking film is lifted off, the dogs’ ears will still be the grey of the paper. That grey is the perfect color (and value) to work on with colored pencils to make Dobermans.


Cooper, Addie, and Rio portrait in progress 3

A couple days ago I shared the steps of masking off the dogs’ heads and the left figure, and doing the underpainting of mountain, lake, and sky. After that I masked off the two lower figures too, with adhesive masking film. Then I could do the underpainting of the green grass — slopping on different shades of green with acrylic paint….and when I peel off the masking material I have nice neat edges, and untouched, virgin grey paper to work on for the figures.

The underpainting has dried and the masking material removed.

Doberman portrait in progress in Kevin's studio

From here on everything will be colored pencil — directly on the gray paper (where the figures are), or over the underpainting.


Cooper, Addie, and Rio portrait in progress 4

Now that the underpainting is in, and I’ve peeled off the masking material protecting the figures, I start putting in the first of Karen’s SAR dogs with colored pencil.

This is Cooper.

CH Heartwood’s Hot Night Boogie, ROM, CGC, RA, SAR Air Scent, SAR Human Remains Detection, WAC

Portrait of three Search-and-Rescue Dobermans in progress

Next day:

Continuing work on Cooper, wearing his official Search-and-Rescue vest with the Sheriff’s logo on it. Karen told me the bell on his collar was important to include. She said, “That tells them they are working.”

After I shared this on Facebook, another K-9 SAR handler added additional info: "The bell also tells the handler where the dog is when they are doing area search work. The dog runs off lead so you can hear the dog plus it lets other wildlife know we are in the area and gives them a chance to depart the area."


Cooper, Addie, and Rio portrait in progress 5

These photos show the progression of standing-Cooper’s face in one day’s work in the studio.

This is another one of those heads where the features are smaller than my sharpest pencil points. When the features are that tiny (like his eye, nose, and mouth) I put the color on by very precisely “dotting” the sharp tip of the pencil against the paper rather than making a stroke. Dotting over and over again with different colors leaves enough pigment on the paper to create the image. Larger areas like his cheek and neck I can do with little strokes.


The ears were finished yesterday. My goal is to get the rest of the head and neck finished today.

Portrait of Search-and-Rescue Doberman in progress in the studio with sharp pencil points


Starting with his nose and then working around the front and bottom of his head to enclose the shape. There's a lot of very fine detail in the nose and lips.

I’m using about 16 pencil colors to do this head.

Portrait of Search-and-Rescue Doberman in progress in the studio with sharp pencil points


Working up the cheek to his eye. The expression in the eye is so important, and it’s challenging to do it this small. So the eye was a bit nerve-wracking. But I think I’ve captured it…gazing off into the distance on his Search-and-Rescue mission. And with the sunlight directly on this side of his face lighting up his eye.

Portrait of Search-and-Rescue Doberman in progress in the studio with sharp pencil points


With the black parts of his face finished the black neck will go quickly. Then just the rust part of the muzzle to finish. You see where I've indicated the back of his jaw with a black stroke, even though that won't really show on the black neck. Understanding the anatomy of a dog while I work is key to being able to portray them accurately.

Portrait of Search-and-Rescue Doberman in progress


Cooper in his Search-and-Rescue vest, with the Sheriff’s logo on it. The first of 6 figures and head studies in Karen’s portrait.

Portrait of Search-and-Rescue Doberman in progress

Below is how the whole portrait looks now.

Next I’ll put in the details of the mountain background scene over the underpainting with colored pencils. I wanted to complete standing-Cooper first, so I could then put the ripples of the lake in around his head. Everything I do in a surrounding scene is to point your eye to the figure, and make sure it stands out as the focus. So I have to put in the figure first, and then the “supporting cast” — all the surrounding colors that touch the figure. Having the figure finished shows me whether the colors and values that meet up to the edges of the figure are light enough to make the figure’s dark parts stand out, or dark enough to make the light parts stand out.

Portrait of Search-and-Rescue Doberman in progress


Cooper, Addie, and Rio portrait in progress 6

Working on the mountain, with some pinks and muted lavender-greys. (Indicated by the bracket.) Putting in the details over the lavender-grey underpainting with colored pencil. The underpainting gave me my base of a pale lavender-grey to work on. The forested slopes and lake are still just underpainting on the grey paper.

The mountaiin peak in a portrait of SAR Dobermans in progress with Prismacolor pencils

Do you remember when I made the underpainting on the mountain and lake, to save myself a lot of coloring with pencils?

On the left is the underpainting on the grey paper. On the right is the finished scene with colored pencils over the underpainting. You can see how the underpainting gave me the base color to work on, and then I could just put in the details of the mountain, the forested slopes, and the lake, without having to color in really solid to completely hide the grey paper with lighter colors. I used the underpainting to give me the basic color of each (mountain, forests, lake) and then put in some pretty colors with pencils to complete it.

Before and after pictures of the mountaiin peak in a portrait of SAR Dobermans

I underestimated how blue the lake needed to be, and I did have to color pretty hard with some pale blue and light-bluish-green to get that looking right. Still, it was a lot easier than coloring over the paper’s darker grey. I judged the color and “values” of the mountain and distant forest just right.

A close-up of the finished mountain and lake:

Close-up of the background mountain lake scene in a portrait of SAR Dobermans

Below is how the whole painting looks now, with the mountain peak, forested slopes, and lake finished. That really gave depth to the scene!

I'm now working on Cooper’s head study. Starting with his ears.

Portrait of 3 Search-and-Rescue Dobermans in progress


Cooper, Addie, and Rio portrait in progress 7

Working on Cooper’s head, putting in both sides of the face. Usually I do the ears and forehead, then left eyebrow and eye, and work my way across and down, from upper left. This time I am working up both sides of the face and forward toward the front of the face/eyes. I just follow the way my pencils are led to go as I move from one shape and color to the next adjoining one.

Portrait of SAR Dobermans in progress in Kevin's studio

I have several photos of Cooper’s head on the monitor for reference. The main head that I’m working from (the largest one) and 3 others that show his face at a similar angle, because my main pic doesn’t have good detail.


Cooper, Addie, and Rio portrait in progress 8

A dark blue blue pencil flipped out of my hand while I was working on Cooper’s head and landed point-down on the mountain. Damn.

Don’t worry, a sharp x-acto knife point will flick that out. It’s probably gouged into the paper a little. (Just from the weight of the flying pencil.) But I can fix that with a little touching-up with pale-pink pencil. Prismacolor pencil is wax-based and the wax that holds the pigment will actually fill in that tiny gouge.

Closeup of mountain in portrait of SAR Dobermans, in progress


Cooper, Addie, and Rio portrait in progress 9

I spent an entire workday just on Cooper's eyes and eyebrows. The eyes are the most important part of any portrait....

Closeup of black Doberman in portrait of SAR Dobermans, in progress

The next day...

Cooper’s head finished, except for the collar. This photo was taken in the studio, it shows the pencil colors I was using. White paper covers the right and bottom of the portrait to keep it clean. I work down from the upper left because I'm right-handed.

There are two depictions of Cooper in this triple portrait

of Karen’s Search-and-Rescue dogs. One full-body standing in his SAR vest in the field, and this head study. I want to share with you the words Karen wrote about this outstanding Doberman....

Portrait of Search-and-Rescue Dobermans, in progress in the studio with pencils

Before I start on a portrait, I ask the client to tell me about their loved one, so I can hold the essence of them in my mind/heart as I’m working on their face. I know it’s not easy to tell about a beloved dog who has passed — that can be pretty emotional. It’s amazing how much difference that makes for me when I’m working on a dog’s portrait, to really SEE them. I see who they are, in their face. An artist has to truly see what they are portraying before they can truly capture it.


CH Heartwood’s Hot Night Boogie, CGC, ROM, RA, SAR AIR SCENT, SAR HRD

In Karen’s words:

Gentle giant. He would lay down and just use his head to play with a 9 pound Yorkie who adored him. When I got my mini poodle he was all of two pounds. Cooper would hold a tug toy and let him tug for all he was worth. He grew to 18 pounds and tugs like he thinks he’s a Doberman, but 95 pound Cooper NEVER tugged back. He would walk and hold the tug and let that poodle wear himself out. I think he lightly growled just to let the poodle think he was tough stuff.

Cooper was intensely loyal and trusted me beyond all reason. If I asked him to climb open steel stairs to the top of a fireman practice tower, he did. If I asked him to do a “hot load” on a helicopter, he didn’t even question and hopped right on.

He was a talker and had an opinion on everything. He even grunted opinions.

He was an EXCELLENT Search and Rescue Air Scent dog. And also phenomenal as a Human Remains Detection dog. Athletic and extremely smart. He was a joy to train. I was so proud of him.

He had a lot of dignity. The “bully” golden retriever on the team NEVER picked on him. Cooper wouldn’t start a fight but he was no push over. If a dog jumped him, he didn’t back down.

He’d give at least 5 warning growls to obnoxious in his face dogs. If they still kept at him, he’d viciously put them on the ground and pin them. He sounded and looked as though he was killing the dog, and the other dog would be screaming like he thought he was being killed. But we NEVER EVER found a scratch on the other dog. After that they respected him! He never held a grudge.

He was an over the top ball maniac. That was what I always used as the ultimate reward. In between he got to tug.

As well, he had a sense of humor. One time as we were waiting for our next team assignment on a search, we were standing on a hill of snow. He slid down it on his tummy. I thought he had slipped. But he came running back up the hill, a huge Dobie smile on his face, and continued to slide down again and again.

He enjoyed doing the Lost But Found program at the schools. He had no problem with kids in a circle around him petting. A lot of dogs will not allow that closed in feeling.

He was an affectionate sweet boy.

Meanwhile, he also had a Rally Advanced title as well as passed the WAC with surprisingly strong protection instinct. He had his championship. You can say, he was the ultimate all round Doberman.

Gads, do I miss the “ Big Baluga “. He was just about 14 years old when he died.

CH Heartwood’s Hot Night Boogie,



P.S. I’m one of those people that can’t talk about my dogs passing when it happens. Just writing this today has me choked up.

Closeup of two depictions of a black Doberman in a triple portrait of Search-and-Rescue Dobermans, in progress


Cooper, Addie, and Rio portrait in progress 10

Three days of work in the studio on Addie's head...

Working my way across Addie’s forehead and around the eyes, with colored pencil on the grey paper.

It looks weird with her eyes not done yet!

Closeup of red Doberman head in portrait of SAR Dobermans, in progress

Addie's eyes finished.

Closeup of black and red Doberman heads in portrait of SAR Dobermans, in progress

Here is the whole portrait when I scanned it today.

Portrait of Search-and-Rescue Dobermans, in progress


Cooper, Addie, and Rio portrait in progress 11

Addie is finished.

I ask my client to tell me about their loved one before I work on their face. You must read what Karen wrote (below) about Addie’s personality that shines out of that impish smiling face — and how she got the nickname “Baddie Addie”.

Closeup of black and red Doberman heads in portrait of SAR Dobermans, in progress

Karen’s words:

Rhapsody’s Adriatic, CGC. “ADIA”. “Addie” “Baddie Addie”

I needed another Search-and-Rescue dog. I went to the Dobie National and came home with a beautiful 10 week old female pup. I decided to get a female this time because Rio had been so large (98 lbs). I figured, if my dog were to get injured in the field, I could most likely be able to carry her around my shoulders.

Well she ended up BIG. Male sized and 90 pounds. She was 1/2 from German lines. Thus an intense personality.

She would work a problem at SAR practice excellent for two or three sessions. Then on the next session she would take off after game and be gone for 45 minutes.

I think she would have liked the SAR game better if the subject was wearing a bite sleeve.

As a matter of fact, I took her to the UDC National (where Dobie SAR handlers would meet up to train together and make suggestions for performance problems. She, of course, worked flawlessly there!) I decided for the fun of it to try her in the bad man coming out acting like he was going to attack us exercise. Addie was only 9 months old at the time. When it was our turn she just stood looking at the guy. Did not cower. Ray Carlisle took me aside and said, “Let’s just stand here and let her watch how the other dogs are reacting.” Two dogs with double leads so they couldn’t get loose and hurt the “bad man” took their turns viciously trying to get him. On the next dog, when the bad man came out threatening the handler, Addie leaped and slipped her collar and raced for him. Ray started screaming “Loose dog! Loose dog!!” I was so embarrassed!! The bad man jumped onto a place that had been pre-set up for his escape and safety. Addie tried to get to him. Someone slipped a lead over her neck and I went to get her. I was mortified expecting to be chastised for my dog getting loose. As I turned with her back towards the audience/group waiting their turn, EVERYONE CLAPPED AND CHEERED!! Ray slapped me on the back and was so proud of her. This little 9 month old girl had grit.

Even on hikes I’d end up having to put her on a leash. For within a half hour I could see her starting to go “feral” and knew it was just a matter of minutes before she would take off. Thus the name, Baddie Addie.

When Addie was 18 months old, I finally accepted that SAR was not her thing. But she and I had formed a strong bond. She was allowed to just be a dog and do her thing. There wasn’t a ground squirrel or gopher allowed on our property. She would lay in wait for literally hours to get them. At night she would ask to be let out when the the raccoons raided the fruit trees. I couldn’t let her stay out there barking at them for the neighbors’ sake. But the only way she would back down is if you PRAISED HER and told her how great she was. THEN she’d come back in the house. Telling her to “hush” and get back in the house, did NOT work. Ha!!

A great watch dog, but once company was in the house, she was your friend. While standing talking she would place her head on a visitor’s waist looking up with gorgeous sweet eyes at them. She’d win even the most Dobiephobes over.

My mother in law was living with us. One day she fell down and couldn’t get up. (We weren’t home) She says Addie laid there with her and made her feel better until help came. She also loved that dog.

Addie and I loved each other. I don’t know why but we can’t help loving the little “rebel” bad kid. The little imp. The little stinker that has a ton of spunk. You have to smile at their creative antics.

I had noticed at 9 years old that Addie’s stamina wasn’t what it used to be. I just figured she was aging. But one night she asked to be let out. Within a half hour of coming back in and laying on her bed (by my bed) I heard some horrible noises coming from her. She died within seconds of what must have been sudden death cardiomyopathy.

I was heartbroken.


Cooper, Addie, and Rio portrait in progress 12

Cooper’s orange Search-and-Rescue collar is finished, and I’ve started on the third head study: Rio.

Triple portrait of 3 Search-and-Rescue Dobermans, in progress

Putting together the eye…

This shows the pencil colors and strokes I’ve used to create the eye structure. You don’t get to see this level of detail in most of the “in progress” pics I share that show the whole portrait just a few inches wide.

Closeup of the eye of a black Doberman, colored pencil portrait in progress

Drawn with Prismacolor pencils on "Felt Grey" Canson paper, a fine-art paper from France that has little flecks and fibers in it.


Cooper, Addie, and Rio portrait in progress 13

Now putting in Rio's teeth...

Close-up of head study of black Doberman in triple portrait of 3 SAR Dobermans, in progress

There is a lot of detail in Rio’s mouth…tongue, teeth, gums, and lips. I’m using a lot of pinks, mauves, dark peaches, for that, as well as the usual assortment of browns and greys.

Colored pencil portrait of SAR Dobermans, in progress with pencils in Kevin's studio

The third of the 3 head-studies in this triple portrait....


Ch Nightbird’s Triton, CGC, SAR Wilderness Air Scent, SAR Human Remains Detection

As with each individual I portray, I ask the client to tell me about their loved one before I begin working on their face. Karen does a great job describing who each dog was. I’ve shared Cooper’s and Addie’s bios with you when I finished each of their head studies. This is Rio’s head finished. But there is also a depiction of Rio and Karen hugging (“Rio was a hugger”, Karen said) in this portrait. I will share Karen’s words about gentle, protective, devoted Rio, Champion and certified Search-and-Rescue dog, when I finish the “Rio hugging” figures.

Close-up of head study of black Doberman in triple portrait of 3 SAR Dobermans, in progress

One of the photos of Rio that Karen shared at the beginning when I asked for photos of her dogs.

“Rio SAR Training snowmobile transfer”.

Client's photo of SAR Doberman on a snowmobile

The portrait as it looks now with all three head studies finished.

I’ll start on the “Rio hugging” figures next.

Triple portrait of 3 Search-and-Rescue Dobermans, in progress


Cooper, Addie, and Rio portrait in progress 14

I'm working on the "Rio and Karen hugging" figures.The photo that I'm working from was taken years ago. Karen had a different hairstyle then, which she doesn’t like now. So I asked her to have someone take photos of her current hairstyle with her head at the exact same angle as in the photo. That was a bit of a challenge and took several tries.

When I sent this in-progress pic to Karen she wrote back:

“Wow, my hair looks GREAT. Better than real life. GOOOOD Going!! Ha!!”

Portrait of Search-and-Rescue Dobermans, in progress in Kevin's studio with colored penncils

These are the colors I used for Karen’s silver hair. The white and pale grey you'd expect, but it's surprising all the ginger, mauve and grey-lavender I could see in that photo. The mauves are mostly where her skin was showing through the hair --- at the part, and where strands of hair overhung her forehead.

Prismacolor pencils

The top photo was taken with my phone in the studio while working. Phone cameras don't really capture the nuances of color in artwork. The next picture is a scan of the actual artwork I made after I finished Karen's face and shirt. It really shows all the colors I used to create her hairdo.


Cooper, Addie, and Rio portrait in progress 15

Spent a while on Karen‘s face. Although it doesn’t have the challenge of two eyes and eyebrows, all the features of a typical portrait face, it is one of those pieces of a portrait that is absolutely critical to get the expression just right. To convey maximum emotion to the viewer.

Now Karen’s face and purple shirt are finished. I did a purple underpainting with acrylic paint for the shirt, and then the folds and details with colored pencils over that. The underpainting was done not only to save time coloring in a lot of purple, but because some colors of Prismacolor pencil are not lightfast. That means they will fade with time; they become whitish. The purples are the worst for that. So I try to avoid using purple pencil in my artwork as much as possible. Purple acrylic paint doesn’t fade, so purple was done mainly with a wash of purple paint. Then just needed a few pencil strokes of darker purple for the folds in the fabric, and lighter purple on the sleeve and shoulder.

Woman and Doberman hugging, figures in portrait of SAR  Dobermans, in progress

An interesting observation: Rio is “negative space” in this pic. That’s an art term that means colors and details are put in around the subject, and the subject is indicated not by adding details, it is indicated by the “negative space” left when details are added surrounding it. Artists may do that deliberately in art: you can clearly tell it’s a dog’s head there. In my case, that was just the stopping point for the day. I’ll start filling in the details of Rio when I work on Rio’s head tomorrow.


Cooper, Addie, and Rio portrait in progress 16

Working on "hugging Rio's" face.

I’m spending a lot of time on the details of his face, as I did on Karen’s. Although neither of their faces have all the facial features showing like you’d typically see in a portrait, it’s absolutely critical to get the details of each one’s expression just convey the deep feeling in this sweet and lovely pose. To show the emotion in this beautiful portrayal of Rio, “a hugger”, and the relationship he and Karen shared.

Woman and Doberman hugging, figures in portrait of SAR  Dobermans, in progress

Rio’s face finished, and am working my way around Karen’s hand.

Being able to capture the expression on Rio’s face is what would make or break the “feeling” in these two hugging.

“Rio was a hugger”, Karen said. “He gave the best hugs.”

Woman and Doberman hugging, figures in portrait of SAR  Dobermans, in progress

Here is what Karen wrote about RIO

Ch Nightbird’s Triton, CGC, SAR Wilderness Air Scent, SAR Human Remains Detection


Rio was my breeding. I researched back four generations on each prospective sire looking for longevity and reason of death. As well as temperament. I flew with my girl all the way to Trenton, NJ for the breeding. Rio was very much like his father. While I was sitting at their table talking, Rio’s father brought every toy he owned and dropped it in the chair next to me.

Rio would do the same. Only, it was balls. If you were digging a hole, balls would be dropped in until you picked one up and threw it. If a workman was here with a tool kit, balls would be dropped into it. He eventually got to dropping balls ON me. I’d feel them roll down my back!

Rio was one of only three pups in the litter. He was the pup that preferred to sit in my lap than play with his siblings. One of the other pups was a female that my husband loved. My husband keeps a “tight leash” on me and the numbers of dogs I can have. Two dobermans at a time is his tolerance level. So, we gave Rio to my daughter and her husband, and kept the female. I was soooo sad. I hadn’t realized what a connection I had with Rio. I was sorry I had sent him on and kept the girl.

Wellll, at four months, my daughter and SIL realized he was just too much to keep what with both of them working more than full time. (Hallelujah!!!) So, I GLADLY took him back. I had not really bonded with the female and so found a fabulous home for her. Rio and I were a love story. We were just happy to be together. And then I got into SAR with the intention of him joining me on the K9 unit.

He was really good at searching. But, I had one mentor tell me, “Rio doesn’t LOVE this game. But, he does LOVE YOU and does everything just to please you.” (After I worked with Cooper, I completely understood that comment). I started out using a “brinzell” (a long object that hangs off your waist that the dog can grab to let you know he found the subject) rather than the jump alert because he was a 98 pound boy in show weight. The brinzell ended up being a nightmare as Rio thought it hilarious to grab it, not let go and instead play tug-o-war! He’d be tugging and shaking while backing up towards the direction the subject was in. Needless to say, I was being thrown all over the place and the team was in hysterics.

So, we went to the jump alert because I figured if he stayed with the subject and barked, being a doberman, he might get himself shot. There were a number of times he was so excited about the find, I’d get hit and knocked down. I got really good at rocking on the ground and coming back up on my feet in one move! Ha! The team also found this quite hilarious. During his time as a search dog, I had a hysterectomy. When we came back to practice after that, he was very reluctant to hit me. And from that time on, he NEVER hit me hard enough to knock me down but always had a more delicate jump alert. Pretty in tune, I’d say.

The head of our K9 unit was a tough gruff ex-cop. Every training I had to brace myself for his jabs and comments. It sometimes made me very tense. One day while waiting for the team to come into base camp, another team member and I were talking to this head of our team. I look down and Rio has raised his leg and is peeing on him!!!! Rio evidently sensed my tension and had something to say about it!!!! The head of the team wasn’t very excited about Rio after that! Heheheeee!!!! (I bought Rio a hamburger on the way home!)

When Rio was 1 yo his father shockingly and horrifyingly died of Cardiomyopathy. When Rio was four we were taking his Advanced Wilderness Air Scent Test. I had stopped and was giving Rio a rest while terrified of what I might be seeing. One of the evaluators said, “How cute, look how he’s breathing.” Cute?? Holy Shit!! I’m internally flipping out because his mouth is wide open, his tongue hanging out, and he is deep breathing. Not just panting. He did go on to find the second subject and passed the test! What heart this dog had!

That afternoon I took him to a vet to have him checked. Sure enough they found something irregular about his heart. They sent me to a heart specialist up in Portland. The specialist told me he was shocked that I recognized that anything was wrong with him because at that point he had “Occult Cardiomyopathy”. (No overt signs of Cardio.) I know that I was able to see it before most people because when you work with a dog in SAR, you are watching for any body nuances while searching. As well as monitoring fatigue, thirst, etc. Sometimes, as was the case with Rio, a trained dog will come across something they haven’t been trained on. By watching the dog’s body behavior, you can tell if there is something he is interested in but not alerting on. And thus can check it out. Rio is credited with helping solve a murder when he came across a large pool of blood. He did not give me his trained alert. Probably because we only trained on small vials of blood not huge pools. In this case, he would not leave the evidence (blood) but wasn’t quite sure what to do with it. I could not see what he was sniff-sniffing until I came up to him.

Rio had an excellent sense of who was a possible threat and who wasn’t . He was not one to be overly reactive to strangers or visitors. He was a very solid stable personality. One day I was hiking, head down looking at the ground when he placed himself in front of me, stopped, and gave a warning growl bark. I stopped, looked up and here was a guy who was completely stoned heading towards us. Rio woke him from his stupor. He looked up and said, “Is your dog friendly?” I said, “That depends on you.” I do believe that dog would have done damage to anyone who tried to hurt me.

Another time, I was in our truck and Mark had gone into a store while I waited. Rio was in the backseat. A couple drunk guys came to the window. I rolled it down just a little. “Do you have any money?” Rio stood up. “No.” “Surely you have money.” Rio put his nose closer to the window and started growling quietly. They said something else which was drowned out by the snarls and bark of my Doberman and his acting like he wanted to come through the window at them. Their eyes went wide and they backed up and quickly walked away. If Rio could speak English, I’d swear he was saying, “I SAID, BACK OFF, Bucko!!”

Rio was actually a gentle sweet boy. Also, not a push over. He wouldn’t be the one to start anything, but If a dog started something with him, he’d not back down. His protective instincts also extended to his other family members. After being diagnosed with Cardiomyopathy, I got Addie to start training for SAR. One day the male Entle Bucher on the team decided, for no good reason, to show Addie he was boss. He went after her. Rio stepped in, pinned that dog on the ground and he never bothered Addie again!

Rio and I read each other well. I loved that dog with a passion. He loved me beyond reason and would do anything I asked. He died in 2006 so, I feel like I am forgetting some important things about him. I do remember the love we had for each other. That’s a feeling that never diminishes. Every one who met Rio loved him. He was a true ambassador for the breed. Sweet and kind and dropping balls on anyone who came to visit.

I was importing a drug (that was illegal in the states) from Canada that stabilized his Cardio. Also giving him all kinds of other supplements that seemed to be helping. At five, he was diagnosed with Lymphoma! What the hell!?

He worked SAR (more minor problems) up to a month before his death at 6 years old. He ended up dying of Lymphoma rather than Cardio!! When I announced his death I said to my friends, referring to the fact that he had both Cardio AND Lymphoma, “I guess he was really wanted in heaven.” One of my friends wrote back, “Maybe he was really needed to help search for lost souls.” I’ll never forget her comment. Witty and warmed my heart.

There will always be a sadness at losing Rio. But, I am also so grateful to have had him in my life.

Oh, and yes…. He gave THE BEST hugs!! Whether you were sitting at the computer, watching TV, or? He’d come up, place his head in your neck and give THE BEST HUGS.


Cooper, Addie, and Rio portrait in progress 17

These final figures, of the 6 figures in Karen’s triple portrait, are a work of art in themselves. Every body-part of these figures - in this case Rio’s arm and paw that I added since yesterday - conveys the sweetness of what is going on between these two.

I thought these two final figures would go quickly, because they wouldn’t need to be super accurate like the other figures that show the full facial features. But I was wrong. So each day’s work is just a single body part. Two days on just Rio’s face. Today his arm.

Woman and Doberman hugging, figures in portrait of SAR  Dobermans, in progress


Cooper, Addie, and Rio portrait in progress 18

Continuing to work on the “Rio hugging” figures. Three days on Karen’s hands and arms. A lot of fine detail there.

These are the pencil colors I'm using for Karen's skin. Except for the bunch of grey pencils on the left...those are for Rio's coat.

Woman and Doberman hugging in portrait of SAR  Dobermans, in progress in Kevin's studio with colored pencils

There are lots of colors in human skin. You might look at this pic and think it's "flesh color". But there are lavenders and mauves, pale yellow-gold, peach, pink, cream, even some very pale grey for the ends of the fingernails (not white).

Close-up of woman and Doberman hugging, portrait of SAR  Dobermans, in progress

I've outlined Karen's hand with darker greys, getting the bulges and indentations of the knuckles very precise, so I can see where the outline is when I fill in Rio's black coat.

Portraying a hand is almost as difficult as portraying a face.

And I believe hands in a portrait are as uniquely individual and as important as a face. If I've done it right, these hands should be "Karen's hands", unlike anyone else's.

Woman and Doberman hugging, figures in a portrait of SAR  Dobermans, in progress


Cooper, Addie, and Rio portrait in progress 19

The “Rio hugging” figures are finished.

Now I have a lot of grass to do. And the shoulders of Cooper and Rio’s head studies where they fade into grass. The green underpainting (watercolor on the grey paper) gives me the basic grass color. Now I'll do lots and lots of pencil strokes to make a whole meadow of grass blades.

If you didn’t get a chance to read what Karen wrote about Rio (in the lower right), here it is again (below)...

Triple portrait of 3 Search-and-Rescue  Dobermans with their owner, in progress

Putting in the grass....

It’s actually going faster than I expected --- even though the grassy meadow takes up the whole bottom two-thirds of the artwork --- because the figures fill up so much of that space.

Doing grass blades can be tedious work. But you can see from this picture how it brings the meadow to life.

Detail of portrait of Search-and-Rescue Dobermans, in progress


Cooper, Addie, and Rio portrait in progress 20

The last thing I do before I consider an artwork finished, is tape it up on the wall, stand back at the distance the client will see it in their home, and see where there may be places that need to be a bit darker, lighter, more color — or that just jump out at me as a bit “off”. I’ll make the change, tape it up again, stand back and look at it.... I spent two days doing that with this portrait.

My final touch-ups are the yellow flowers around Cooper. It was not possible to get a bright enough yellow with yellow pencils on the green underpainting.

As you can see on the tinfoil, I was mixing up a nice orangey yellow (mixing red and yellow acrylic paints). Then I used a small brush to dab it on the colored-pencil flowers to brighten them up. That will be my final move on this portrait. Tomorrow I’ll scan the finished work and share it with you!

Detail of portrait of Search-and-Rescue Dobermans, in progress in Kevin's studio


Cooper, Addie, and Rio portrait finished!

My friend Jason braved rain, ice, and snow to deliver the finished portrait to Karen, 3 hours away.

Karen wrote:

“Kevin!!! I could not imagine the portrait looking any better than the pic you sent. In person in actual size, it is breathtaking!!

Thank you so much!!”

Triple portrait of 3 Search-and-Rescue Dobermans with their owner, in a background scene of southern Oregon


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