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  • Writer's pictureKevin Roeckl

"Mini" portrait in progress - start to finish

April 20

Started a portrait of Mini, a beautiful black cat with gold eyes, for Emily Moren, DVM. Emily wants the portrait to include hellebore, a flower that was planted in memory of Mini. Hellebore is a black flower with a gold “eye”.

I start every portrait by having my client gather photos of their loved one for me. Emily sent 25 photos. I already had hellebore photos she sent when her hellebores were blooming last spring.

The first thing I do is study my client's photos and arrange them in the order I think best for a portrait --- the best for capturing the essence of that individual, and the best visually. These are the ten pics I think are the most promising. I focused on the first 4 and sent Emily suggestions about a full-body portrait, and a head-study portrait.

Client's photos of her black cat

Rough layout for Full-Body cat portrait

Layout #1

A crude suggestion of Mini sitting in front of a flowerbed of hellebores. I told Emily this could have a background scene behind the hellebores with more flowers, grass, trees....or it could have a plain color background as shown here - just Mini and flowers on a plain color. That could be any color. I used light grey because that's the least distracting for me to work on when I start.

Rough layout for Full-Body cat portrait with Doberman

Layout #2

When I was putting together the first layout, one of the photos of the hellebores had Emily’s Doberman in the background. So I kept it in there and sent Emily this version to give an idea of a background scene that includes a lawn, fence, and trees. With or without the Dobe. I said the dog takes attention away from Mini, but it’s an interesting idea to also include her Dobe in the portrait. Emily agreed it was an interesting idea, but that yes, it would take away from Mini.

Rough layout for Head Study cat portrait

Layout #3

I used this photo of Mini crouched down because I love the soft expression on her face, to show Emily how a head study portrait could look. But I said we could use any of the other head shots if Emily liked another one better instead.

Emily liked both the full-body and head-study ideas, but she focused on the head study. She wrote,

“This is hard. I love both layouts but I think the face on layout #3 is more consistent with how I remember Mini. Part of it is that she always sat like that, more so than how she is in the first picture. I like how her hind legs floof out behind her in a sort of lopsided way. She died seven years ago in December, but I feel like it was just a few months ago. I still think that I see her every so often, slipping around a corner in the house.”

I hadn’t realized it when I first began talking to Emily about a portrait of Mini with hellebores, that black flowers with gold “eyes” surrounding a black cat with gold eyes, makes a really striking portrait. Something I will need to be extremely careful about, is not letting all those gold “eyes” in the flowers distract from Mini’s soul shining from her beautiful gold eyes.


"Mini" portrait in progress 2

All the outlines of Mini and the flowers have been drawn out in detail on a sheet of Canson “moonstone” paper, a beautiful art paper with little flecks and fibers in it. My strategy for this portrait is to put an underpainting of translucent black watercolor (watercolor thinned with water, or a “wash”) on all the flower petals and all of Mini, a black cat. Why? Because colored pencil leaves tiny gaps in the pencil work where the paper color shows through. This is a pale paper, and the flowers and cat are black. I don’t want any light “specks” in them. Often I do black Dobermans all in pencil, by heavily coloring in the solid dark areas. But there will be some subtle shades of colors in the blacks in this portrait that will be easier to do working on top of a darker background. So it will save me a lot of work to turn the background paper to a dark grey in just those areas where the black cat and black flowers will be.

Since the details of Mini’s face are drawn so precisely in grey Prismacolor pencil, putting a grey wash on top of them, those pencil lines will no longer be visible. So I am going to put in a framework of the solid blacks FIRST.

First I cut a large sheet of white paper to cover the portrait, and cut out just the area of Mini’s face. That will protect the rest of the beautiful “moonstone” paper while I’m working.

Portrait of Cat in progress, with paper mask cut out

Portrait of Cat in progress, with paper mask cut out

Now you can see how I am indicating the details of Mini’s face. When I put the transparent black wash over all of Mini, these black pencil lines will show through. The only area where I won’t put the black wash will be her gold eyes. I definitely don’t want to darken the light paper there. I want to be able to get the most brilliant golds with my pencils by working on light paper, not over dark background paper.

I continue on, indicating the rest of Mini’s body as well. I’ve rolled the white paper back rather than cut a bigger hole because I’ll use this protective mask again as I’m working on the details of Mini’s face. By then there will be a lot of colored pencil on the flowers around her which will need to be protected.

Colored pencil portrait of Cat, in progress, with paper mask cut out

Having the experience of many years of creating different artworks, I’m able to plan ahead for the most efficient use of my time, energy, and materials. I know that a few steps down the line I’ll wish I hadn’t cut a bigger hole in the paper….and I’ll have to cut a new one.

This shows how I’m being guided on the details of Mini’s face by Emily’s photos on my studio monitor.

Portrait of Cat in progress in Kevin's art studio with reference photos on the monitor

The center cat face is the main photo I’m using for Mini’s portrait. Unfortunately that photo is low-resolution — when I zoom in to see details, it’s very pixelated. So I’m also using more detailed photos of Mini to guide me.

The other two faces on either side of Mini’s main photo are two photos (out of 29) that Emily sent which show Mini’s face at a similar angle, and have very crisp detail, even though her expression is not as good. So by having them next to the main photo on my monitor, I can check all the detail of her nostrils, whiskers, hair pattern, etc., which I can’t see very well in the main reference photo.

The next picture shows how much detail I’m getting out of them.

This is the whole portrait, on moonstone paper, ready to add the black wash in strategic places. The flower petals are outlined, and the black details and guiding pencilwork which will show through the transparent black wash are added to Mini’s face.

Prismacolor pencil portrait of Cat in progress

I stuck a piece of adhesive masking material, cut to the shape of the eye, over each eye before doing the wash over Mini’s face with a large “mop” brush.

I mixed the black watercolor with just a touch of blue in it, to compensate for the slightly pinkish tone to the paper. Otherwise, transparent black over pinkish-grey would have given me a black with a brownish cast to it.

Prismacolor pencil portrait of Cat in progress with watercolor wash

Now I have a nice flat black (grey) background in the areas where I need it and can put the details over that, and a nice clear “road-map” of Mini’s features.


"Mini" portrait in progress 3

The plant foliage is finished. I may add a few more leaves and stems…I want to see how the balance looks when I get the black flowers finished first.

This is 4 days’ work. I don’t work a long da, the work is too detailed and takes too much concentration to put in 8 hours. But there are plenty of other things to be done in my work-day to stay in business as an Artist: marketing, bookkeeping, website updates, the list goes on (and on, and on…).

Right now the hellebore blossoms are just flat black from the watercolor underpainting you saw in a previous step. When I get the blues and purples in on the petals, and the gold stamens, the hellebore garden will really come to life.

Portrait of black cat with hellebore flowers, in progress


"Mini" portrait in progress 4

Now working on the black hellebore flowers.

I'm adding colored pencil over the flat black watercolor wash I did in a previous step.

The pencils on the left are the ones I used to do the plant foliage. The ones on the right are what I’m using for the flowers. Many of the greys and all of the mauves have been moved from the “foliage” group over to the “flowers” group. The swatches to the left of the artwork show the “flower group" colors.

Portrait of black cat with hellebore flowers, in progress in the studio

The hellebore flowers are all completed.

Mini herself is still just a flat black wash with space left for her gold eyes.

Colored pencil and watercolor ortrait of black cat with hellebore flowers, in progress

This close-up shows you the difference in the flowers when the colors and details of colored pencil are added over the flat black (grey) wash. This is the "before" pic.

That black wash was was laid down as an “underpainting” for the flowers in a previous step.

Close-up of hellebore flowers portrayed with watercolor and colored pencils, in progress

The next pic is the "after" pic. Flip between these two close-up pictures to see the difference.

The flowers come to life - really become 3-dimensional - when the colored pencil details are added!

Close-up of hellebore flowers portrayed with watercolor and colored pencils


"Mini" portrait in progress 5

Working on Mini’s eyes, the most critical part of the portrait. I started out this morning before I went in the studio, by reading the words Emily wrote about Mini and what she meant to her.

Colored pencil portrait of black cat, in progress in the Kevin Roeckl's art studio

In the studio and ready to start, with all my reference photos on the monitor, and the eye colors picked out.

The large sheet of white paper with the opening cut for Mini’s head, is over the artwork to protect the pencilwork on the completed hellebore flowers. The colors for her eyes are just above where I’ll be working. The pencils on the other two sheets of paper were the colors I used for the hellebore foliage (upper left) and black blossoms (center). I don’t put those collections away yet because there will be final touches on the hellebores after I get Mini finished.

I’m putting in the gold of her eyes with colored pencils, all the detail of an eye.

The next picture shows you why I left the paper color showing through on the eyes when I laid in that black watercolor wash for Mini’s black coat. The gold of her eyes is almost the same value (value = lightness/darkness) as the paper. If I had put black wash there, darkening the paper, it would be hard to get these bright, glowing golds with colored pencil over that charcoal grey. They would have been muddy and dull. Colored pencil is a transparent medium, so whatever color is under it shows through a little bit, no matter how hard you color.

That is part of the strategy I have to think through when I’m planning the steps of an artwork.

Close-up detail of colored pencil portrait of black cat, in progress

Focus on the ears and left eye and you can see how adding colored-pencil detail on top of the flat black wash starts to bring Mini to life.

Both of Mini’s gold eyes are finished.

Close-up detail of colored pencil portrait of black cat, in progress

I always breathe a sigh of relief when I get past the eyes in a portrait. If I don’t get the eyes right, the whole thing is a waste. Mini had very striking light gold eyes, so the color as well as the expression is critical. Those brilliant gold eyes in her black face is part of what made Mini look like Mini.


Any portrait finished!

Today I finished the portrait of Mini, beloved cat of Emily Moren, DVM. She is surrounded by hellebores, the flower that was planted in Mini’s honor after she went to the Bridge.

This is what Emily wrote about how special Mini was to her,

and how she got her name:

“Minnie was brought into a veterinary hospital where I worked when she was a few weeks old. She was crusted in fleas and flea dirt and very malnourished. I raised her up into a beautiful healthy cat who adored me as much as I adored her. When we had guests over, she would sit and mingle. At night when it was time for bed, she would meow and run to the bedroom telling me that she wanted me to come too. She slept with me under the covers every night. When I had my first daughter, Mini sat with us in the middle of the night when I needed to be awake.

When I first got Minnie, I named her Mystery. However, over her first few years my friends dubbed her Mini Moren because she was my little shadow and we were inseparable. I remember when I met my husband, I told him the worst thing you can do is be jealous of my cat. He never was and she died with us in our bed one night several years ago. I still think I see her out of the corner of my eye every once in a while.

The hellebore is her memorial plant. When she died, my mom sent me this beautiful black hellebore to plant over her ashes. When it blooms I feel like she's here with me.”

FIne art portrait of black cat with black hellebore flowers, in Prismacolor pencil and watercolor, by artist Kevin Roeckl

After I sent a jpg of the finished portrait for her approval, Emily emailed back:

“It is so perfect, you have captured her little soul. Thank you so much.”

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