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  • Writer's pictureKevin Roeckl

Popeye portrait in progress - start to finish

February 17

Annie W. contacted me for a portrait of her three Dobermans but instead we’re starting on a portrait of her horse Popeye. I have loved horses all my life but I rarely get a chance to portray them, as I’m mostly known for dog portraits. So I’m excited!

Popeye is a horse who has a very special story. Every message Annie sends me is dripping with love for this horse. Here is what she told me about Popeye:

“This boy is very special! He was born with his left eye blind, you would never know it. He is an amazing race horse with a heart that won’t quit. Yet when he is with me or hears my voice is as gentle as a kitten. He has an amazing sire and dam and would have gone for a lot of money at the sire stake sales but because of his eye they wouldn’t take him, so he went to a lease sale and my brother and I were able to get him! He owns my heart and by the way has beat some of those sire stake horses. Thank you, I adore him, I will send you a photo my dgt in law took this past weekend  thanks I can’t wait.”

Client's photos of herself with her Standardbred horse

Popeye is a Standardbred harness racer. The Standardbred is an American horse breed known for its ability in harness racing.


Popeye portrait in progress 2

I am off and running with the first day's work on a Head Study of Popeye.

Colored pencil head study portrait of Standardbred horse

Prismacolor pencil on “Steel blue” Canson paper


Popeye portrait in progress 3

Today’s work, with a scrap of paper with pencil colors on it to show me how they look on that light-blue paper. This “Steel blue” is a new paper color from Canson. I’ve never used it before.

Those are the colors I'm using for Popeye's head. I keep that scrap on the corner of the artwork and look at those swatches while I'm working to help guide me in picking up the right color pencil. Colored pencils are semi-transparent, so pencil colors look different on different color papers.

Colored pencil swatches on a head study portrait of Standardbred horse


Popeye portrait in progress 4

The eye is always so important in a portrait. And Popeye has such a sweet, intelligent eye.

Colored pencil head study portrait of Standardbred horse, in progress

A close-up of the eye so you can see how it was made. The lights and darks on the eyeball are what make an eye look shiny and alive. The shape of the eye and the shapes (light and shadow) of the surrounding eyelids and eye socket are what give it the expression that make it look like that individual.

Close-up detail of the eye in a colored pencil portrait of a horse

This is how Popeye's portrait looks now, with everything above his halter finished.

Detail of colored pencil portrait of Standardbred horse, in progress


Popeye portrait in progress 5

I added Popeye’s neck and am working on the halter, which has some blue sections in it. The blue ribbon, halter, and blue paper make a pretty complement for Popeye’s warm brown coat.

A “complementary color”, for an artist, is the color on the opposite side of the color wheel. Blue is opposite of orange --- the "complement" of orange/rust-brown. The dictionary defines “complement” (not compliment) as “a thing that completes or brings to perfection”. Artists use a complementary color to set off it's opposite color, the way the blues in this portrait set off the beautiful rust-browns of Popeye's coat.

Colored pencil head study portrait of Standardbred horse, in progress

Popeye’s coat color is called “bay” - a brown horse with black mane and tail, and black lower legs.


Popeye portrait in progress 6

I think one more day’s work will finish this portrait.

I have loved horses all my life. All through my childhood I begged my parents for a horse, drawing pictures of horses constantly on the back of my schoolwork, and writing little picture-stories (you know that’s something I’m good at) about a kid who got a horse for Christmas, things like that. My parents are NOT animal people and I look back on that now and see what a hopeless dream that was. 😄 

Colored pencil head study portrait of Standardbred horse, in progress

I know a lot about horses, their tack, riding techniques, etc., because I studied everything about horses I could get my hands on for years. As an adult I never was in a position to own a horse. But when I got my first Doberman at age 28 (Jake) I said I finally got my horse. Because their short back and movement is so similar to a horse.


Popeye portrait in progress 7

Even with my trained eye, sometimes colors surprise me. In Annie’s photo it looks like a pink patch inside Popeye’s nostril. But want to know what color that actually is?


Annie’s photo.

I was getting ready to work on Popeye’s nostril, the last thing left to finish his face. I wasn’t sure exactly what color pencils I’d need to do that pink patch. Pink of course, shading to brick-red for the darkest part, I thought.

A detail of the reference photo of a horse, showing the muzzle area.


When I want to see exactly what a color is so I can choose the pencil color closest to it, I “sample” it in Photoshop. I was so surprised how much darker the red was than I expected, I sampled it twice to be sure. 

Are you surprised too?

A close up of the horse's nostril in a photo, with sampled colors


A scan of the portrait as I was getting ready to work on that nostril. The only thing left to do to finish Popeye's head.

Detail of colored pencil portrait of a Standardbred horse, in progress


Popeye portrait finished!

Prismacolor colored pencil, head study, portrait of a Standardbred horse on light blue Canson paper

Portrait of “Popeye” for Annie W.

Prismacolor pencil on “Steel blue” Canson Mi-Teintes paper

12 x 14 inches


I have loved horses all my life but I rarely get a chance to portray them, since I’m so well known for dog portraits. You can see more horse portraits in my HORSES Gallery, including a winning show horse, and a cutting horse (working cow horse).  


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