Remmy portrait in progress - start to finish
Updated: Oct 8, 2022
I've been working for more than a month on just the preparation stages of a very complex, and very special portrait. For Walter Da Ponte who lost his heart dog Remmy last year. A gift from Walt’s wife Frann, who also loved Remmy.
How can I convey all that Remmy was and how important this portrait is?
For several months I had been seeing Walt’s posts on Facebook about his beloved Remmy. I saw that this man’s heart was broken, and he missed his best friend terribly, week after week. Every few days, after Remmy’s passing, Walt posted (and still posts) pictures of Remmy with captions, like this:
" 5 months today, 22 weeks tomorrow. Make it a double celebration of Remmy's life and memory today. Miss you more every day my friend. A beautiful loving heart like yours only comes once in a lifetime to a human, I'm glad it was me. Noseys and hugs up up to the sky for you Bubba"
The first step in a memorial portrait is to gather the client’s photos. Walt is a talented photographer…and has tens of thousands of photos of Remmy! It took more than a month (and many tears) for Walt to go through them. It was a challenge choosing the best ones. He ended up sending more than 1,200, and many videos. It took me days to go through them all, and watch all the videos. But that really gave me a sense of who Remmy was - and who Walter is - and what they meant to eachother.
I began narrowing down the 1200+ pics Walt sent me by picking out the ones that would work best in a portrait and that best capture Remmy’s spirit, his essence and personality. This shows my choices, 102 photos, in my catalog app that helps me organize them. I can shift them around in a way that makes sense to me, moving my top picks to the first two rows, as I start formulating a game plan in my mind for a very complex layout.
Then, in a long phone call with Walt, each of us looking at those pics on our computers, I further refine the order. I color coded the pics to help me keep track mentally. Red labels are Remmy heads. Blue are favorite body shots. Magenta are the ones Walt loves the most, and which I think will work really well.
The pics that are greyed-out are the ones that in our phone conversation Walt and I agreed to cross off the list. The choices have to be narrowed down. My goal is to get down to about 12. Only 5 will fit in the portrait, or it will be too busy.
The one circled in white is a video that has some great views of Remmy that could be pulled out as still-shots. That’s Walt’s assignment. Only he knows the beloved expressions of Remmy that speak to his heart, I don’t.
Finally we have gotten it down to the working pieces. The pics in the top row are the ones dear to Walter’s heart, his absolute favorites of his boy. The first pic in the second row will be used for the river background (not Remmy). The others in the 2nd row are head shots, I can use one or two, not all.
Now I have my puzzle pieces and can start fitting them together. There is still a lot of decision making to go.
This is the same process I go through with every client. Remmy’s portrait is just “bigger” (more) than most. Larger-than-life, like Remmy was.
To help me narrow down the head choices, I bring in all the heads from our top photos: the head shots as well as the heads from the full-body shots, and put them in a Photoshop document. This helps me see how many have the same expression. The top row are serious, the lower rows are smiling. We don’t need two or three of the same expression in the portrait.
More than half of these have to be cut. Some of them are heads on a body, others will stand alone in the portrait as head studies.
There is a lot of mental work for me to visualize all of this in my “mind’s eye”…what will go where in relation to what else. Picturing the full bodies and the other colors in the scene too and how it could all possibly fit together.
Then I start building the layout out of pics Walt identified as the “must-have” top favorites with my guidance on what would work and what is redundant.
It’s like putting together a puzzle. A puzzle where you don’t know what the puzzle-picture looks like, and you don’t know if the pieces will fit, or if they might even belong to a different puzzle. And they can all be sized to different sizes - larger or smaller - and I can “flop” any of them them so they are facing the opposite way. In other words, there are many, many possible solutions to the puzzle…and most of them won’t work.
First I start bringing some of my photo choices into a Photoshop document, crudely cut out, on a grey background. Moving and resizing them into a pleasing, harmonious combination. There will be many moves, moving the pieces around and resizing them, before the final layout falls into shape. These are just the first few pieces.
The only thing we know for sure (it’s non-negotiable) is that the picture of Remmy splashing through the river has to be the centerpiece. Walt calls that his “Mona Lisa” of all the photos he’s ever taken of Remmy. His heart is full of the many, many fond memories of Remmy romping and playing in the river next to their home. That river was Remmy’s “happy place”.
The following are 6 of the 30+ versions of the layout I created. Walt (and sometimes Frann too) worked with me on what was pleasing to his eye, making some good suggestions…then I went back to work and sent him another version the next day. These are just a few of the many versions that kept evolving.
I’m still adding in the pieces at this point, and just moving them around, trying different combinations.
The pic of Walt and Remmy together (on the left) was too distracting, Frann said. The portrait is about Remmy, not Walt, and Walt’s face jumps out at you.
So I made the “Walt-with-Remmy” pic grey. In the portrait they would be a black-and-white sketch. A Photoshop composite can’t truly show what the original artwork will look like. It just gives a rough approximation so the client can get an idea how it will look.
And I’ve brought in the river-background photo. I needed to have that in place to see how the other Remmys would work on that background.
I’ve filled in the rest of the river scene crudely with Photoshop, so I could continue getting the right placement of all the other pics.
Finally Frann said the pic with Walter has to go. “She doesn’t love me!”, Walt joked.
The layout was finally starting to come together.
Walt really wanted that standing body pic that is in the lower right corner. But it looked out of place larger, it had to be small. And we were still trying different Remmy heads in the upper right.
I’d been working with a horizontal layout…
I tried a number of versions with a vertical layout too. I really liked this one, making the “Mona Lisa” Remmy larger and more important. But Walt really wanted his other favorite Remmy pics in it too. So back to a horizontal where they fit better.
We kept playing with it — me sending layouts to Walter and then getting his feedback - until, after 36 versions, we zeroed in on this. There is still lots of fine-tuning to do, but this is the layout we will go forward with. Quite an accomplishment to narrow down tens of thousands of photos to these 5. (Plus a river scene from a different shot). That particular combination of Remmys, in this particular configuration. This has been a very challenging layout-puzzle to solve.
This is a Photoshop composite.
Next I get in the studio and create the artwork.
Remmy portrait in progress 2
This portrait has 5 depictions of Remmy (two head studies and 3 full-body) on a river scene, with the center Remmy splashing joyfully through the water. For the river, I want green across the whole lower 2/3 of the painting. But not where the figures are.
The green color I want is muted, not bright. My paper is grey. So part of my strategy for how to construct the painting, is to do a green watercolor wash thinned a lot with water so it just tints the grey paper a little bit green. If I mix exactly the right shade of green watercolor, the river color will end up exactly right.
I’ll do it with a large watercolor brush sweeping across the paper from side to side. But I don’t want that green where the Remmy figures will be. “Doberman colors” work great with colored pencil on this beautiful grey Canson paper. If I tinted the paper green and then went with colored pencil over that, the Remmy figures would have a greenish cast to them. So I mask the figures off before I do the green wash.
I do that by cutting pieces of masking material, a translucent plastic film that is adhesive on one side. In this pic I’ve stuck pieces over the two lower Remmys. I cut around the outline of the left one with a very sharp x-acto knife, and lifted off the excess. The blade has to be extremely sharp — a brand new blade, never used — to cut through the masking film which is tough and takes a bit of pressure…but not cut into the paper beneath. It takes exactly the right touch.
I have cut out the masking material on both figures and the excess is balled up near the scissors. (Note in each pic I have the relevant Remmy on the monitor to check his outlines as I cut.)
I won’t mask off the upper two Remmys (head studies) because river-trees and rocks (done with colored pencil) will be behind those, not the grey-green water. I will fade the green wash below the upper-Remmys’ necks by swabbing plain water there as I work my green wash up to there, so it fades to totally transparent just below the upper Remmys’ chins.
Doing the watercolor wash. The layout I created in Photoshop is on the monitor to guide me. On that scrap of grey paper (near the monitor) I tested out how much to thin the green watercolor to get just the right shade of muted green on grey paper.
The masking film protects the two bottom figures, but I had to paint around the “Mona Lisa” Remmy (in the center) and the splashing water. The splash is too complex for me to cut masking film.
The wash is finished and painting materials cleaned up. Masking film is still on the two bottom figures.
The paint is thoroughly dry and masking film removed.
The paper buckled from being wet. Canson paper is not watercolor paper and is not made to take watercolor well. When the paper is not totally flat it’s hard for me to draw on it. So tonight I will wet the back of the the paper and press it under weights overnight to flatten it.
Remmy portrait in progress 3
The upper left head of Remmy is finished down to the collar. His shoulders and chest will fade out into the background scene. So I have to put in the background around his head next, so I know how to properly convey the fade-out of his body into the ripples of the river and the trees behind him.
There will be a surprise to the left of Remmy’s neck. Something that is very important to Walter. I’ll start working on that tomorrow.
When I sent the latest in-progress pics to Walt and Frann, they wrote this:
Between tears all I can muster to say is BEAUTIFUL!!!!
My goodness Kevin, these are incredible!!!
Remmy portrait in progress 4
In the background of this portrait is something you didn’t see in my layout, but is very important to have in the portrait...
After Remmy was rescued at age 8 he came to Walt and Frann with a rubber Pig.
He loved that Pig. When he felt stressed, he would get his Pig and carry it around with him.
If Ruby (their other Doberman) showed interest in his Pig, Remmy took the Pig outside and hid it.
That Pig was so important to him.
Frann relates this story:
“One time coming back from Florida, we stopped overnight and we left the Pig in the hotel room by accident. We had to move heaven and earth to get the stupid Pig back! The hotel couldn’t send it by FedEx to Canada for some reason, so the hotel FedEx’d it to a good friend of mine in Virginia, who had her assistant send it up to us. It cost us a hundred bucks to get that Pig back. I looked around for another one but couldn’t find one. That Pig was so…it was like your kid lost their baby blanket or something and life’s not worth living. When the Pig arrived, Remmy was so happy.”
From the time we began discussing the portrait, Walt wanted Remmy’s Pig included. Remmy’s Pig will be hidden in the bushes on a bank of the river scene. Just as he did in life.
Working in the studio. On the monitor, Pig is in my Photoshop layout that I created…that is an actual photo Walt took of Remmy’s pig hidden in some bushes. On the right are some reference photos Walt took for me. In the layout photo Pig looked too blue, so I was glad to have those other pics to show his true turquoise color.
My pencils in action. On the left are greens I’m using for leaves in the background. I’ll be creating the fade-out of leaves fading into Remmy’s body on his head study. To the right, separated by a small worn-down chunk of eraser, are the turquoise blues I’m using for Pig. And two colors of yellow pencil for Pig’s spots.
Once Remmy’s Pig was in place, I was started filling in the foliage around him. I needed to put in some of the greenery of the riverbank before I started building his faded-out shoulders into the scene. The greenery and some ripples on the water have to be done at the same time as Remmy’s shoulders since they are interconnected.
Next I’ll start building Remmy’s Pig’s hiding place on the bank, gradually enclosing Pig with twigs and leaves.
Remmy portrait in progress 5
Here’s Remmy’s Pig, hidden in the bushes of the riverbank. Right where Remmy left it.
Now I’m working my way across the river background scene, working across the top of the portrait from left to right.
Remmy portrait in progress 6
I’ve been working on the background river scene — the trees and sky. This post shows how I get a nice light-blue sky on darker grey paper with colored pencils.
Most people think a whole sky is just “sky-blue” - one color - and they'd use just that one color of paint to make sky in a painting. But in reality sky is lighter pale-blue at the bottom, going gradually to a deeper sky-blue at the top. With colored pencils it requires layering and blending.
I was working my way across the background of the river scene, putting in the trees and rocks on the shore. There is a patch of blue sky about halfway across. In this pic you can see that I’ve outlined the area where the sky will be with white pencil. I will put down a light layer of white pencil in that area first….
Here’s a closeup of the area where the sky will be. As you can see, I outlined it with a sharp white pencil, pressing down so the white line is pretty solid. That shows me how light the sky will be. The sky is very light/bright compared to the trees. Then I filled in the tree limbs and leaves that are adjacent to the sky area. I do that because I need to have the “value” (lightness or darkness) of the trees’ “edge leaves” (where they meet the sky) correct.
It would not be accurate to do those tree edge-leaves on just the grey paper, because they are lighter than the grey. Then it’s hard to judge how light/dark they need to be compared to sky. So I put that white line there as a comparison edge. The leaves are much lighter than the grey paper, but they have to be darker then the blue sky so they stand out against the sky.
After the edge-leaves on the left and right were put in, I did the sky.
First I filled the whole sky area with a layer of white pencil — very lightly. Then light blue pencil over that, to get a nice bright blue sky — lighter at the bottom. You can see the 4 colors of blue pencil I used. And of course the white pencil.
If I just did light-blue pencil directly on the grey paper, it would be dull, because of the grey paper partially showing through pale-blue pencil. When I put down white first, it’s like doing blue pencil over white paper…much brighter. I have to be careful how much white pencil I lay onto the paper though. It’s only possible to build up layers of colored pencils one-over-another to a limited degree. After that, the colors on top are just smearing the lower layer(s) around.
The sky is a lighter pale-blue at the bottom and goes smoothly up to a richer blue at the top. Skies are always darker as you go upward in the sky. Most people think a sky is just “sky-blue”, one color. To make it look realistic, I have to get a smooth gradation of lighter to darker blue. That takes more than two layers of pencil on the sky area. I built them up pretty thickly, to cover that grey paper solidly and make the sky look bright. The final layer, I was pretty much just smearing the previous layers to blend them as much as possible, to try to get a smooth-looking sky. Colored pencils don’t really lend themselves to big areas of smooth color like paint does.
Here is my studio set-up with my layout on the monitor. The two sets of pencil colors near the monitor are the ones I've been using for Remmy (on the right) and for the background greens of trees and bushes.
(This was taken with my phone in the studio. The sky color on the monitor doesn’t look accurate in this pic because I was photographing a monitor with a phone.)
It took several days to do the river trees. Today I finished that hill that is below the blue sky, part of the riverbank on the right, and started working on the upper right Remmy head. I want to do the head first, then fill in the background trees around it.
Remmy portrait in progress 7
've filled in the river background across the upper part of the portrait, and now working on the upper-right Remmy head. I need to do the head first, then can fill in the background trees around it.
Although Remmy is a black-and rust Doberman, I am doing this head with dark grey being the darkest tone for the black areas. The reason: there are 5 depictions of Remmy in this portrait. Although each one is important, the center Remmy is “the punch-line” of the piece, as I call it. Meaning it’s what really gives the artwork it’s impact. Without that “punch” a piece of art would be boring. With 5 depictions of a black Doberman, the portrait would have 5 black blobs spaced around the artwork. But to give the center Remmy (what Walt calls his “Mona Lisa” photo) more impact, that will be the only Remmy where his black areas will be a true black. The other 4 depictions (two heads and two full-body), I’m making his black areas lighter than black. So they don’t carry the same visual weight as the center Remmy, a black Doberman coming joyfully at you through splashing white water.
To our eyes, this head looks like a “black” Doberman. That’s because the light and dark tones of the head are correct in relation to eachother. But the darkest areas (which our mind tells us is “black”) are actually dark grey….no darker. I am very careful in this head not to go any darker than a dark charcoal grey.
While working on Remmy’s head, I have two pics on my monitor, side by side. The one on the right is Walt’s original photo. Next to it on the left is my Photoshop layout with Remmy's head fading into the river scene. The head stands out differently on the background of the original photo than it does against the river and trees. Also the head in my Photoshop layout was cut out crudely and doesn’t show the little fringe of hair on the edge of Remmy’s ears, for instance. By looking at both at the same time while I’m working, I can get the edge of Remmy’s face and head accurate, including the detail hairs. But allowing for the fact that there may be darker colors in the scene behind that particular edge. I make some of the edges a little darker or brighter than it might be otherwise, to stand out against the scenic background.
Remmy portrait in progress 8
Two days' work with Remmy’s upper-right head finished, and the background put in behind that head.
Here's the head finished....
This shows the whole portrait so far. Next I’ll start on “Mona Lisa” Remmy (in the center), the most important part of the whole portrait.
Remmy portrait in progress 9
Working on “Mona Lisa” Remmy, the central focus of Remmy’s portrait.
This will capture all the joy of Remmy splashing through the water in his "happy place".
In every portrait it's important to get a good likeness, but of the 5 depictions of Remmy in this portrait, getting his expression just right on this head is critical to the success of the whole piece.
Remmy portrait in progress 10
The important “Mona Lisa” Remmy (the center figure) finished…with a great deal of concentration, and pleasure. Next, on to the water splash…
Remmy portrait in progress 11
The water splash is finished. That really gives a dynamic feel to Remmy charging joyfully through the river.
Walt was right, that photo of Remmy that I’m working from, really was his “Mona Lisa” photo.
I've been fascinated by reflections on water, the way the ripples and flow of water distort reflections, the shape of water as it splashes or tumbles over rocks, ever since I started my gallery career at age 20. (I think being a triple Pisces has something to do with my love of water….) The shapes and beautiful flowing curves of water as it moves fascinates me. I’ve found colored pencil to be a great medium for capturing that.
In looking at the whole artwork, now you can see how I made the two Remmy heads grey instead of true black so the “Mona Lisa” (center) Remmy would stand out the most. (Next pic)
Remmy is a black-and rust Doberman, but I’m doing the 4 outer Remmys in this portrait with dark grey being the darkest tone for his black areas. Although each one is important, the center Remmy is what gives the artwork it’s impact, and goes with the river scene that fills the whole piece. With 5 depictions of a black Doberman using black for their dark areas, the portrait would have 5 black blobs spaced around the artwork….too many black Dobermans: your eye would bounce around the artwork without any central focus. To give the center Remmy more “punch”, that’s the only figure where his black areas are true black.
To our eyes, each head looks like a “black” Doberman. That’s because the light and dark tones of the head are correct in relation to eachother. But the darkest areas (which our mind tells us is “black”) are actually dark grey. That was not obvious in the previous “in progress” pics I shared, until you could see Mona Lisa Remmy for comparison. That true black, surrounded by all the white of the water splash (the only true white in the artwork) is what really makes the central Remmy jump out. (Plus the joy and magnificence of handsome Remmy from Walt’s “Mona Lisa” photo.)
That is part of the technical strategy
I have to plan into a piece before I even start on it. I took great care not to go any darker than charcoal grey when I did the two Remmy heads. I will continue that in the lower two Remmys too.
Remmy portrait in progress 12
I’ve been laid up with health problems for several weeks so am behind on sharing Remmy’s portrait.
Working on the 4th depiction of Remmy (out of 6 total, counting his reflection). The one we’re calling “red-ball Remmy”. This is one of those faces that is challenging because the details are smaller than my most sharply pointed pencil!
The eyes are SO important in a portrait, and it’s a challenge to do them this small. I was pleased when they came out so well. His face, from the top of his head to his chin, is 1.7 inches.
This is where I quit work for the day. As you can see, I am keeping my pencils as sharp as they can be for this work.
Remmy portrait in progress 13
Pics taken in the studio with my phone don't capture artwork very well. Here is an actual scan of the artwork, a high definition scan that shows the details and colors very well. This closeup really shows the fine detail, including the texture and little fibers in the grey Canson paper. (I love that paper.)
That was the first day's work on “Red ball Remmy”.
And here's another high-resolution scan at the end of the second day. In this pic you can really see why I masked off the figures to put in a green wash for the river background, leaving just the grey paper where the figure is. Colored pencil on that neutral grey makes great “Doberman colors”. If I’d done Remmy on the green-tinted paper with colored pencil, he’d have a greenish cast. Colored pencil is a “transparent medium”. The colors underneath show through to some extent.
“Red-ball Remmy” finished.
Still have to finish the patch of green grass under him but I’ll do that when I do the whole river with the ripples on it.
We’ve been calling this “red ball Remmy” because in Walt’s photo, he had his big red rubber ball. But I learned something very important about red early in my art career when I did a painting that had two small spots of red, one on either side near the edges of the painting. I discovered that any spot of bright red in a painting will draw your eye straight to that point. In that painting you ended up looking at those two small spots of red on either side, not at the subject of the painting (two dragons playing checkers) in the center. I have been ultra-careful about where I put red in a painting ever since.
The pic below shows the whole portrait so far....
In this layout Remmy’s big red ball was very near the lower left edge of the artwork. That would suck your eye straight to that point and nowhere else. That would take away from all the beautiful depictions of Remmy. I tried different colors on the ball in Photoshop to see what worked best for this portrait. Went with this burnt-orange because it doesn’t take away from the rest of the portrait, goes well with the colors in the river scene, and with all the Remmys’ rust markings.
As I mentioned before, I’m keeping the 4 outer Remmy’s muted (dark grey rather than black), so the “Mona Lisa Remmy” in the center, done with true black, really pops out.