It Takes a Dialogue to Paint a Successful Dog Portrait

This week, almost exactly a year after I finished the portrait of Brinks, I received sad news from Barbara and Jacque. Brinks maintained her dignity throughout her struggle with a debilitating, progressive neuromuscular disease. I felt privileged to know her through my correspondence with Barbara. Brinks’ story is an inspiration as we each face our personal struggles great and small.

April 1, 2012

Dear Karl,

We are saddened to tell you that we had to let our beloved Brinks go this week. She was truly a member of our family, a dear friend and companion, and, as you know, the most beautiful dog in the world.

She has been using the Walkin Wheels for a year and a half, longer than any other user. In fact, we’ve had to replace parts that wore out long before she did. She was a trooper, and stoic, never complaining, always willing to do whatever we asked of her. That’s how we knew it was time. She had finally gotten to the point of falling, struggling with even the few shallow steps needed to get into the house; unable to move herself she flipped over one night and we, luckily, heard her whimper upstairs. When we went down to her she was lying on her back unable to turn over.

So, for her sake, and ours, we let her go.  It’s been a sad, sad week. Jacque and I both miss her terribly and will continue to do so. 

Thank goodness we have the perfect image of her that you created to help us remember her in her glory. The portrait reflects your respect and love of your subject and sustains us during this time of loss.

 Thanks again for doing such a wonderful job of capturing the essence of our Brinks.


 Barbara and Jacque


Originally published February 12, 2011:

It takes a dialogue to do a successful dog portrait.

That dialogue is between me and the dog owner. Whether it’s additional information about the dog’s personality or constructive criticism of preliminary sketches I provide for the client to review, it’s all very important.

Although I was trained as a fine artist, I’ve made my living for almost 35 years as a freelance illustrator, listening, taking directions and instructions from art directors. I think like an illustrator, in that I try to solve the visual problem and at the same time satisfy the wants and needs of the client. In the case of dog portraits, the goal is to capture the unique essence of a particular dog.

Brinks is a long-haired German shepherd I recently painted. Brinks’ owner gave me permission to reprint her emails to demonstrate the paramount importance of our dialogue throughout the process to achieve the most successful portrait.

I will do this post chronologically, beginning with a bit of history about Brinks. Her owner Barbara wrote,

Brinks is a long-haired German shepherd. She came from a breeder in Canada and we drove up to get her. She is beautiful, and smart! Her face is so expressive and her muzzle shows the colors well. She is unique in her almost all black coloring.

Our dog Brinks is suffering from degenerative mylopothy and is losing her ability to walk. It’s so heartbreaking!

Brinks is a bit frustrated that she can’t move around without her “walkin wheels”, but when she gets them on she goes! She can go for long walks and play in the yard and be outside, so they are a great tool. She drags her left foot all the time now, but we keep her walking to use it as much as possible. She wears a little doggy hiking boot to protect her toes!

She’s very smart and looks right at you when you are speaking. I think she understands English!

I like the good start to the sketch.

Yes, for the tags. She’s always had them.

You’ve really begun to capture her general characteristics, but I think her forehead and nose are broader and her eyes a bit further apart.

I love the longer hair and curly ends. That’s just how she looks. She’s had a big ruff and very long hair coat.

Somehow her expression seems a bit too “cute” to me.

She’s a pretty serious dog and makes focused eye contact when you talk with her. Her eyebrows tend to come together like she’s listening and thinking rather than to go up. I’ve attached another snapshot of Brinks in the snow. Her face here has a more pensive look, but has something to it that conveys her personality. It might help you get at what you are working on I think.

Ears look great – big and attentive. I love the intelligence in her eyes.

Wow. This process makes me really pay even more attention to Brinks and I’m feeling sad about how much I’m going to miss her someday!

Her eyes are still a bit too, I don’t know, “perky”? When I look at photo one and at the dog herself, she looks straight at me, and has a sort of calm attentiveness, not the kind of high energy look I see in the drawing.

I think of her as a formal, kind of regal dog. She’s not aloof exactly, but quite independent and composed most of the time.

With Barbara’s detailed feedback, I inked a tight drawing and emailed it to her for her to review.

I leave plenty of white space in the drawing to add color. Depending on the dog (or my mood), I rely more or less on the watercolor paint rather than the pen and ink. Some of the more successful portraits rely less on the pen line and more progress is made with watercolor and Prismacolor pencils. Occasionally I’ll use opaque watercolor or white ink. Whatever is necessary to get the correct likeness.

Oh, my gosh! You really got her! I am so pleased and so grateful that you kept us working on it! She looks terrific and it looks just like her now. The other image was lovely, but younger and more generic. This version’s terrific!

The portrait arrived today and it is amazing. Thanks so much.

2 Responses to “It Takes a Dialogue to Paint a Successful Dog Portrait”

  1. Jacque Allen says:

    Thank you so much for capturing my sweet dog Brinks. When Barbara gave me the painting tears came to my eyes…..I cried. This dog has been a big part of my life for 10 years. We went to Canada to get her when I was in the middle of radiation treatments for Breast Cancer. She was my constant companion during my recovery and marks how many years I have been cancer free. She took good care of me and now I am returning the favor…..she has great wheels to carry her around now.

    You would love this dog, she is absolutely like no other I have ever had….a person in a dog body. We love her and now have a reminder of her for many years to come. I will miss her when she is gone but all I will have to do is look over and see her looking back at me.

    Thank you for my beautiful Brinks,


  2. karledwards says:


    It was my pleasure.

    Brinks in her ‘walking wheels’ is both an inspiration and a sock in the gut for me. It’s not fair!

    Doing these paintings is so much more personal than doing my commercial illustration. I really see why people love their dogs to such a degree. Having owned dogs, I understand the emotional bond, but some dogs are more exceptional than others. Brinks certainly is an exception.

    By the way, your woodwork, furniture, assemblages and craft is incredible. It was a pleasure to view your site. Now, that is art!


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