Creating a Portrait From Photos, Ideas and Memories

sketch on easel

A good start on this portrait.

I’m preparing to start two portraits right now, and until I get a little bit of work done on either one I’d like to give a demonstration of how I’ve put different portraits together, in this case one of multiple cats who I had the chance to meet and observe and photograph, and also to get to know the customer and her house. I created this portrait in the late 90s and you’ll see still photos, my old workspace and computer and so on, but the process is still the same.

Your animal companion as fine art

They may be prizewinners or bedraggled street survivors, but no matter—each is precious and fills our lives with joy. And our animal companions were meant to be shared; we can spend hours recounting memorable moments to fellow pet companions.

pastel painting of black cat

Made up mostly from memory..."Are You Looking at Me?" pastel © B.E. Kazmarski

And creating a lasting portrait of your animal companion should reflect all those moments in what usually ends up as a composite image of years of photos and memories. I began to create portraits with my own cats, combining not just my reference photos but my ideas, creating the pose and composition I always envisioned when I thought of them, and so I approach everyone’s portraits in the same way. This is the memory you want to cherish, and it’s a piece of lasting fine art for your wall.

For every portrait I create a composite image from many photos, both digital and film as many of our animal companions’ lives go way back before digital photos, often choosing each of the subject’s characteristics from a different photo—ears from this one, paws from another.

I like to be able to meet them as well though this isn’t always possible since many of my portraits are memorials after a pet has passed, or it may be a surprise gift for another person, and large group portraits may include animals from both past and present.

cat peeking out from under bed

She did this every day of her life..."Waiting for Mom", pastel © B.E. Kazmarski

In creating the initial composite image I can remove a background from a scene and add another, include toys or even group animals together in a way they’d never pose, and you’ll see this in the two portraits I’ve used as demonstrations, below. And the best portrait isn’t necessarily a face forward shot of a classic pose but a typical event in your pet’s daily routine, or one of those singular moments you love to tell everyone about. The more interesting, the better it describes your best friend, and the more I enjoy creating it. Working from your photographs, your custom portrait can include one or more pets and even family members (I do people, too), in pastel, pencil, pen and ink, watercolor or colored pencil.

Portraits can be any size or shape (within limitations, of course), and I like to discuss where it will hang in the home as well as framing even before we start so that it fits both physically and stylistically where it will be enjoyed.

Ripley, Murphy, O.G., Veda and Missy Kitty

pastel portrait of five cats

"Ripley, Murphy, O.G., Veda and Missy Kitty", pastel © B.E. Kazmarski

The process is different for each portrait depending on what’s needed. This portrait needed just about all the tricks I have in my little bag! I had the opportunity to visit their home and meet each one of them, and so spent about two hours talking to their mom about each one of them and following them around, photographing them in their habitat and with their habits even though their mom also had plenty of photos.

photos for portrait

Organizing the photos.

Being able to photograph them myself gives me the best visual information—after all, would you photograph just your cat’s tail anticipating that someday you might need that photograph? I can do that if I feel I need it.

Their mom adopted each of them individually either from shelters or from rescues, so each had a story that added to what I gathered about their personalities. We talked about where the portrait might be hung to help determine size and certain elements of the design, but she left the details up to me.

Depending on the complexity of the portrait and how many photographs I have to combine to get the scene, I may simply begin the drawing with no preliminaries or will create a pencil sketch to size. However, it’s a rarity that I don’t combine fewer than three pictures, and for this one I lost count of the number of pictures I combined. I used to have to sketch it out, even enlarging and cutting and pasting on a copier but now I use PhotoShop, scan the photos or use the digitals provided and combine them into a final finished composite.

composite for portrait

Composite created from individual images and even bits and pieces of images.

This, of course, means I have to make up shadows and highlights and the lay of the fur when I get down to the final drawing and when designing the posture and setting, I try to place the subjects against a background area which will complement their looks. But it’s not all about their looks—in combining multiples like this, I try to pair together animals which are friendly with each other and keep the “enemies” far apart.

three cats in portrait

O.G. loved everyone while Veda was a little skittish and Miss Kitty kept to herself.

For this portrait, I created two composites which I liked equally, and so did my client, but in the end the spot over the fireplace made the decision for the long narrow format. Each of the subjects is a composite of at least two photographs for face, paws, tail, eyes, ears, etc. I had an idea to use the bay window with windowseat for them all because the light was so beautiful and each of them visited this spot regularly, plus I enjoy painting architectural details.

I then combined each of the individual composites, added the window in the background, and sent it off to my client for approval. When I began work, I enlarged the composite to the actual size of the finished drawing, printed it out, covered the back with a dark shade of pastel, and transferred it onto my drawing paper, which is an archival quality, 600-grit sanded paper.

After generally filling in the actual colors in the drawing and checking to make sure that everything was in proportion and in proper perspective, I was ready to work the actual drawing at my easel, with all the reference photos near. I usually work the background first, then work one subject at a time, keeping the whole work at about the same level of detail. I may go over a portrait three or four times this way, each time working more color and detail into the work. In this case, because the window is a large portion of the work, I wanted to make certain all the structure and detail of it wouldn’t compete with the subjects, so I left it with less detail and color than the subjects and the surface they’re resting on.

two cats

Ripley and Murphy were buddies.

The final pass adds the highlights in the fur, the whiskers and the sparkles in the eyes. When they look back at me from the drawing, I know it’s done. But it’s not really done until my client reviews it to make sure I’ve gotten everything right—after all, they are your companions, and I’d be just as fussy about mine. In this case, Veda was just not right—she’s a very tiny, slender cat, but shy, and the only clear picture I had gotten of her was of her hunched up a little scared under a table. Even though the image was accurate, it just wasn’t Veda, so my client sent me a few more photos of just her and I reworked that area. Since I had to slim her down and make her a little taller, and Veda is primarily black against a pale background, I had to actually lift quite a bit of pastel off of the paper and start over in some areas. If you compare the finished portrait at the beginning of this article with the sketch directly above, you’ll see the difference in Veda’s image.

A few stories of how other portraits came together

I’ll tell these in greater detail someday, perhaps when I can track down the customer and photograph the portrait again, but here are two portraits that too a little extra ingenuity to compose. Both are fairly large, image size about 20″W x 15″H.

portrait of calico cat

Gypsy, pastel © B.E. Kazmarski


Gypsy was just about to turn 21 when I met her, and the challenge was for her human to choose one position out of all those years of companionship by which to represent her. She had no pictures of this position, and of course Gypsy did not cooperate by posing, so we pieced it together with other pictures of Gypsy plus a picture of a pillow placed in this spot behind the curtains. After she lost Gypsy to a brain tumor, her companion told me that she had hung the portrait by the door and every morning she said goodbye to the portrait and greeted it every day when she came home. I was glad to know that something I had done had brought comfort to someone in time of need.

portrait of doberman

Greta, pastel © B.E. Kazmarski


Greta was a gift from a woman to her long-time boyfriend, a portrait of the dog who had been his companion for nearly fifteen years, and she had known and loved Greta as well. He was still grieving Greta a year or more later when the woman asked me about a portrait, but said she had no good photos of Greta, at least not ones she could take away for a while. She gave me a few small snaps, a magazine page of a Doberman who was marked like Greta, and described how she posed herself, crossed paws and all. I visited my neighbor who had three rescued Dobermans and took a few reference photos and did a sketch. Even though I was uncertain about it all along the portrait was a success; the man who’d loved Greta called me some time after he received it, in tears, and simply thanked me.

Take a look at other portraits and read other stories

Commissioned Cat Portraits

portrait of black cat in wicker chair
Commissioned Dog Portraits

pastel portrait of dogs


Read about other recent commissioned portraits here on The Creative Cat.
Read about how I create commissioned portraits.
Visit my website to see portraits of my cats, commissioned cats, commissioned dogs, people and a demonstration of how I put a portrait together from photos.

All images used on this site are copyrighted to Bernadette E. Kazmarski unless otherwise noted and may not be used without my written permission. Please ask if you are interested in purchasing one as a print, or to use in a print or internet publication.


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