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A new portrait of three Golden Retrievers is finished. It takes months to complete a major commission but it’s a satisfying enterprise. This client was a good communicator and the story came together nicely. Having spent months thinking about Champ, Max and Sam, now is a good time to tell their story and to describe some of how I work, how I determine what to paint, what’s most important to convey, and how the process works from the client’s perspective.

Golden Retrievers At Play in the Northwoods

Meet Champ, Max, and Sam

Golden Retrievers: On the right is Powerful Sam

Meet Champ, Max and Sam! They show the main features of their Golden Retriever breed and were loved for individual personalities by the family who knew them well. Firstborn Sam sitting proud and tall at right was a big puppy with huge feet. He grew into his size in physique and in character as well. Outgoing, stately, and strong, he was leader of his pack, obstreperous at times and a bit of a rebel. He lived a hearty life and left it all too soon.

Mild-mannered Max

Max in the middle shared with Sam the retriever’s classic red-brown coat. His smaller frame suited his more reluctant personality, the result perhaps of being elbowed aside regularly by powerful Sam. Max was the steady, calm one, quiet in the house and a mild-mannered fellow in the field. He may have been a timid soul but he won everyone’s heart and is still missed. “Just because you don’t say much doesn’t mean people don’t notice you. It’s actually quiet ones who often draw the most attention. There’s this constant whirlwind of motion and sound all around, and then there’s the quiet one, the eye of the storm.” Amy Efaw in After.

A show ring washout, Champ won blue ribbon success as the family dog

Standing at left is Champ, bred for show where he didn’t quite make the grade. It was his great good fortune to be adopted as an orphan pup and to succeed as the family dog. His paler coloring reflects Lord Tweedmouth’s earliest cross-breeding efforts with the Highland yellow retriever. Gentle of spirit, last born Champ is accommodating and helpful, beloved by all. At nine years of age his energy is flagging and there are serious health concerns on the horizon which prompted this painted reverie, a collage of memory across more than twenty years that unites three beloved dogs.

At Play in the Northwoods

There is a respite in the Northwoods where canine and human kin go to play hard and relax hard. It is a magical and loved place in the Pinelands, backdrop to so many glad memories. Imagine the dogs here after a romp in the woods having found a bright beam of sunlight as it lowers across the flat landscape toward end of day, happy together in the leaves, all three in their vigorous prime, imagined as it might have happened but in fact did not. As their family wants to remember them.

Painting an imaginary scene to recreate a fond memory?

Several months ago I was contacted by the family of these dogs. Sam and Max have been gone for a long time and Champ was recently diagnosed with the same terminal illness. Time is short as it is for us all. Having decided that they cannot bear to think of the coming loss, they wanted to do something positive to remember the best times with all three of their dogs and to permanently honor them in their home. And so began the conversation that resulted in this scene. I listened to their many experiences, how the dogs differed from one another, and heard what were the most important abstract qualities to capture in each. In other words, who were these dogs as individuals? Along the way there were many clues and I took lots of notes. Over the weeks several packages of photos arrived in the mail and emails recounted newly recalled stories. Now that the painting is finished, they say I’ve captured eloquently their much loved furry friends, their buddies. Soon all three will stand guard together for the first time to watch over the family and remind them of glorious days at play in the Northwoods.

Subtle details in the plan and layout of the painting

An important benefit of working as I do is that, within reason, there’s a broad spectrum to play with shapes, color and lighting long after oil paints would have shut me down from tweaking. I work at the surface of an idea for a while and then begin to burrow deeper into details as I get to know the subjects. Photos can be helpful at the beginning but remembered insights matter far more. For one thing the camera distorts—shapes, colors, lighting, and it knows nothing of experience or insight. I sketch on paper, then experiment with color. In this case, I explored techniques for showing light through fur. Poses came from their unique personalities. I looked out my own window for inspiration on the forest though mine is northern hardwood and not pine.

Better than a photograph

What I do is very different from a photograph. It’s rather magical to take an abstract idea and develop it. Not all of my clients are as communicative as this family and their collaborative team of friends and neighbors who were invited in to see each new version and to comment. The basic question was, “Have I captured what you remember, not just their appearance but the essence of the dog you know or knew?” So far every client has come to love their particular painting though, unlike this very helpful client, some commissions evolve with limited conversation between them and me.

I chose the Northwoods on a cool autumn day as the scenic backdrop because that is the favorite place. Sam sits turned slightly away to show his independence, Max rests at Sam’s feet and looks into a vague distance in keeping with his reluctant self. Both dogs are grounded while Champ is up at the ready with a smile on his face in an invitation to play because he continues to make that effort in spite of age and illness.

 Last thoughts

As for my professional opinion, I like the overall scope of the painting very much as it tells a story and preserves a history. The dogs intrigue me as they interact with one another while retaining their separate lifetimes. I like rich color in the foreground and in our heroes; behind them are dusky shadows making it about the dogs more than their environment. I believe this family will come to appreciate At Play in the Northwoods even more as time passes. That is my hope.

Golden Retrievers are the Best Friends Forever of the canine world

A final note: Golden retrievers are the gregarious BFF of the canine world and one of the most popular breeds in the US. These large dogs are enthusiastic about life and make good companions and family members. They were bred to collect the hunter’s quarry from marshes and open water. In the 1880s Scotsman Lord Tweedmouth crossed the common yellow retriever with a water spaniel and over the years the bloodline added Irish setter and Bloodhound to develop today’s Golden Retriever characteristics. Provide them with vigorous play and keep their minds challenged with games and training and you’ll have a happy dog.


This is Shane, a therapy dog and a hard working one. When he was a growing pup he showed such intensity and focus that his family decided he was well suited to early training in obedience and therapy work. This painting where he’s smiling directly at you shows a fine, intelligent boy!

Recently he was asked to join a therapy group that visits Camp Atterbury, a military base south of Indianapolis and a major hub for soldiers mobilizing and demobilizing. It will be a different type of work for Shane as it is much more active. They are scheduled to bring 45,000 troops back from overseas by the end of January 2012 so he is going to be a busy dog.

Shane’s also been known to relax by the pool in a Hawaiian shirt . . . you can just imagine Jimmy Buffet music playing in the background. While it doesn’t reflect the competent fellow he’s become, someday I’d like to paint that too.