A Gift that Keeps Giving

A Gift that Keeps Giving

by Dina Kowal

“I have a question for you. Are you interested in doing a commission for me?”

That's how it began. A request for a special gift for Christmas 2017. A colored pencil drawing of a dear family pet, her husband's best friend Jake, a rescued Heeler mix. As I worked, I shared my process, my progress, on Facebook. Suddenly... more requests... Ten… Fifteen.


Jake, 8"x10"

“Clients were requesting a re-connection, the restoration of memories.”

As the number of orders increased, logically I raised my prices... and I noticed an interesting shift. The shift wasn't to purer breeds or to smaller portrait sizes or to more affluent customers. Here was the change: my first 8 portraits were of living pets. With the increase in price, the majority of the orders that came next were for portraits of pets and loved ones who had passed away. More than a colored pencil drawing, these clients were requesting a re-connection, the restoration of memories, a representation of a face that they dearly missed.

What a weighty responsibility. These clients were grieving a loss. They were trusting not only in my ability with pencils and a little paint, but in my ability to connect with a soul I'd never met. “You're bringing her back to life!” they'd often comment on a photo of a work in progress, a half-rendered face, an eye and a nose. A face they missed deeply was emerging again. A memory revived. A presence returned, even though it would only greet them from a frame hanging on the wall. They were asking for empathy. They invited me into their grief.


Marley, 11"x14"

When I got the reference photos of Marley, I knew her portrait was going to be special. There were photos, videos, stories... soul-deep stories from a grieving owner who desperately missed her Chocolate Lab, her dearest companion for 12 years. She had raised her from the time she was a puppy, and then cared for her needs through diabetes and old age. “She spoke through her eyes,” she said. “From the eyes alone I knew you were going to bring her back to life.” Through her photos and shared memories, as I began to draw, I felt like I knew this dog. I connected with the love in her eyes — love for the one who held the camera. When I sent the finished piece away, I missed her.


Merrell and Mother, 8"x10"

Another deeply moving request was for a rendering of a black and white photo of a mother and child. The mother was a young victim of paralytic polio. The photo showed the child visiting her in her rocking hospital bed. The love in the photo is tangible, radiating from the mother's face, who could express it in no other way. The child is grown now, the mother-in-law of my client. She was invited to give a speech about polio and the importance of vaccines. The commission would be a gift for her before the event. My client sent me a picture of the moment that gift was received. The look on her mother-in-law's face reflected so many emotions, and I can only imagine that in that very moment she was five years old again, at her mother's bedside, looking into those loving eyes.

“I could never do what you do,” another artist told me. “I don't care about people.” Yet, during a time when we're separated in so many ways, I have found empathy essential, especially through art. If empathy is a gifting, it's a perfect match for the work I've found myself doing. Clients send their reference photos along with stories of painful loss. Cancer. Tragic accidents. Illness and old age. There are beautiful memories too. A milestone anniversary. A Renaissance festival. A happy day, a romp in the wildflowers or a fly-fishing trip. These photos are theirs already, lovingly handled, with memories attached. Why hand them off to an artist to render again? 

“It began as a request for a gift. It uncovered a gift that keeps giving.”

As artists, we have a unique power. We can look beyond a glossy print or a digital image on a flat screen. We can “capture the essence” of a moment gone by or the personality of a friend who lived and loved, a companion who was faithful. Pencils in hand, we reignite the past. We can encapsulate or enlarge a moment. Each shade and stroke, each layer of fur, a laugh line, that little crinkle at the corner of his eye, that unruly tuft of hair, those freckles on her nose—they are all validated as the portrait builds. Each detail appears separately in turn, noticed and scrutinized. Unpacked, processed and reassembled. Rendered and remembered again. It began as a request for a gift. It uncovered a gift that keeps giving.

About Dina:

A self-taught artist, Dina enjoys working in a wide variety of art media, specializing in colored pencil and watercolor. Her commissioned portraits can be found in private collections across the US, as well as in Canada and the UK. She has also worked for over 17 years as a brand ambassador, licensed artist and educator in the paper crafts industry. Dina works from home in rural mid-Missouri, where she lives with her husband, their 4 teenage children, and a hyper-but-loyal mastiff mix.

See more at: https://www.dinakowal.com/

Comments (11)

What a beautiful article. I found myself nodding continuously as I read. Dina’s portrait of our beloved Lucy kitty captured the very essence of her. Lucy was a family member to us, and we often comment how happy we are to see that portrait every day. It’s as if she’s in the room with us. Dina’s talent is remarkable and a wonderful gift.

Pam - Apr 01, 2020

Your gift touches lives in so many ways, even to me who just enJOYs your art! I love feeling that warm, wet nose, that reflection in a light or chrome gives the naked eye.

Bette - Apr 01, 2020

What a beautiful story and wonderful way to have started a life passion, Dina. You are helping people to cope with grief. Beautiful artwork, I must say~

Roberta Morin - Apr 01, 2020

Your drawings come alive on the paper, Dina.

Ethel - Apr 01, 2020

BEAUTIFULLY DONE, Dina! I SO ENJOYED reading this article, so elegantly spoken! You have a SPECIAL GIFT & know how to use it! Now, that we too can find out how to use our gifts to touch others!

Becky Green - Apr 01, 2020

I loved reading this piece. What an amazing story of the connection of people and also pets. I like knowing these thoughts of yours relating to the commissioned pieces as you create them. This makes me look forward even more to experiencing that process with you in the coming months.

Meg Crawford - Apr 01, 2020

I sit hear with a tear in my eye listening to your story. You do bring joy to the client. I too do colored pencil, some of pets and also flowers. The only other medium I are oils. You are probably better than me but I can strive to do better.

Patricia Holland - Apr 01, 2020

You do such beautiful work!

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