I chose to interview Kevin Roeckl because he is a brilliant portrait artist and because his memorial portraits bring such comfort and healing to those suffering the loss of a loved one. I love his expert realism style and how he adds heavenly light to each painting that he creates. His ability to paint the light that shines through his subjects is extraordinary. In this interview we will discuss this topic in depth and you will learn what enhances his ability to do so.
Kevin Roeckl, a native Californian, has been a full-time professional artist since he was 21. He is known for his very detailed, realistic depictions of people and animals portrayed in colored pencil, a medium he has used for more than 40 years. After a successful gallery career, Roeckl has shifted the focus of his work to portraiture. He is particularly well-recognized in the purebred dog community for his portrayals of Dobermans, a breed he knows and loves, and portrays with great passion.
Rita: Are you a formally trained artist?
Kevin: I don’t have formal art training. Much of my art education came through my Dad. He was an art lover and amateur artist. We always had beautiful “coffee table books” of the old masters around the house, and I would study and study the pictures in the books of that great art. Dad sometimes took night classes in art when I was a kid, studying things like figure drawing and perspective. He would go to class and then come home and teach me his lessons from school. He took me to museums and art galleries. So all that was a kind of art education.
Rita: When did you start drawing?
Kevin: As far back as I can remember! My Dad is creative, and in fact, my whole family is creative. So for me being creative and artistic was normal. My parents really encouraged that creativity and artistic expression. Which is sometimes unusual for a boy to experience in a family.
Rita: When did your style develop into what it is now?
Kevin: I’ve always had this very detailed and very realistic style.
I have done different kinds of subject matter over the years. But always gravitated towards the human figure. When I was younger I read a lot of science fiction fantasy and my art reflected that interest – mermaids, wizards, fairies, that kind of thing. Scenes from classical mythology or literature. I do a photo-realistic style but of things you could never photograph because they don’t exist. Then later I shifted more towards animals and now I am a well known animal portrait artist.
Rita: Your art always has such a special lighting effect – so vivid and supernatural.
Kevin: Throughout my art career my work has always been imbued by that light. That’s always what I am trying to capture. It’s one of the things that people recognize about my work… it’s what makes my work look like mine… that particular lighting.
You have probably heard photographers and artists use the phrase “the magic hour”, that hour before sunset? That’s the lighting that I try to capture…when the sun’s rays are coming in sideways… and there is that beautiful gold color in the light… that’s my favorite time of day by far. It’s that hour before sunset, or a couple of hours before sunset when you have that magical lighting. That’s when I just get turned on to want to capture what I see.
Rita: How did you master creating such a beautiful light effect?
Kevin: I work from photos. That to me is the first step in my process…taking a photo of the light that I want. Although pretty early on I developed the ability to add that lighting in, even when it wasn’t there in the photograph. But it’s best when I can actually see it. Because it’s surprising sometimes, what light can do on a figure in real life, you can’t always predict the colors and shapes it creates.
My Dad was a photography buff. He would purchase professional level camera equipment, photography was a hobby for him. When I was around 17 years old Dad gave me his photography equipment which consisted of a top-of-the-line Canon camera, a telephoto lens, a wide-angle lens, a bunch of filters, a beautiful leather camera bag to carry it all in He gave it all to me. And to this day I do not know why he did that. It was not like him to give me such expensive stuff. But it was the best gift anyone has ever given me because that is what started me on my journey as an artist.
For me, the photography is the first step in my creative process. Years ago, back in the days of film, you had to wait a few days to get your photographs back from the photo lab and it was exciting. Back then you paid for each photo you took, so you set up each shot carefully. Then when that roll of film came back, in every roll there would be 3 or 4 shots that really stood out and if you were lucky, one that was just superb! When I would see those particular shots, it would just grab me and make me want to paint them! I don’t know why. It’s like how an artist who sees a landscape and there is something about that landscape that makes that artist want to paint it. There is just something about when I would see that particular photographic image that I took myself…there was like this itch to capture it with my art supplies…to portray it with my hands!
So the photography was my first step in making the paintings… I always call them paintings but technically they are drawings because I have always worked in colored pencil. Sometimes I use acrylic or a watercolor wash for larger areas.
Rita: When did success as an artist come?
Kevin: It was at age 21 while working a nine-to-five job in graphic design and while living in Laguna Beach, California. I don’t recall exactly what possessed me to do this but I created a whimsical pen-and-ink drawing of Laguna Beach with extreme details that included all the well-known local people and landmarks. It took several months to finish.
When the drawing was complete, I had it printed as a full size poster by a commercial printer. And then I’d go around to the gift shops and galleries in Laguna Beach and ask if they were interested in selling my print for $5.00. I sold them to the shops for $3.00 a piece. They could hardly keep them in stock! I had printed a thousand copies and when those sold out I had another thousand printed. Then another thousand, and another… That was enough income for me to quit my day job and start selling my art in galleries. What happened was that one of those gallery owners, who was known to support young artists, asked what else I had besides the Laguna Beach poster. We hung a few of my drawings, they sold pretty quickly, and that is what started my art gallery career.
Rita: Did you find creating art to be therapeutic?
Kevin: This is not something I have ever tried to express so I may stumble through it…I have always been an unusual person and a solitary person. And so there has definitely been loneliness. For most of my adult life I have not had a human partner.
What I became known for in my art gallery work are my female figures. Like the sculptor in the story of Pygmalion, I created what was missing from my life. The way I do my work…a lot of emotion goes into it. When someone expresses their emotion in art, whether it’s painting, dance, music, writing, whatever, that allows those emotions to be released. For instance, people who hold in grief, and don’t express it; that’s not good for you. But after a good cry you feel better afterwards because you have released your emotions. Because so much emotion goes into my work, it’s like I release that bottled up emotion. A yearning for romance, a love of women, loneliness, whatever that emotion may be. Those were some of the emotions I released by putting them into my art. An expression of all the beauty, and sorrow, and joy, that I saw in the world. Later in my career, when I began painting my own pets, it was my deep love for them that I was expressing.
Rita: Concerning the healing aspects of creating art, would you say it’s also about the peace that you feel while creating the art?
Kevin: Yes, definitely. I have always done very idealized kind of scenes. That’s the best word I can think to use Back when I was supporting myself entirely through art gallery work, I heard all the time from the people who bought my gallery pieces that when they hung my art on their walls they would sit back and look at it and it would take them into this peaceful world. I think that is why people like beautiful art for their walls. They look at it and it calms the spirit.
The purpose of my work is to go in a direction that calms my spirit and creates peacefulness within my spirit.
Rita: When did you switch from painting figures of women for Art Galleries to painting animal portraits?
Kevin: In the 1990’s I went through a very traumatic situation and was badly injured. It was a year before I was able to paint again and when I could, the only thing I wanted to paint was my beautiful Doberman, Jake. Jake is the one who saved me during that time. He was my sun and moon and stars. He was my hero and the most important thing to me in the world.
In my life I have always followed my muse and painted what inspires me, so since all I wanted to paint was Jake, that’s what I did. I believe that’s when people are successful…when they follow their heart. I have always done that without question. And that has always been my path to success…to paint what I am inspired to paint.
After I started painting Jake, I quickly found an outlet within the Doberman community from show dog owners, breeders, and the other Doberman owners. Jake was 7 at this point (and lived to be almost 12.) During that time I primarily did only artwork of Jake. Each painting was my love song to him. I was invited to show my artwork at the Doberman Nationals, a large national show that occurs once a year. I took 6 paintings of Jake and then hurriedly put together some notecards and prints made from those paintings. At the show, I sold out of everything that I had! People just loved it because there was so much passion in the paintings of Jake. He was my heart and soul and it came across in my work. I continued to go to the Nationals each year to sell my work and that is how my art became known in the Doberman world.
After Jake died, I never had the heart to paint him again. That’s when my focus shifted to doing commissioned work. At the National each year, people would come up to me and ask if I could paint a portrait of their Doberman. Up until 1997, when Jake passed, I was only doing a handful of portraits along with my own stuff of Jake. Now the portraits I do for people have become my sole income.
Rita: How has your artwork been healing to others?
Kevin: Over the years I have gradually come to really understand what it is that I do for my clients. And I have gotten better at doing it since I have come to understand it. The majority of portraits I do for people are memorial portraits, people or animals who have crossed over to the other side. What I have come to understand…and I get a little emotional just telling you this…most of the portraits that I do are for people who have had a relationship with their dog or their cat or their horse, like the one I have had with my dog Jake. It’s a soul bond. It’s their soul mate. These people grieve for months and even years. It’s a very hard loss. The people who come to me… their hearts are hurting because they miss their soulmate so much! What they are trying to do when they come to me and when they say they want a portrait of their dog who has passed away whom they miss so much…they are trying to replace that beloved face… in some way… and heal their hurting hearts. And so, as I have come to understand, that’s what I am doing for them. I have come to realize what a gift I have for doing this… and I have had this gift all along.
Ever since I was a teenager and all the way through my art gallery years, occasionally when people would seek me out to do a portrait, it was always a memorial portrait of someone who had passed on. Now that I understand the gift, I have developed my abilities with it even more. This is what I have come to realize…when I look at those photos, I am able to make a connection with the spirit of their loved one. Like an “Animal Communicator” (people who connect psychically with pets). Animal communicators often ask for a photo before they work with that animal and they hold that photo in their hands. I’ve come to realize that I too have the ability to connect with the spirit of a beloved pet and feel the bond they shared by connecting through the photographs the client shares with me.
Before I start my process, I ask my client to send me as many photographs of their pet as they can, and when I ask them to do that, I say, “Don’t worry about whether it looks like what you think a portrait should look like, I want you to send me the ones that speak to your heart. It might seem like a bad shot or a silly shot but send it to me if it’s something that makes you feel them.” I also ask them to tell me stories about their pet and about the relationship they shared.
When I see the photos and especially after the client tells me what that loved one meant to them…I make a soul connection. What I say to my clients is, “I paint with my eyes and hands..and with YOUR heart.” That’s literally what it is. When I make that spiritual connection, it’s like I feel their bond. I am like a conduit. I mean that is literally what I do. I paint with my eyes and hands and I let their heart and their connection with their loved one, flow through me.
That’s why people respond so much to my portraits. This is something that a good portrait artist can do. They can create something that is beyond what a camera can see. They get the essence of that loved one.
A lot of times when I ship a portrait to a client, when they get it in their hands, I have heard this so many times, they will say…”Oh my god, It’s like having [their pet’s name] back with me.” Because there is something about the connection they had with their animal companion that comes through in the artwork, and its so comforting for them. They say, “Now I know my heart can begin to heal.”
When people ask for a portrait, it’s because they want to replace what’s missing. And obviously you can’t replace a loved one, but they are trying to replace that presence… in some way… in whatever tangible form they can get. A portrait is the closest they can get, when it’s done by a really skilled portrait artist, the closest they can get to replacing that essence that they miss so much. Somehow it fills the hole in their heart a little bit.
Rita: What a gift you have been given Kevin! And what a gift you give to others!
Kevin: That is what I think my gift to the world is and why I have been placed on this earth. Maybe all the gallery paintings I did of human figures were like years and years worth of practice to be able to capture a very accurate and detailed depiction of someone’s beloved person or pet. And the grief and loss that I have experienced…. those were like my trainings to help me understand the depth of grief. My purpose in life is to do memorial portraits for people who are hurting and missing their loved one. My gift is to be able to give their loved one back to them in some small way, that comforts them.