She is sitting on a couch, her brown eyes staring out soulfully, her golden bangs framing her face. A pin-up? Definitely, but not your average centerfold. This lovely lady is Oakley, a golden retriever once owned by Karen Killian. Oakley died last March, but lives on in the portrait Karen did of her that hangs on the wall of her Centerbrook studio.
Killian doesn't only paint her dogs: She paints other people's as well. She does poodles, Doberman pinschers; she even does beloved mutts. Once she did a Labrador retriever as a part of an advertisement for Pendleton Sportswear, but at heart she's a golden retriever girl.
"I love goldens. I think they really touch people," she says. "They are gentle, smart, great with kids and they are loyal."
In fairness, she admits that those are familiar words when applied to a favorite dog, whatever the breed.
"All owners think their pets are loyal," she says.
Starting in 1998, limited print editions of her golden retriever portraits were available through the Orvis catalogue. In the first year, Orvis ordered 350 reproductions of a picture of puppies born to Killian's dog Chessie. The print, titled Life is Good, showed the pups scampering along a beach. It sold out in two weeks, so the next year, Orvis carried another print, this time a portrait of Chessie herself, doubling the order to 700. Again the limited edition print sold out in two weeks. After that, the company ordered 1,000 of Killian's prints annually for its Christmas catalogue.
With the economic downturn, Orvis eliminated the dog portraits from its catalogue, but by that time Killian had built a large fan base of golden retriever admirers. People still write to her, enclosing pictures of their dogs, explaining they look just like the ones in her prints. In fact, she says the photos seldom resemble the dogs she painted, but she understands the senders' motive. "Everybody wants their dogs to look that good," she explains.
Although Killian retained the rights to all her Orvis portraits and still fills orders for prints through her website, she now concentrates painting commissioned paintings of dogs. The dogs, of course, know nothing about the sitting requirements for portraits. Instead, Killian visits the owner and shoots photographs of the dog both inside and outside the house.
She says that sometimes, to get dogs to stay still, she puts them in a car so they will look out the window expectantly, excited to be going somewhere. Other times, to achieve the naturalness she wants, she has to tell over-involved owners that the process might work better if they left.
"Then I sit and read a book until the dog forgets I'm there," she says.
That's when she begins to photograph.
It has taken her as long as four days to get the assortment of shots she needs and at other times the process can take as little as two hours. On occasion, one of the photographs is perfect for a painting; at other times, Killian relies on a composite of photographs of the dog to create the portrait.
Though she travels the East Coast and Canada to take photographs, Karen also does portraits based on photos that owners send her. Often, the pictures are of pets who have died, but in other cases, it's because the owners live far away. She says, however, it is generally less satisfactory to work with snapshots other people have taken because often they don't capture the elements, among them the expression of the dog's eyes, essential to doing a good portrait.
Dogs and drawings have always been a part of Killian's life. She says her father's Irish setter slept under her crib as a child. She remembers at elementary school in Virginia, she would draw pencil sketches of the people who she saw in her history books. After the assassination of John F. Kennedy, she remembers making pencil drawings of the Kennedy family from photographs she saw in Life magazine. She was still working in pencil when she did her first dog portraits, but today she works exclusively in oils.
She is a largely self-taught artist, and among her first forays into the commercial art world was a job in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., where she painted the names of motor yachts in large gold letters on the sides of the boats. It was in Florida that she got her first golden retriever and fell in love with the breed.
Killian began painting for Orvis when she lived in Maryland, but after a divorce friends advised her that her particular art form would do well in the northeast.
"They said that I needed to go to New England because so many people had SUVs and there was Labrador retriever in the back of every one," she says.
Overall, Killian says she must have done some 100 dog portraits. Since she works on commission, she's not represented by a gallery. Usually, she says word of mouth is her best marketing tool, but when her favorite beauty salon in Essex moved to new premises, she noticed the bare walls and let the salon hang one of her dog portraits. She got more than hairstyling out of it. The painting led to a commission locally for a dog portrait.
Surrounded by portraits of dogs, Killian admits that love of goldens is one of the central facts of her life.
"People tell me I am part golden," she says.