sea otter friends

watercolor painting of two sea otters holding hands.


In an article on endangered species, I found the sea otter. Looking for images, I found a podcast interview with a researcher talking about how sea otters maintain vanishing kelp forests. They are considered a keystone species, a species on which other species in an ecosystem largely depend, such that if it were removed the ecosystem would change drastically. “Without sea otters, sea urchins can overpopulate the sea floor and devour the kelp forests that provide cover and food for many other marine animals. By maintaining healthy kelp forests, sea otters also indirectly help to reduce levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide, a prevalent greenhouse gas, as kelp absorbs and sequesters carbon.” (Defenders of Wildlife)

This month, the kind promise I’m working with is “I will build, nurture, and expand connection.”  Therefore, I wanted an image featuring more than one critter, so the photo featured on the podcast webpage seemed perfect. The duo in the photo are holding hands. Holding paws allows sea otters to keep their delicate paw pads warm. Sea otters hold hands when they sleep so they don’t drift apart, a behavior known as rafting.


I did not keep a session log. Happily, my brother Warren was my assistant as I painted, moving the paper on the easel and fetching paints, brushes , and water. : I blocked in the otters, especially their faces. I decided to paint the otters from the waist up, an unfortunate choice (I later discovered) because it put the otters’ arms and hands where it is difficult for me to reach. It also put one foot in the lower right corner where it makes little sense to the viewer. The photo shows the otters’ bodies partially submerged. I didn’t know how to render that and wish I’d spent some time strategizing this painting before creation.


  • The actual painting is a bit different than what you see here. This scanner does not capture blue well and I don’t know to successfully adjust brightness and contrast in Paintshop Pro.
  • I need to think through the painting process as I choose reference photos. (I have since seen several photos of otter pairs that might have been easier subjects.)
  • In my attempt to keep catchlights in the eyes, the otter on the left looks worried.
  • I have a lot of negative judgments about this painting. It looks two-dimensional and unskilled. It looks like it should have taken two minutes to paint instead of hours. (A more charitable viewer might call it “childlike.”)
  • Sea otters are a good teacher for this theme. Connecting with one another helps them stay warm and safe.

Posted on

April 28, 2024


  1. Carol A Barker

    I immediately realized that I internalized fondness the second I saw these two connected creatures. I beg you not to over-criticize the painting, as perfect is not a good goal ever! Thank you, thank you.
    I feel so grateful that I heard you speak in person at Plymouth UCC in Madison years ago. You have helped me grow.

    • Kate

      thank you for reminding me that self-compassion should be my number one job. Always. No exceptions. You helped me grow too!


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