I never set out to make any part of my living making pictures of other people’s dogs and cats. But that’s been the case for the better part of the past decade. I have to break down and admit it: I’m a pet portraitist.
I can’t recall the first person who paid me money to immortalize their four-legged friend, but I remember well painting my rottweiler, Dex, several times 20 years ago. I only had him a few months, but I still miss him. The pictures I made celebrated the bond we had, no matter how brief it was. So I understand pet owners’ outsize, sometimes illogical, ties to their animals.
My pet portrait career really got going about six years ago when Brenda Lang, then-owner of Green Dog, a pet day care business on Chicago Avenue in Ukrainian Village, commissioned me to make a number of portraits of the animals she boarded to be hung in the lobby of her store. I started getting calls almost immediately. For months after, Buttercup, Chico, Crackers, Grendal, Folly, and all their pals were monopolizing most of my studio hours.
The nuts and bolts of this business can be a little tricky. Most dogs and virtually no cats will sit still long enough for me to work from observation, which is my preferred mode of art making. So I have to rely on photographs. Since I usually use ones submitted by owners, I have to wade through many far-too-cute or overly posed snaps to find reference images that will allow me to give a painting a little life. I tend to go for off-the-cuff, uncomposed images that allow me some artistic leeway.
When a close friend commissioned a painting of his longtime companion’s two cats, I had to collage two different photos for source material. Add to that my lifelong antipathy to cats, and it’s a wonder the picture turned out so well. The fact that I knew their owners played no small part in that. I thought of their long-lasting and loving relationship as I painted their favorite animals. In a way the result is a proxy portrait of my friends.
I never met Mat’s dog, Che, but the photo he sent of Che on the beach in Michigan suggested a whole aspect of Mat’s life I couldn’t even imagine. We’d worked in restaurants together 20 years ago, but now he was co-owner of a wildly successful craft fair in cities all over America. I rarely see him anymore.
I felt the wind blowing back Che’s fur, coming off the water, and thought about how lives diverge in such unpredictable ways. Back at Thai Lagoon in 1998 I never would have predicted Mat would one day ask me for a portrait of his dog, much less that I would make one, and do so happily.
Walter died after choking on a bagel. I heard about it on a literary podcast whose host was Walter’s owner. I listen to the show every week, and he mentioned Walter often. So when he shared the news of Walter’s absurdly tragic demise, I felt that I should commemorate his passing in some way. I e-mailed the host for some photos and got to work.
A week or two later, I got an e-mail from him, thanking me for breaking a little girl’s heart. Apparently the podcast host’s young daughter was moved to tears by my painting of Walter. I wrote back to apologize, but he assured me he was half kidding. He was glad to have a memento of his departed friend, and his daughter’s reaction meant that I got it right. If a piece of art doesn’t make you feel anything, what is it good for?
Eddie & Ernie
I know Eddie and Ernie as well as I’ve ever known any animals in my life. They’re Kelly’s dogs. I’ve dog sat them often, and we’ve all—animals and humans—spent many happy days together. When Kelly briefly moved back to Chicago, I painted these portraits as a housewarming gift. There would be no talk of money changing hands; I did these out of love.
Many people these days have decided either to delay or forgo having children. Dogs and cats have become a much bigger part of their lives as a result. Like a kid, a pet demands a set schedule and a lot of attention; unlike a kid, a pet will never ask to go to college, and is unlikely to hate or resent you. There are many arguments for choosing animals over babies. A multibillion-dollar business has risen to support that choice. My portraits are a tiny part of it.
There’s something lasting about a painted likeness as opposed to a photograph. Everyone has a million photos on their phones these days. For pet owners, a vast majority are snapshots of their beloved four-legged or winged friends. But a painted portrait—when done well—evokes a living being in a way no camera ever could. Whether to commemorate the passing of a longtime companion or celebrate the very-much-alive-and-kicking-and-wagging friend who makes you want to get up in the morning, these paintings connect directly with the people I make them for in ways most of my art rarely can. It’s specific and intimate—meant, in a way, just for them.
If you’d told me when I graduated from art school 26 years ago that I’d be making a living peddling pet portraits, I’d have laughed you out of the room. But I’m not embarrassed or ashamed of it now. It may not be the most meaningful work I do, but when I see the reaction these paintings get, I know that it’s not just a cynical way of paying the bills. Pet owners’ joy is enough to make it worthwhile, even if I wasn’t getting paid for it. v