The benefits of being a Pet Portrait Artist.
Updated: Aug 9, 2022
My time as a commissioned artist is almost as long as this arty chapter in my life, which is not very long at all really. I quit work at the end of February 2017 (not to be an artist, but to emigrate to warmer climes) and I think it was only 4 months later when I sold my first drawing and took on my first graphite commissions. I have done many pet portraits since then, and though I may have closed my books, I wanted to share with you a few reasons why I loved doing them, and explain why I have now stopped.
Healing and making connections
Did you know that I was scared of dogs?
This might sound ridiculous but hear me out. I believe that, to some extent, the emotions I feel when creating a portrait somehow travel into the artwork and can be felt by the viewer. So, for someone who was anxious just seeing a dog, I had to find a way to sidestep my own emotional response or risk those feelings being present in my portraits.
By seeking more details about the dog’s life, reading my clients’ funny memories and listening to stories that were surrounded with love and longing, I was able to chip away at the hard edges of my fear and channel some of the positivity to connect with the portrait as well as the client. Over time I didn’t need so much context to feel the love. I learned how to see the smile and not the teeth, so to speak!
Today, I am a different person around dogs. I understand the trauma that initiated my response, and I feel very differently about it now. I'm not totally cured, but I wouldn't jump in front of a bus to get out of their way anymore. Healing this deep emotional wound has been the best thing that being a pet portrait artist has done for me.
This portrait of Max and Macey
is one that I don’t think I could've done had I not put aside my fears. With their backs to the camera, staring out an invisible window towards white space, I instantly felt the loss and their connection with each other, and with their family. My client felt it too. We might have both cried a bit.
Levelling up those skills in my own style
The best way I know how to learn is by doing the thing over and over until I can do it. When I started with coloured pencil portraits, there were loads of elements I struggled with. I couldn’t get black dogs to look black (I used far too much blue). I couldn’t get the texture on a nose to look right (I was trying too hard to draw everything). I struggled to get the tongue colour right (bluey-pinky colours, yes, but add some orangey-browns too!) And curly fur…ugh…I never really got comfortable with that.
Learning by doing isn’t for everyone. There’s a significant amount of trust involved and feeling your way through a problem takes a long time. I’ve had cause to re-start portraits because I couldn’t quite get there first or second try, but I usually got most of the way by the end. And of course, the next time it was easier. This approach required a lot of self-critiquing and some introspective comparisons with other artists. I know we’re told not to compare ourselves, but you gotta have a goal to shoot for, right? And I believe that self-guided learning sticks with you longer and sinks into your brain much deeper than watching someone else do it.
Tutorials and Patreons are there to help when you get stuck. I’d warn against sticking with one artist for an extended period of time though, as your work could very easily turn into a copy of their style. I spent money and months on content I didn’t much care for until I realised one day that my work wasn’t looking like my work anymore. So, I guess my learning here was that I like the way I draw, and it’s okay if it doesn’t look like theirs. In fact, it might even help it stand out.
I mentioned in the intro that I quit work in order to emigrate. This was something my husband and I had been talking about since we met. We had the movers booked, the house rented, the flights sorted, when, with perfectly crappy timing, another cancer diagnosis blew everything up. This was late 2016, before I’d left work, before I’d even thought about art.
Without wishing to sound self-pitying, to say I was shook is an understatement. Treatment started that Christmas and didn’t go well. There was major surgery followed by more chemotherapy, and scans and treatments and consultations and treatments, and..and..and... the list goes on. You know how it is.
Having art in my life during that time, especially commissions, gave me so much ‘else’ to focus on that I honestly don’t know how I would’ve got through those years without it. I’ve taken my gear into hospital and worked on portraits while my husband had his treatments. I’ve lost myself in the details of dogs and cats while waiting for scan results. I’ve focussed on fur instead of worrying myself sick and I found myself a community where I could just be me, and share my pictures and feel happy that progress was being made.
As far as therapy goes, its probably cheaper to talk to a professional than buy all the pencils and paints and pens and papers like I did, but that would be a lot less fun, and I wouldn’t be here now, writing all this down feeling weird and self-conscious if I’d done that!
So, why stop?
Because I have come to a point in my art exploration where I am ready to push on and try something new. Highly detailed coloured pencil pet portraits have underpinned my knowledge and understanding for five years now, and while I have gained so much from doing them, I recognise that if I genuinely want to expand my skills, learn new mediums and new styles, then I have to step away for a while and give that goal the time and attention it deserves.
I'm not saying I won't open commissions in the future, but for now this is something I have to try. Learning by doing. Making a mess. Making a difference.