Pet Portrait Artists
The trials and tribulations
With its dog-friendly pubs and cat café, Portland is widely known as a city of pet lovers. But the Portland Art Museum has stirred cat adoration to new heights with its showing of Carl Kahler's “My Wife's Lovers.” San Francisco millionaire Kate Birdsall Johnson commissioned the 6 by 8.5 foot canvas in 1891, to showcase her 42 favorite cats.
This past November, Sotheby’s auctioned the painting, bringing in $826,000. The buyer? Silicon Valley real estate developer and ardent cat lover John Mozart. Portland sends Mr. Mozart a big thank you for loaning the painting to PAM so soon. I mean, he hardly got a chance to admire it hanging over his couch!
The painting catches cats in a realistic range of behaviors, from hissing to napping to stalking a moth. Sultan, a Persian from Paris and perhaps Johnson’s favorite cat of all, takes center stage.
Unfortunately, if you haven’t seen the Kahler painting yet, you missed Baltimore-born cat rapper Moshow performing beside the artwork. But you can still see the cat masterpiece in Portland until May 15.
With all this cat portrait magic astir, UAN decided to talk with pet portrait artists to learn about their triumphs and challenges. Here’s what a few have to say about their art.
Portland artist Nathan Rhoads doesn’t think pet portraiture is all that different from painting a person's portrait. “My pursuit has always been to capture each animal’s personality,” he says. “There are so many tiny details that when put together, make up the animal’s persona. Each animal carries a different look. It is seen in their eyes, the way they hold their ears, etcetera. All those little details are what I enjoy.” But he also feels the responsibility to get it right. “When a client hires me, a lot of the time, they commission me to paint a beloved animal who has recently passed. My goal is to honor the animal and pay tribute to their life.”
Sarah Wilde, another local artist, calls Portland “dog lovers’ heaven.” Her favorite part of pet portraiture is seeing “just how much people love their pets, how they become as deeply beloved as the rest of the family. It restores my faith in humanity.”
The greatest challenge for Wilde and some other artists is working from photos. After all, you can’t usually get a rambunctious pup to hold still. “Sometimes, it's just the tiniest change in the expression in the eyes that makes or breaks a personality portrait, and it can take a lot of back-and-forth with the client, lots of tiny tweaks to get it just right,” she says, adding that all the work is well worth it.
Irish artist Shell Wilson agrees. “The hardest thing is when you are given poor photos to work from and they can’t get anymore because the pet has maybe died. So you feel you should try to complete the piece, but it’s so hard!”
Migi Mesa Samways of Loveland, Ohio does memorial stones for people who’ve lost their pets. Her work goes way beyond art. “It's bittersweet for me. It's very rewarding to bring some joy to someone that is brokenhearted from losing a pet, but it's still very sad.” Most of her clients want, “not just an artist but also a listening ear and a shoulder to cry on.” But as somebody who cares a lot about the world and the people around her – she sold $400 worth of her rocks as a fundraiser for Nepal earthquake victims – she can handle emotion.
Pet portrait artists, of course, face many of the same problems as other artists. Arizona artist Alicia VanNoy Call says, “The challenging part is educating potential clients about the value of original artwork. In a market flooded with cheap outsourced labor and 2-day prime shipping, people expect to get a large custom painting for a fraction of its value.”
Donna Beery of Aurora, Ohio also struggles with correct pricing. “I want to be paid for my time, but I don't want to scare someone away because of the price. I love creating.”
But all the pet portrait artists I talked to agree the rewards outweigh the challenges. Diana Hall of Orlando says, “Seeing the joy that your work can bring is worth all the struggle. Our pets are family and each one is perfect and unique. I love what I do!
It’s one of the few jobs where success often equals tears. Karen McDonald’s biggest reward is “getting it so perfect the client cries.”