Arts

Ruff job, but somebody's got to do it...Why these Canadian artists do dog portraits

It's National Puppy Day, so check out their "paw-some" work.

It's National Puppy Day, so check out their 'paw-some' work

Puppy dog eyes. Detail of "Joy" by Vancouver Island's Kat Cearns. (Courtesy of the artist)

She's an artist and an dog person, so the first time someone approached Kat Cearns about painting their pet, she got it.

"Of course you want a special picture of your baby. Animals are people's babies," says the Vancouver Island painter. And Cearns, like so many working artists, finds herself hired to capture pugs and poms on the regular.

In her case, pet portraits make up as much as 75 per cent of her commissioned work on average, though it seems as though there are as many people out there willing to immortalize Spot as there are pet "spaws" and shrinks and boutiques, maybe more. Search custom pet portraits on Etsy, and you'll score more than 2,700 options within Canada alone — some good, some great, some a total dog's breakfast.

They're not getting paintings of their kids, but they're getting paintings of their pets.- Gretta Gibney , artist

And while there's nothing especially new about dog portraiture — Queen Victoria and her proto #dogsofinstagram popularized the trend in the 19th Century — according to the Canadian artists CBC Arts reached, demand's only grown since they started.

Says Whitby, Ont. painter Gretta Gibney, whose commissioned oil paintings start at $1,400: "A lot of people have kids and they're not getting paintings of their kids, but they're getting paintings of pets."

Or as Cearns puts it: "It would be weird having a painting of yourself hanging on the wall, but it's not weird at all to have a painting of your pet family."

So what makes a truly great pet portrait, and why are some artists — from felt sculptors to oil painters — drawn to the job like a dog to, well, pretty much anything that looks, smells or tastes good? Check out work by five Canadian artists and get their take.

Sharon Holmes (Keswick, Ont.)

Style: Charmingly realistic needle-felt sculptures that could fit in a palm — or a paw. They're made entirely of wool, even the glossy-haired terriers and Shih Tzus that she sells for $266 and up on her Etsy shop, FeltDoggy.

Pets: Two Shih Tzus, whom she's yet to immortalize in felt. "I never have time! I'm always busy doing other people's dogs."

We just think they're cute but they have so many qualities that can teach us so much.- Sharon Holmes, artist

What makes a great pet portrait?

The overwhelming majority of her clients want to memorialize a favourite pet. Says Holmes: "You have to be a grief counsellor in a way." But that emotional side of the work can be a reward, as well, and for each sculpture, the main goal is capturing the animal's look, and personality, as accurately as possible, working off of any photos supplied. "I don't know what it is — it always happens like by magic. [...] Out of this woolly fluff, this little face is born."

Why dogs?

"I just love dogs. They're worthy of being portrayed," says Holmes. "Dogs have so much character and personality and I just think we neglect our animal companions. We just think they're cute but they have so many qualities that can teach us so much."

Sharon Holmes. (Courtesy of the artist)
Real doggy, felt doggy. Sculpture by Sharon Holmes. (Courtesy of the artist)
Sharon Holmes. (Courtesy of the artist)
Sharon Holmes. (Courtesy of the artist)
Sharon Holmes. (Courtesy of the artist)
Sharon Holmes. (Courtesy of the artist)

Gretta Gibney (Whitby, Ont.)

Style: Gibney paints (and paints dogs) in a variety of styles, and the Vancouver-raised artist spent a year copying masterpieces at the Prado — "I was obsessed with the Old Masters. That's how I learned how to paint," she says. The quirky canine portraits below ape the likes of Raphael and Franciabigio.

Pets: Two dogs, both rescues.

What makes a great pet portrait?

"It's no different than painting a person," says Gibney, who counts pet portraits as half of her commissions. "I try to paint the personality."

Why dogs?

After the birth of her first child, Gibney says she couldn't bring herself to re-enter the studio. "I didn't paint for almost a year after having him," she says. Her husband, she says, urged her back. "He said just go paint. Anything! Anything — just paint something. So I went into my studio, and I painted a dog."  And the paintings kept coming.

"Dogs are so innocent, they're kind of like children," she says. "They wear their emotions. For me, it's in their eyes." That flash of canine inspiration produced nearly 30 dog paintings, which Gibney exhibited at a Toronto art expo — which, she says, essentially launched her as an in-demand portraitist for the dog-lover set. 

"Seven years later, I'm still painting dogs," she laughs.

Gretta Gibney. Countess. Oil on canvas. 2010. Inspired by the painting "La Comtesse Regnault de Saint-Jean d'Angely" by Baron Francois Gerard. (Courtesy of the artist)
Gretta Gibney. Twisted Sisters. Oil on canvas. 2010. Inspired by the painting "Gabrielle d'Estrees and One of Her Sisters" b the School of Fontainbleau. (Courtesy of the artist)
Gretta Gibney. Portrait of a Champion. Oil on canvas. 2010. Inspired by the painting "Portrait of a Man' by Franciabigio. (Coutesy of the artist)
Gretta Gibney. My Lord. Oil on canvas. 2010. Inspired by the painting "The Crucified Christ with the Virgin Mary" by Raphael. (Courtesy of the artist)

Raya Lieberman (Montreal)

Style: Cheerful embroidered doggos.

Pets: "I actually have a cat, but I grew up with a dog."

What makes a great pet portrait?

Realism is what it's all about, says Lieberman, though there's a thread of whimsy in her freehand portraits. Says the artist: "I try to get as close to what they have in the photo they send me."

Why dogs?

"I'm very crafty. I knit, I sew, I do all sorts of stuff," says Lieberman, who also works as a photographer in Montreal. Her hand-stitched portraits, which can be custom ordered through Etsy, started when she tried making a similar pet portrait for a family friend. Doing custom orders for clients, though, has been unexpectedly emotional, she says — but there's a strong current of empathy that motivates the work.

Like Holmes, most of her commissions are for grieving pet owners. She says she dropped everything over the holidays to rush a piece to a family who'd just lost their dog. "I started crying reading [their message]. I was like, 'Of course I'll do it, of course!' [...] I know the feeling, and I know how hard it is for people to lose a pet."

Raya Lieberman. Clem. (Courtesy of the artist)
Raya Lieberman. Maile. (Courtesy of the artist)
Raya Lieberman. Portnoy. (Courtesy of the artist)
Raya Lieberman. Desi. (Courtesy of the artist)

Carolyn Nikolai (Ottawa)

Style: Acrylic paintings in classic poses. Everyday pups serving face.

Pets: No dogs, one horse. "I guess you could say he's sort of my pet."

What makes a great pet portrait?

It's all about unlocking that one thing that makes a dog an individual. It's not just the stuff that's skin (and fur) deep — big puppy dog eyes or a fantastically crooked set of teeth. Her job is about capturing the dog's personality, as its family sees it. Says Nikolai: "It's not just any other Doberman or whatever dog it is. It's their dog."

Why dogs?

"I never really intended on getting into it," says the artist, who studied illustration at Sheridan College. A competitive equestrian, her No. 1 subject had always been horses — but horse people, it turns out, are often dog people. After one of Nikolai's riding buddies asked her to paint their golden retriever, she posted the finished product on social media — leading to a spike in canine commissions.

"I love it for the people's reactions. I get them just across the board — silence and shock and just happiness. I get a lot of tears," she says. "Yeah, just them being so happy. That's what I love."

Carolyn Nikolai. Dusty. Acrylic on gallery style canvas. (Courtesy of the artist)
Carolyn Nikolai. Rugby. Acrylic on gallery style canvas. (Courtesy of the artist)
Carolyn Nikolai. Simon. Acrylic on gallery style canvas. (Courtesy of the artist)
Carolyn Nikolai. Smidgen. Acrylic on gallery style canvas. (Courtesy of the artist)
Carolyn Nikolai. Yoda. Acrylic on gallery style canvas. (Courtesy of the artist)

Kat Cearns (Coombs, B.C.)

Style: Exuberant fur-babies, like something out of your favourite storybook, delivered in watercolour, acrylic or pen-and-ink. (That last option can make for a great custom tattoo, it turns out.)

Pets: A dog and a cat. "I doodle them a lot."

What makes a great pet portrait?

Says Cearns: "Even if they are a purebred that looks like every other purebred, they're never the same animal, right?" And to nail those personal details, she'll spend time with the animal if they're local, interview its people and work off whatever photos she can get.

But ultimately, what she's making isn't just a picture of the dog — it's a picture of a relationship. "I feel like it's about what they share with their animals — what they do together, the time they spend with them and the memories they want to hold closest about their time with their pets."

Just the fact you can make people feel that emotional with your work — you don't get that a lot, I feel, as an artist.- Kat Cearns , artist

Why dogs?

Cearns says she's always drawn and painted animals, and her online portfolio is a bit like a West Coast Wind in the Willows, populated with badgers and bunnies and quail. She started doing pet portraits, though, largely through word of mouth in her Vancouver Island community, which has since expanded to online sales, and the work has been an unexpected source of joy.

Says Cearns: "I really love making paintings for people that are really personal for them. There's something really nice about making somebody so happy with your art. [...] Just the fact you can make people feel that emotional with your work — you don't get that a lot, I feel, as an artist."

Kat Cearns. Shiba. (Courtesy of the artist)
Kat Cearns. Max. (Courtesy of the artist)
Kat Cearns. Commissioned pet portrait. (Courtesy of the artist)

About the Author

Leah Collins is the Senior Writer at CBC Arts.

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