Article Preview – Painted Pet Portrait Commissions
ALEX: Hey, good afternoon, this is Alex Wolff, the publisher of Long Island Portfolio. I’m here with artist, Suzanne Sheran, and we’re here in her studio, looking at a whole lot of dog art. Good afternoon, Suzanne.
SUZANNE: How are you? Thanks for coming by.
ALEX: I see a lot of dog art, but dogs haven’t always been what you’re painting…
SUZANNE: No, I actually started painting dogs about five years ago when we got our Wheaten Terrier Lucy. I was always an artist and decided to paint a picture of her just for fun. I had never painted animals before, I typically painted landscapes and still lifes. After I painted Lucy and posted it on Facebook, my friends started commissioning me to do dog portraits and it just grew from there.
I’ve expanded quite a bit, mostly through social media and through word of mouth and now get commission requests from all over the country. To be painting all day and painting dogs really is the perfect scenario for me.
I paint just about every day from around 10 to two,
when the light is good. I switch between paintings, and typically try and do the bulk of a painting in one setting, and then go back and tweak it by popping out the lights on the nose, the teeth, tongue, or the metallic parts of the collar. But every day I’m down here painting, usually one of my dogs is with me here, too.
ALEX: As a photographer, I do a bunch of pet portraits and it is always tough to get a dog or cat stay in one place. How do you do it?
SUZANNE: Typically, photos are given to me by the dog owner. If it is someone local, I like to take the picture because I know what I’m looking for in terms of lighting and pose. If a dog has passed away or there are limited photos, I work with people and what photos they have. Sometimes I get multiple photos sent to me and I kind of learn what I can about the dog from various poses and choose the best one that has the best lighting and go from there.
ALEX: All the paintings I see your walls are beautiful.
SUZANNE: Thank you very much. I love doing it. It’s just the subject matter. It means a lot to me. I’ve always been a dog person. A lot of what you see behind me aren’t commissions, they’re rescue dogs and shelter dogs I painted during the pandemic. After I finished up commissions I had on my list, I pulled up a photo online, decided just to paint a random dog, and I noticed the dog was a shelter dog, and a light bulb that went off and I thought, “You know what, why don’t you reach out to some local shelters and paint some of the long-time or overlooked dogs and post them on social media, get them noticed and hopefully find them homes.”
In particular, I’ve painted dogs from the Town of Hempstead Animal Shelter.
I’ve made a few friends who are volunteers there, who have been able to get me photos and help me get to know which dogs are in need of some publicity. I’ve met some wonderful people who are super dedicated to these shelter dogs. It’s just been great to connect with a community of people who care about dogs as much as I do in a different way. It’s been a great way for me to give back.
ALEX: Does that provide you with a sense of balance, the different feeling that you have for commercial vs personal work? I speak to some artists that don’t want to do commissions, they don’t want to do work to someone else’s specifications. Once they have to do something for somebody else, they’re thinking, “Well, now all of a sudden this is work, and it’s a job, and it takes away from the pure art.” Is giving back to help the shelters a counterpoint for you?
SUZANNE: Up until five years ago, I didn’t sell my artwork. I always painted for pleasure and it was tough selling at first because all of a sudden you feel like you have to perform. I thought, “Oh, what if this painting isn’t good enough?” So initially it was actually nice to start painting for friends, because no one’s going to get that upset about it if it isn’t good, haha! My confidence and skill has grown tremendously since I started Works of Arf. The comment I most get from my clients is that I have captured the dog’s personality. Capturing a likeness, that’s sort of a no-brainer, but to get their personality is really what I’m going for.
The reaction I have gotten to my art has been so wonderful, to know that my art is making people happy
ALEX: I find that challenging to do it with the photography, which does capture the exact likeness, but to capture the spirit is always the holy grail. We have not done our job if all we have is a likeness.
SUZANNE: Exactly. I have to remind myself, Okay, I’m translating this, I’m not looking to copy a photo a person has. My goal is to capture who that dog is in an intuitively sensitive and artistic way. So how I do that? I approach it the same way I would paint the landscape or a still life. What will make a person connect to this painting? Where is the drama coming from? What is the most interesting composition? How can I make the love of their pet come across and have the owner have an instant emotional reaction?
ALEX: Actually, looking at the photo that was on your right of the dogs and the painting on your left of the dogs we can see where you’re adding the light and the drama. If you were to just go ahead and paint what you saw in the photo, you really couldn’t get the life.
SUZANNE: After doing so many of these, you know what to look for, even if the photo doesn’t include it. To me, the photo is just a reference. And I look at each one as if I’m painting my own dog. What is special about this dog’s face? What little thing makes it different from another golden retriever or another terrier? And I think I do a good job of that, really making sure that this feels like that person’s specific dog.
ALEX: What are some of the rescues you work support?
SUZANNE: There are two rescues that I’ve done paintings for, Proud Rescuers of Puerto Rico, which is run by a local friend, Andrea Herrick, and also Jake’s Rescue Ranch, which is also local. I provide a painting for their auctions as one of the grand prizes. Any way that I can help out with local rescues or shelter dogs, I’m all over it.
ALEX: Do you teach?
SUZANNE: I actually was an elementary school art teacher, so I do occasional private lessons for kids. I keep up with my own education, I take a class once a week with an amazing local artist named Howard Rose. When I paint in his class, I don’t paint dogs, I try to learn something totally different, but apply it to my dog paintings. I’ll paint still lifes, a lot of food paintings, I love to paint food!
There’s always room for improvement and my style has changed over the years. My initial dog paintings compared to now, they are very, very different.
As far as what’s next, I’d love to get my work into commercial space, such as a vet’s office. Of course I’ll always want to continue my commission work and shelter and rescue dog support but take my art and love of my subject matter to a different level as well.
ALEX: Well, I’m going to thank you for giving me some time today, I enjoyed talking to you and seeing all your friends on the wall.
SUZANNE: Thank you so much for coming.
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