For some of us, sharing adorable photos of our dogs on Facebook and Instagram is not enough. We feel the urge to declare our passion for all things canine by decorating our homes in dog-themed art, be it a specially commissioned portrait of the four-legged loved one in our life or a playful dog-themed scene.
The Bay Area art community has risen to the challenge, spawning a number of artists who focus on dogs. Bay Woof did some sniffing around and came up with several painters putting their own twist on the dog art genre.
The artists profiled here seem to be driven by the same basic motives as the customers who buy their works—a love for and a fascination with dogs. They paint their own pets, of course, but also manifest an unquenchable thirst for getting to know other dogs and display a talent for teasing out each subject’s unique personality.
Such is the case for Joyce Leighton of Alameda, who does business under the name Watercolors by Joyce. Leighton’s pet portraits feature a photorealism style in which every detail is captured—down to individual whiskers that are painted with a three-hair brush. “It’s very time consuming,” she said, noting that each portrait can take 15 to 25 hours and sometimes longer.
Painting in a studio tucked at the back of her kitchen, with her 12-year-old white miniature poodle, Scout, keeping her company, Leighton takes on only one or two commissions a month. Her painstaking process starts with a house call, in which she shoots 40 or 50 photos of her subject with an iPhone. She and the client choose a favorite shot, which she then recreates nearly verbatim with watercolors on thick, 300-pound paper.
Leighton always starts with the dog’s eyes. She maintains that her medium of choice—watercolors—is the best for capturing the translucent quality and mosaic of colors in an animal’s orbs. “To me, that’s the best part to start with. It’s the soul of the animal,” she said.
The eyes are also the focus of another Alameda-based dog artist, Gabriele Bungardt, who started painting her own dogs, and then branched out from there. Visitors to her two-story home/studio combo are greeted by a mural of the artist’s current canine companion, a bouncing 9-year-old black-and-white greyhound named Poppy Seed who was rescued from the world of dog racing.
Bungardt mostly works by commission these days. “People want their own dogs; they don’t want someone else’s dog, at least in my style, because it’s so realistic,” she said. But it’s realism with a twist, in that she zooms in on her subjects’ faces and renders them larger than life using acrylics on canvas.
“I like to go really big,” she said. “My focus is to get the essence of the dog, and the only way to do that is through the eyes … I want the face as big as possible so I can get into the eyes” and capture expressions, she said.
If the client is local, Bungardt prefers to take her own photos, often pulling elements from several images to create a complete picture of her subject. These days, her commissions come mostly through word of mouth and from repeat customers. “I do a lot of dogs that are gone,” she said, noting that 30 percent or more of her portraits are done posthumously.
Dog portraits—both commissioned and not—are likewise a mainstay of Mylette Welch’s repertoire, albeit with a colorful, playful twist. Welch paints in her garage studio in the Sonoma County town of Sebastopol and is part owner of a gallery in nearby Graton where she shows her work. Currently serving as her muses are two rescue pugs: a 13-year-old named Lola, and a one-eyed pup appropriately named Winky.
Welch characterizes her acrylic-on-canvas paintings as “expressionistic” as well as “graphic” and “poster-like.” Welch likes to place her subjects in a setting that tells a story, sometimes incorporating words to get the message across. Many of the portraits border on cartoonish, with some actually weaving familiar cartoon characters into the scene.
She too starts with photos, taping them up around the canvas for inspiration. “It’s never like the photo exactly,” Welch said. “It’s my interpretation of the animal,” an approach that has drawn clients from across the country and all over the world.
There’s also a cartoonish element to the art created by Mark Ulriksen, a San Francisco-based illustrator who has landed 52 covers for The New Yorker over the last two-plus decades—a good portion of them with dogs as their subjects. In fact, he’s done so many dog-centered scenes for The New Yorker and other clients over the years that he has collected them into a book called Dogs Rule Nonchalantly. Issued in 2014, the book weaves some five dozen of Ulriksen’s dog illustrations with the story of the dogs that have populated his life as well as keen and humorous insights into the canine psyche.
Ulriksen varies his technique depending on what “feels right” for the subject, layering acrylic paint, tempera, or gouache onto surfaces ranging from watercolor paper to wood or illustration board.
What about dogs intrigues Ulriksen? “They give you a lot to work from with their faces, their personalities,” he said, adding, “They’re more fun to do than people. They don’t complain about their likenesses.” His hard-edged style especially lends itself to short-haired breeds, although he also renders dogs with flowing or wispy fur, too.
In addition to creating scenes incorporating his own dog companions—his family has had a series of chocolate labs in recent years—or other dogs he spots around town or elsewhere, Ulriksen is available for commissions. When starting a customized portrait, he chats with the client on the phone and asks for photos. He’ll do a half dozen or so drawings that he runs by the client before turning the favored sketch into a painting, completing the whole process in a matter of days.
Among the artists profiled here, the cost for a customized portrait ranges from $350 to $5,000 or more, with the price depending on the size, the medium, and the complexity of the piece. If that’s out of your price range, or you are inspired to try your hand at capturing Fido on canvas, you can sign up for one of the Paint Your Pet fundraisers offered periodically by the Friends of Berkeley Animal Care Services. Even novices have nothing to fear: You send in a photo of your pet ahead of time so that the teacher can sketch an outline for you to fill in at the class.
Prices range from $350 for a 5×7-inch portrait to $425 for an 8×10-inch painting.
Prices range from $500 for a 10×12-inch acrylic-on-canvas portrait to $4,000 or more for one that’s 6 feet square.
Prices range from $300 for a 12×12-inch acrylic-on-canvas portrait to $6,000 for a 4-by-5 foot painting. A number of Welch’s dog-scene paintings are available on her website, as are print replicas that range from $25 to $100.
Commissions start at $2,000 for a 12×16-inch portrait and go up from there depending on the size and complexity. Or you can get a collection of five dozen or so of Ulriksen’s dog illustrations by buying his book Dogs Rule Nonchalantly; a signed copy is available for $30 on Ulriksen’s website. Or for $200, he’ll personalize your book with a pen-and-ink drawing of your dog inside the front of the book. Also available through the website are limited-edition prints of some of his dog illustrations, starting at $175.
Paint Your Pet Fundraisers
Phone: 510- 859-8196
The next Paint Your Pet event offered by the Friends of Berkeley Animal Care Services takes place on Sunday, May 15, 3-6 p.m., in Emeryville. The cost is $59 (plus a $2.47 fee), and the deadline for registering is May 8.
Based in Berkeley, Brenda Kahn is a full-time communications professional, part-time freelance writer, and mother of four. She has a dog-sharing arrangement with her oldest son Ari, in which the family boxer, Chance, splits his time between their two houses.
Main article photo by: Mark Ulriksen