For both Lucinda Moeller and Angela Alexander, their forays into pet portraits were precipitated by the loss of dependable day jobs. “I hadn’t painted in 15 years, but I had a snow day and I didn’t have anything else to do, so I thought, ‘Hey, I’ll just paint a picture of one of my dogs today,’” says Moeller. “I posted it on Facebook, and everyone loved it.” Shortly thereafter, she was laid off from her corporate job, so she started painting other people’s pets.
Sixteen years ago, Alexander was between jobs. “I started taking craft paints and doing little caricatures of Sadie and Casey,” she says of her Chihuahuas. “One thing led to another, and here I am. … If you told me 15 years ago, someone would pay for something I painted, I would have laughed at you.” But these days, Alexander’s work is in demand, and she’s based in the River Arts District’s NorthLight Studios.
Stephanie Grimes, who has a studio in the RAD, at Pink Dog Creative, moved to Asheville five years ago from Florida, where she’d been making art. “Someone bought a few bird paintings and asked me if I ever did pets,” she remembers. “I’d been drawing dogs my whole life, so I said, ‘Well, sure!’”
All three mainly work on commission to clienteles with similar objectives. “The most common reason is because the animal has recently passed or [the owner] found out the pet is near the end of its life,” says Grimes. For Moeller, “The majority of [the portraits] are as gifts. ‘This is my son’s dog; my wife loves her dog, and I’d love to get a picture for her birthday.’ … Sometimes it’s just people who love their pets and really want a nice picture of them.” Moeller has also placed art in local veterinary businesses, such as Pet Vet on Patton and WNC Veterinary Hospital.
The artists work from photographs. “No matter how good your dog is at sitting, it’s not going to do it for that number of hours,” Moeller says with a laugh. She tries to get a number of photos from her clients — one that’s the pose they’d like painted and a few more to give the artist a sense of the detail in the pet’s eyes and to make sure the colors are correct.
Grimes also asks her clients for a selection of images and a description of the pet’s personality. “Then I go through the photos knowing what I’ve been told about the personality and I look for the traits in those photos,” she explains. If a client does live in the Asheville area, Grimes sets up a photo shoot with the pet and takes the images herself. “That way I can assure that I can get the photos I need and I get to meet the animal so I know what the personality is like,” she says.
Alexander’s process is to make an initial black-and-white sketch and share composition options. The pet owner chooses the canvas size and background color. “That sets the tone for what some of the coloring will be,” she says.
Alexander also senses a color palette associated with each pet, correlating to age, energy level and other factors. “It’s like, ‘You might be a little brown dog, but what are you really?’” she explains. “When I see pets, they’re the purest form of unconditional love and joy. When I look at them, I feel those things.”
Though there are similarities in the work, each artist also adds personal touches and techniques. For Alexander, it’s the happy vibe inherent in her work. For Grimes, it’s her option of mediums. “People who found me online would generally get a pen-and-ink [piece] or a pastel, but people who saw my work in person would almost always get a scratchboard,” she says. The latter format entails a layer of India ink over a layer of clay, and she etches down to the clay layer. “It takes a lot longer to do than other mediums, but I can get every hair of the animal, so I get very, very intricate, tight work done this way.” Grimes adds that while other artists do work in scratchboard, they’re few and far between.
And, while dogs are the most popular fur baby portrait subjects, they’re not the only requests when it comes to animal art. Moeller names local pet celebrity Emmylou AdventureCat as an exceptional subject. “In the photo [her owners] wanted me to paint, she was wearing little butterfly wings,” Moeller recalls.
Alexander also cites a piece of feline art: “A marine biologist commissioned a portrait of his two cats, with five saltwater fish, as if they were scuba diving,” she says.
For Grimes, her most unusual project took her farther afield: “That would have to be a family of otters,” she remembers. “A couple of years ago I got an email out of the blue. This lady said she wanted a portrait of these otters that came to visit her pond every year. I took one look at the photo and I really, really wanted to do the commission. There were four otters at the edge of the pond looking straight at the person taking the picture. They reminded me of that famous painting of the farmer and his wife [“American Gothic” by Grant Wood] with those stern looks on their faces.”
Perhaps surprisingly, while Ashevilleans love their pets, all three pet portrait artists who Xpress spoke to work with a mostly out-of-town clientele. Grimes has received commissions from as far away as Washington state; Alexander recently shipped a piece to England and had two commissions from Japan. But, for the two artists working in the RAD, those often-visited studios do attract pet lovers who get in touch later to purchase a portrait. And business shows no sign of slowing: “We love our pets. They make us happy,” says Alexander. “I want to capture more than just the look [of the animal], I want to capture the energy.”
Find Alexander at angelaalexanderart.com, Grimes at artist-f.com and Moeller at mountainpetportrait.com.