Pet society

“Everyone I know wants illustrations of their pets”

MINNEAPOLIS — As Kat Corrigan sat at her dining room table painting a canvas, a dog rested at her feet. The family pug passed by, sniffling. Then a cat, named Fatoosh, jumped up on the table, rubbing its nose against Corrigan’s left hand.

Creatures had also found their way onto his web. That morning, as she did every morning in March, Corrigan was painting a cat.

Two cats, in fact, snuggling up to each other, glints of gold in their eyes.

“In cats’ eyes, there’s so much going on — blue and green … and a bit of gold,” Corrigan said, loading her brush with more golden yellow she’d mixed that morning. “How do you create these illusions?

Over the past decade, Corrigan has captured the eye colors, head tilts and swirling fur of hundreds of pets via his month-long dog-a-day and cat-a-day challenges, a practice that, according to her, made her a better painter. Of course, she paints landscapes. Wildlife too.

But “pet portraits — that’s the practice that keeps me going,” Corrigan said.

She is part of a group of local artists who paint, draw and glue pet portraits as a steady source of income in a volatile profession, as well as a source of joy. They’re easy to sell, especially these days after the wave of so-called “pandemic puppies” have taken up residence in our homes and hearts.

“Everyone I know wants artwork of their pets,” said Hannah Frick, a Minneapolis artist trained at the former College of Visual Arts.

In college, Frick ranked making pet portraits close to hanging your artwork in a cafe — something, in other words, a serious artist would never do.

“I thought, ‘Oh, I have to create deep, beautiful, abstract art,'” she laughed. “I’m definitely over that.”

Frick first bonded two cats for his sister as “a fun little experiment”. Today, collages represent three quarters of his work. She flips through magazines, pulls out colors or patterns that match the animal in question, creating a palette for the room.

She made dogs, mostly, but also cats, rabbits, a goat and, last month, a snake. Most people choose an 8-by-10-inch size, which starts at $150, but Frick also stuck on a 4-by-4-foot portrait of a pair of dogs.

Artists who love this work say it supports them, not just financially. Growing up, Corrigan had been “one of those clumsy kids who felt I was more capable with animals than with humans”. Today, the south Minneapolis home she shares with her husband, a puppet artist, and son deals with pets, most of them.

She is therefore honored to capture the beloved creatures of others, many of whom are dead.

“There’s just a really glorious connection when you paint someone’s animal and they appreciate it,” Corrigan said. “Being a part of this is so humbling.”

In 2003, Leslie Plesser adopted two puppies – a golden retriever and a collie – at the same time “because my husband and I were crazy”.

For Christmas that same year, she received a DSLR camera, her first. She didn’t want to be one of those people who had a fancy camera she never used, she said. “So I promised to take a picture a day that would be good enough to put on the internet.”

When she moved into the studio, her puppies became her test subjects. She trained them to sit and stay, practicing different lighting techniques against their profiles. Then people started bringing their own dogs. Against a clean background, the details of a dog shine, she said.

The spikes in the coat, the underside of the legs, the spots on the belly.

“Dogs are very expressive,” she said. “And dogs aren’t self-aware. A lot of times when I take portraits of people, they hold their breath or they suck it in or they try to hold themselves in the most flattering pose.

“Dogs are just dogs.”

But Plesser was pinched and pissed on. An elderly, shivering Chihuahua fell from a beanbag. The blood went everywhere.

“It’s not glamorous,” she said.

More than half of Plesser’s paid pet clients come to see her when their dog is diagnosed with something terminal: “I don’t think that’s how you want to remember your dog.”

She therefore encourages owners to bring their pets when they are brave, sassy and full of life.

When her sister’s dog died in 2018, artist Kristin Williams wanted to create a portrait of her that wasn’t a traditional painting. She came across a clip of a woman doing needle felting “in a way I’ve never seen before”.

“It’s such a simple, simple thing,” she said. “You push the needle over and over in different directions to slowly bring those fibers together.”

Williams found supplies and began needlepoint, increasing the depth, strength, and color of the felt. The resulting portrait of Odie was warm, cozy and fair.

Until then, Williams had worked in the digital world, with no interest in realism, she said. “But there was something about capturing the expression on an animal’s face that intrigued me.”

Along with a photo, she asks pet owners to give her a little biography of their pet, which “absolutely helps me.”

With special fibers, Williams recreates the shine of the eyes, the whiskers near the nose. The resulting pieces are between 2 and 3 inches thick. Felting is a lot like sculpture, so “things are always moving,” she said. “It may be a train wreck, but then you can bring it back, and that’s what’s exciting.

“It may seem like nothing is happening, and then you start to see eyes coming to the right place.”

In a back room of Urban Growler in St. Paul on a recent Thursday, about two dozen people grabbed a beer and got to work. Courtney Pedersen of Minneapolis chuckled at the portrait she was about to paint: her white-and-copper cat, Hamm, with a wide mouth.

“The picture quality isn’t great, but the expression is,” Pedersen said. “It’s a small potato.”

She took a small brush, uncapped a pink paint and dotted a small diamond in the center of the canvas.

An artist had already done the heavy lifting for her. Gray Duck Art creates custom paint-by-number kits that pet owners can complete at home or at events at Twin Cities breweries and wineries.

“We’ve found over hundreds of classes that people just want to paint,” owner Maddy DePaul said.

DePaul launched Gray Duck Art in 2017, combining two of his side businesses: painting pet portraits and running wine and canvas classes.

“People love their dogs so much,” she said. “But what I was really passionate about was providing artistic opportunities for adults. We’re really good as a society at providing opportunities for kids.

“I’m trying to change the narrative, so people can stop saying, ‘I suck at art.'”

Her team of five women, all artists themselves, create the kits — drawing the animals and matching the colors. Their competitors’ kits are shipped from overseas. “What sets us apart is this customization,” DePaul said, “the artistry behind the design.”

Most people at the Urban Growler event in March were combing their dogs. Shape by shape, color by color, they appear on the canvases. A pug, a Lab, a set of standard poodles.

“At this point, you’re thinking, you’re thinking, how is this going to work? And then it slowly falls into place,” said Sarah Dockter, seated at a table next to friends.

Dockter was painting her green-eyed cat Trouble because she had already returned her dog, Boomer, in a previous class. This canvas now perched on the mantle of his Minneapolis home.

As she stuffed Trouble’s fur, she smiled at her web, wrinkling her nose.


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