Portraits of Remembrance

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What is your process like?
I like to get tons of photos; there is important information in all of them. Sometimes it’s about color accuracy; other times it reveals a little bit about the way the pet really lived with his/her people. I’m a bit of an investigator when I get those pictures, and the details, big or small, are digested in the process of composing a portrait. When I have many pictures and a good idea of a pet’s real life, I can choose poses and expressions that are true for that specific fur person. I then submit a few rough compositional mock-ups for the client to choose from. This allows a client to have a general idea of what the finished product will look like before I even put paint on canvas. When a piece is ready to be looked at (they are never really finished—I just have to stop painting them), I send a picture to the client for final approval before it is varnished with UV protectant. The deal is this: I paint it until you love it.

What is the most difficult part of this process?
If the loss of a pet is still very fresh for the client, sharing the kind of information I ask for can be hard. Sometimes when I request very specific physical information about an animal, I fear it may come off as a bit cold, but if some little detail gets included or excluded that’s a bit off, it’s going to affect how that portrait “reads” to that person each time they see it. I also love to hear funny stories from the day they came home to the day they died, and everything in between. I love to know their quirks and habits, peeves and preferences; it all somehow manages to make its way into the paint.

How do you go about capturing the personality of a pet you’ve never met?
Much of the process of capturing personality happens in the course of dissecting the photos. The little write-ups that I ask clients to do are absolutely key in pinning down who this specific pet was to these particular people. There is also a less easily explainable course by which animals really come through in a painting. Ideas, feelings and colors just seem to present themselves for use in a way that is far outside of technical choices. Many times I feel like I’m just a translator. I hold the brush and the face of that loved one just shows up. For example, I once painted a little Yorkie from a specific photo that the dog moms had already chosen for the portrait. My background techniques at the time were completely basic, but I was strongly compelled to incorporate interlocking circles in this piece. I really didn’t even want to paint them, but it just wasn’t right until they were there. When I showed it to the clients, they both broke down in tears. One quietly led me to a back bedroom where a photo collage revealed several pictures of the dog jumping and biting at bubbles. Apparently this was her favorite game. I got chills and welled up a bit myself. I can’t look or listen for this kind of information; it just comes. And when it does come, I can’t touch it too much or look at it too directly or it goes.

What makes your work unique?
Well, the most obvious thing that sets my work apart is the palette. Animals are very vibrant and require real, saturated color to be accurately depicted as who they are, not strictly what they look like. Further, I am known for pieces upward of two or three feet in any dimension. I offer the client as little or as much creative input as they are interested in having. I do love to have complete license to paint as I will, but it has also been extremely rewarding to work on real collaborations. Ultimately, I think what sets my work apart is that it is much less something one looks at and more something one feels. Each of my pieces is a portrait of a specific animal with a name and a story and a family.

Do you have any advice for our readers?
Take pictures of your pets all the time. Use your phone, your point-and-shoot, bust out the SLR, any tool, anytime…. snap away! You will never regret having a million pictures of your fur baby. Even if you know the time is coming, or especially if you know the time is coming, get those pictures while you can!

Images courtesy of Erica Orr.

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Meg Haley holds a Master of Liberal Arts from St. Edward's where she took a close look at the way stories are an integral part of our society. From the tales of a good meal to a 30-second television commercial or a wordless ad, stories are ubiquitous. She spent several years writing plays before branching out to other genre, of which writing for L Style G Style is one of her favorites. She and her partner Machin are the proud parents of Idgie and their four-leggeds Moby, Soda and George.

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