Cathy Cole’s portfolio is flush with portraits of pooches whose cocked heads and wistful eyes beckon folks to read their minds. Gaze at one of her paintings long enough and you feel an urge to put a leash on it and take the portrait a walk.
That’s the reaction she’s looking for, says the 58-year-old Annapolis artist who specializes in pet projects.
“I love dogs,” says Cole, who has two of her own. “For me, it’s nice to stare at a dog for a really long period of time. It sounds weird, but I’d rather paint a dog than a vase of flowers.”
Anne Arundel County is a haven for artists, a handful of whom paint pets . Some are retired hobbyists who cater to family and friends; others have studios and hawk their portraits online. Most paint just dogs and cats, but they’ve done some unusual pets as well.
Kimberly Minear painted a racehorse for a friend. (Dazzling Gem was to run in the 2016 Preakness until his trainer shied off.) Minear painted a parakeet named Charlie for a grateful California client who’d mourned her bird’s death.
Painting pets is a fulltime job for Minear, a former graphic designer from Annapolis who has a waiting list of clients. To date, she has done about 100 portraits, some more demanding than others.
“The most difficult was a portrait of an iguana alongside a Pomeranian,” says Minear, 58. “A young man wanted his lizard, Iggy, posing with his girlfriend’s dog, Maggie Jean, for a Valentine’s Day gift. That was challenging, because lizards are long and you need a sense of scale.” Tougher yet: how to make the critters appear compatible?
It worked, and “that couple is married now,” Minear says.
While pet artists paint from photographs, they prefer to meet their subjects first.
“it’s good to know the dog’s personality, and its attitude, to be able to express that [on canvas],” says Cole. Routinely, the pets’ owners will share those attributes.
“Of course, they only highlight the best stuff,” Minear says. “One client did say that his dog, a Boykin spaniel named Derby, had a bad habit of chewing upholstered furniture. But that didn’t make it into the painting.”
Most portraits are sought as gifts for holidays, birthdays and anniversaries. Others are posthumous remembrances for loving owners who’d rather have a painting of their pet above the fireplace than its cremation urn.
When his family’s yellow labrador retriever died, the owner asked artist Mia Thompson to capture the dog’s mien — and then some.
“After their pet passed away, the father told his child a bedtime story about how it gained its wings in heaven,” says Thompson, 40, a onetime grade-school art teacher from Annapolis. “So I painted the dog, with wings, flying skyward over their red barn.”
The portrait hit its mark. That’s all an artist can ask, says Littlepage.
“People love their dogs like family, and I get that; I do too. If I didn’t, I don’t think I could paint them. I couldn’t do this just as an assignment,” she says. “I just want to do [the animal] justice and make the portrait something they will cherish. I want people to connect with the painting like they do with their pet.”
Some of their subjects stir the artists’ own hearts.
“You don’t know the pet but, when you start painting, it almost becomes your own,” Thompson says.
One of Cole’s favorites was a pit bull named Bella, whose fancy is to carry two tennis balls in her mouth at the same time. Cole painted Bella such, smiling all the while.
“She (Cole) did an amazing job,” says Debra Cory, who hung the 11-by-14 portrait in the bedroom of her house in Davidsonville. “It’s so surrealistic, with those balls in her mouth and the expression on her face. When Bella first saw it, she kind of stared at it and barked. It was like she was looking at herself in the mirror.”
Littlepage won’t soon forget her bond with a pit bull named Hank.
“Hank’s owners had no good pictures, so they brought him to my house for a photo shoot,” she says. “He posed, wearing an orange bow tie, in the front yard and was very well behaved. He radiated intelligence and looked almost regal — and I think I caught that.”
Most portraits sell for between $200 and $600, depending on size. A few — those of the artists’ own pets — are priceless.
For weeks this spring, Minear worked on the likeness of a purebred in her studio with her own dog, a mixed breed named Trevor, at her side.
“Trevor was 2, with a history of terrible heart problems when we adopted him from a shelter,” Minear says. “I did an abstract painting of him and said, ‘We’ll love him as long as he lives.’ ”
Trevor is now 17.
As for Cole, a furniture refinisher by trade, the first pet she painted was Sweet Pea, a fluffy white mutt she rescued five years ago. There Sweet Pea sits, on canvas, hopeful eyes locked on the world.
“That’s how she looks when she wants to go out,” Cole says. “She just stares at you, like, ‘Let’s take a walk.’ “