Americans are obsessed with their pets. Well, Americans are obsessed with a lot of things, but when it comes to our pets, almost no expense is too large. Americans spend more than $43 billion a year in an effort to keep their pets happy and healthy. Granted not every pet owner has the cash to pamper their furchild outside of providing a safe and loving home, and giving lots of kisses (which are free), but the boutique pet industry has been on the rise as people are willing to spend more and more money on their pets. Why shouldn't independent artists get in on the game?
In the movies, you expect rich people to have large, hand-painted portraits of themselves hanging up in their mansions. In real life, regular people are commissioning portraits of their beloved pets, to hang on their walls alongside photos of human family members. Connecticut musician Bek Phillips makes her living the way a lot of working artists do: by doing a little bit of this and a little bit of that. By day she runs an Internet marketing business, but she's a painter by training. Phillips has a BFA in painting from the Lyme Academy College of Fine Arts in Old Lyme. "If you make your career in art, you really do have to do a lot of different things," Phillips says.
Phillips' journey into the world of pet portraitdom began when she painted some of the rescue dogs at the Rescue Train, a California organization working to re-home homeless pets. "It started off as a fun idea to make some extra money and raise some money for this charity," she says. "And I love animals, so I just found a lot of people who wanted their pets painted." Now she helps people honor their cherished pet-family members one by one, while giving 10 percent of her profits to the Rescue Train.
Phillips began doing pet portraits two years ago. She put up a website, bekspetportraits.com, with her skills from her day job, with examples of her work. "I would love to do it full time," she says, but would need an increase in orders from what she currently sees to make that happen. Custom portraits can be ordered through Phillips' website, and start at $25 for a 6" by 6" painting, up to $350 for a 24" by 24" painting. Other pet portrait artists charge upwards of $1,000, depending on the size and medium used.
But a portrait won't get very far without starting with a really good, clear photo. Both Phillips and Baltimore-area artist Andrea Nusinov (facebook.com/aznpetpics) depend on people to submit clear, high-resolution photos of their pets. Phillips needs to see the animal clearly in order to capture its essence and personality in her paintings. For Nusinov, it's much more technical than that. Nusinov uses an iPad to take a photo from plain old photograph to brand new work of art, by way of about 20 apps. None of that is possible with a crappy photo. "I work with a certain app that will tell me what the dimensions and the resolution are, and then I have to discover that it's a tiny, tiny file and I can't work with it," Nusinov says. "It's a waste of time."
Nusinov didn't start manipulating photos of animals originally. She first started messing with photos of the band Phish, helping the photos to look kinda similar to how Phish sounds: trippy and colorful. But the photos weren't necessarily retaining their original beauty either. "I realized pets were a great side business, because the apps I use end up distorting the person's face a little bit," she says. "But with a dog, or any kind of animal, their face doesn't change that much. It's not like you look at it and say 'My dog looks weird,'" she says. Nusinov will make a couple different creations with a client's photo and let the client choose which option they'd like, either as a photo print or printed on a canvas, to look like a painting. It's a cheaper option for people who can't or don't want to spend money on an actual painting.
Both Phillips and Nusinov feel good when they can help make something for pet parents who just lost their pet. Working from photographs means that the possibilities of what they can do for a recently deceased animal aren't limited by, say, not being able to have the pet sit for a photo shoot. "This is really the only way that we can work with a pet that's gone," Nusinov says.
Coventry dog owner George Jacques wanted to surprise his wife for Christmas with a portrait of their two rescued terriers, Tommy and Sunshine, a few years ago. He commissioned a custom painting from artist Nancy Bunnell of Hartford's Lions Mouth Studio, brought the dogs over for a photo session as well as supplying the artists with a few of his own photos, and let Bunnell create a painting. For a 12" by 14" painting, Jacques says he only spent around $150, which is a great deal for a custom piece of art. Jacques says his wife was "thrilled, very much so" when she saw the painting. Jacques hopes to commission a charcoal sketch of Tommy and Sunshine once he finds the right artist.
West Hartford's Uberdog opened in 2008 in the middle of the recession, but owner Dan O'Brien says business has been great from the get go. "The pet industry, daycare, everything around dogs and animals has been booming straight through the recession like it never happened," O'Brien says. "People who have the means and are willing to spend money on their dogs, it's obviously more than just a regular house pet" to them. Uberdog is a doggie hotel/daycare, or "playcare," where dogs have just as much fun as their humans do when they go on vacation. Uberdog has professional portraits of pups adorning the walls, and O'Brien says pet photography is common these days.
Memorializing our pets who've passed on is a large part of the commissioned pet-related art that's available on marketplace sites like Etsy.com. Local works for sale through Etsy include custom photo pet urns, pet loss sympathy cards, memorial dog tags and memorial plaques.
Pet parents aren't just interested in wall art, though. Other custom works on Etsy include custom-made pendants, painted glass ornaments and wine glasses, but most of the custom pet art available is in the form of paintings. And while most of the pet portraiture centers on dogs and cats, even parents of the more exotic pets have gotten into it. Nusinov says she's worked with photos of turtles and rabbits. On Facebook, groups devoted to pet rats are full of photos of custom celebrations of the little critters. One rat owner commissioned polymer clay figures of her two rats, and has plans for a photo portrait. She also has little charms featuring the rats' footprints.
Writer Michael Schaffer wrote a book called One Nation Under Dog, about how the pet dog has gone from backyard security system to fully fledged family member. HBO produced a documentary inspired by Schaffer's book that explores some of the darker elements of our nation's obsession with dogs. But it also mentions the emotional toll of losing a pet, from one couple who paid $155,000 to clone their yellow lab into a brand new puppy, to dog grief support groups for the bereaved.
Maybe we spend so much money on our pets because in our American capitalistic society, throwing money around is an easy way to show ourselves and other people that something has meaning to us. If you put a lot of money into your car, you must really love it, right? But pets love us back. And if that unconditional love leads someone to buy hand-painted wine glasses in the likeness of their beloved animal companion, or matching people-and-puppy sweatshirts, we should celebrate the fact that we have this love. Bek Phillips and Andrea Nusinov get to use their artistic talents to help people show their love for the animals who've enriched their lives and brought love to their families. It sounds like everyone wins.
One of Andrea Nusinov's iPad photo manipulations. (Courtesy Andrea Nusinov)