Gone to the Dogs

If Alameda, California, portrait artist Debbie Claussen is looking for a new portrait commission, she knows to head straight to a dog show. “The majority of my income comes from painting pet portraits,” Claussen explains. “Sometimes I set up a booth at dog shows and sell prints and cards taken from some of my originals. While I?m there I usually acquire new customers, too.”


Claussen loved painting Tonka (watercolor, 14×21).”I love the fact that pugs are a small dog with a very large presence,” Claussen explains. ” A friend breeds pugs, so I asked if I could use Tonka as a study. It was so much fun trying to capture his personality.”

To create one of her pet portraits, Claussen schedules several photo sessions of the animal in order to understand its personality. If a client can?t pose for their portrait, she requests multiple reference photos to accurately capture their facial expressions and body gestures. “My favorite part about creating animal portraits is painting eyes,” she says. “They really bring a painting to life.” Once she has decided on a composition, Claussen either draws the image directly onto watercolor paper or she creates a drawing on paper and transfers the piece to canvas using charcoal.

Reference sketches take a few days for Claussen to complete, while her oil and watercolor paintings require anywhere from 25 to 40 hours to finish. Most of her time, however, is spent in preparation for the work. “About half of my painting time involves mixing the correct colors and figuring out the game plan,” she explains, “because once the actual paint application begins, I paint quickly.”

The painting, Tonka, took about 30 hours to finish, and confronted Claussen with some special challenges: “When I was painting Tonka, the difficult area was his muzzle; I wanted to keep it loose, but with enough detail and value variation to be believable,” she explains. “The colors also took me time to come up with, because I wanted Tonka to be both part of and emerging from the background.”

While working on a piece, Claussen also takes an occasional pause to gain perspective. “I generally don?t work on a painting for more than four hours at a time,” Claussen explains. “I need time to step back, see what I?ve done and where I need to go.” This careful self-assessment of her work has resulted in many successful paintings, as well as more than a few commissions. Currently, she?s busy working on two watercolors, three oils and a mixed-media piece.

Claussen welcomes the many requests for her art—in fact, she?s so excited about her work that it affects how she views other parts of her life, and the world. “I think that being an artist is a 24-hour process,” she says. “It seems as if I?m always looking at the world as a potential painting, and an idea for a new painting comes to mind, or a solution to a problem on a painting is realized, and I can?t wait to get started.”

After studying at the American Academy of Art in Chicago, Kevin Beilfuss worked as an illustrator for 12 years before turning his full attention to fine art. He lives outside Chicago. His award-winning work is represented by Meyer Gallery in Scottsdale, Arizona, and Santa Fe, New Mexico; and Horizon Fine Art in Jackson, Wyoming.

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