Artist Mark Hankinson has worked in safari park lion enclosures and as a game reserve ranger but maintains that painting dog portraits is potentially far more perilous. “The dogs don’t concern me: the biggest danger is a shotgun-wielding jealous husband who has the wrong end of the stick,” says Mark. “Many of my pictures are given as presents, and women, in particular,
will go to great lengths to keep them as surprises.” Although happily married and the father of seven-year-old twins, Mark admits “come over on Thursday when he’s playing golf” is something he hears fairly frequently.
Africa’s landscapes and wildlife feature in much of Mark’s exhibition work but the bulk of his painting time is taken up with dogs, horses and hounds. As Master and huntsman of the Wilton, he takes particular pleasure in painting the latter. But whatever the canine, Mark insists on meeting it and taking his own photographs.
“I tell people that if I work purely from a photograph, you’ll get a picture of a black lab. If I’ve seen the dog, it will be your black lab,” he explains. Persuading the pooch to perform for the camera is another matter. “I always smile when I think about an elderly peer of the realm crawling on all fours to get his terrier to pose, and a Jack Russell/bulldog cross that oozed character and was a joy to paint but not awfully pretty. I fear the poor thing realised this. It was ter-ribly camera shy and kept trying to hide its face.”
Spaniels leaping into ponds and terriers rolling in fox poo minutes before their photo shoot are par for the course, believes Kate Brooks. “I’ll never forget a lurcher that kept diving out of camera shot. Later I learnt my camera’s beep was identical to the warning given by his shock collar,” she says.
“I’ve developed tricks to get the best poses out of dogs and horses. A hunting horn ring tone usually perks up uninterested hunters. Squeaky toys, producing a gun, shouting ‘rats’ can work brilliantly; it depends on the breed. You’ve got to think on your feet a bit,” Kate continues. “I’ve had a few close shaves on ‘covert’ missions. When photographing a whippet on a Belgravia balcony the owner turned up unexpectedly. I flattened myself against the wall while the housekeeper talked fast. There’s a lot of loitering in lanes and clambering over fences – the
sort of stuff that gets Neighbourhood Watch rather excited.
“Other than A-level art, I’ve no formal training. I’ve always done pictures for friends and family but became professional when it looked like hunting might be banned,” reveals Kate. “I was working in London and needed to get home to Leicestershire to hunt as much as possible. It’s worked. I paint all weekend and hunt with the Quorn on Mondays.”
James Power, who has been stud groom at Banstead Manor Stud in Newmarket for 22 years, is self-taught but has built quite a reputation as an artist. “Being immersed in racing, I do lots of horses and then the owners sometimes ask me to paint their dog’s portrait,” he says. “I like to spend plenty of time with a dog before even trying to take a photograph to work from. Having a cup of tea with the owner gives the dog a chance to relax and me
an opportunity to learn about it.” Not everything always goes to plan.
“Willie Carson always has a pack of Jack Russells in tow. When he brought four of them here for me to paint they were like naughty children on a school trip,” chuckles Jim. “Willie was running around like a headless chicken trying to gather them up. Getting shots to work from was a challenge but nothing compared to capturing four individual characters on canvas accurately. Thankfully, Willie and his wife Elaine were thrilled with the result.”
According to Jim, discerning how an owner views the dog is crucial. “The owner asks me to paint the picture but doesn’t want my perception. They want the dog represented in the dog portrait how they see it. That’s something I’m always very mindful of.”
As clerk of the course at Newcastle and Hexham, James Armstrong considers his painting a passion that pays. Like Power, he’s learnt the importance of looking at a dog through its master’s eyes. “Early on I did a friend’s Great Dane. He thought I made it look like a labrador. In truth, it did look like a lab but it taught me a valuable lesson: an accurate portrayal isn’t always wise,” he says. “A bit of flattery can be helpful.”
James has a secret weapon for charming clients: his fox-red labrador Dinger. “The last two dog portrait commissions I’ve done were fox-red lab bitches, and I’ve managed to marry Dinger off to both,” he discloses. “I’m not sure what full-time artists would make of me pimping out my dog but I’m delighted at how art and a doggy dating agency have combined.”
Accommodating owners’ vanity is familiar to Amelia Blackett, who works from a London studio. “I’m frequently asked not to include blemishes or to prick ears to make a dog appear more intelligent,” she says. “A definite requirement of the job is being a good listener because owners love telling you about the virtues of their dog and how it’s absolutely unique.”
Amelia works mainly from photographs sent to her, which is handy when it comes to horses: “I’m allergic to them. Luckily, I’ve no such problems with dogs.” Like most artists, she is happy to alter a picture if a client feels she hasn’t quite captured their pet. “It doesn’t happen often. I painted a horse from a picture that must have been over-exposed. I thought it was bay but later learnt it was chestnut,” she recalls.
Matching coat colour isn’t a consideration for Anne Nichol-Smith – known as Nicky – who works only in pencil. “With a really sharp pencil you can capture so much detail: I’m fascinated by how the fur lies and the bone structure beneath; plotting the curls on something like a Bedlington terrier is extremely satisfying,” she says.
Nicky’s subjects reflect her Northumberland surroundings. “Although my commissions have included prize-winning bulls, owls and all sorts of dogs, there are an awful lot of Border terriers, spaniels and labs,” she says. James Percy’s spaniels count among her dog portrait commissions. “Having done his dogs, I got a call from him two weeks before his wife’s birthday. Soon after he was on my doorstep with her Borders,” she recalls. “A fortnight is
incredibly short notice but I hate to say no.”
Such a tale comes as no surprise to Camilla Gardner . “It does tend to be the chaps who call the week before Christmas,” she concurs. “I had a case where a man phoned on about 20th December, added to which the bitch was about to have puppies, so I said no, not least because the poor girl would not have been looking her best.”
Making detailed studies of dogs offers artists a glimpse into their owners’ lives. “Whether the picture is hung in the downstairs loo or above the fire says a lot. And it’s interesting how many people have their animals painted but not their children,” says Camilla. “On occasion I’ve also been asked to produce another picture for a couple that has divorced since I did the original.”
Given that Camilla’s studio is in an idyllic Hampshire barn where chickens wander in and out and barn owls hoot overhead, one wonders whether clients concoct excuses for re-turn visits. “I ask that dogs come here so I can do some drawing from life. As you can imagine, this can be interesting, not to mention messy. Some dogs can’t control their excitement, so there are endless stains on the carpet,” she says with good humour.
Not so amusing were the two Weimaraners that galloped around the garden like ponies, flattening the flowers. “I had to bite my lip,” recalls Camilla. Another tense moment came when a lady brought her mother-in-law’s pug. “I tend to put small dogs on a table. This little chap was rather doddery and fell off.” She’s thankful that the pug and family relations
were no worse for his tumble.
With a husband and two boys who shoot, Camilla has im-mortalised many a gundog and has got capturing the subtleties of a black lab’s solid coat down to a fine art. “I use a blue/grey paper, which is the same colour as the sheen, and a specific black charcoal that I found in Italy. When I ran out, I discovered they were made in Germany and got a friend in Berlin to buy a large stash,” she reveals
Dawn Warr, artist and self-employed keeper, agrees that labs can be a challenge. “Having good light is crucial as the shine in the jacket brings out the contours and character in the face. I must be a grubby worker because I end up with black dust all over my hands, hair and face – I start resembling the dog,” she says.
Although most artists will do their best to paint a dog that has gone to the happy hunting ground, Dawn takes this a step further: “I’m also a taxidermist and have stuffed a few dogs. I remember a lady who came up to me with a frail little terrier. ‘When this dies, I want it stuffed. I can’t stand the dog but my husband loves it,’ she announced. And a chap joked that he wanted his dog stuffed to rest his feet on but later admitted he took it to work every day and even on holiday.
“It’s not something I’d do with my own dogs as taxidermy simply doesn’t capture the character you can with a portrait and it’s not for everyone,” admits Dawn. When it comes to betting on a certainty in the Christmas-present stakes, a portrait certainly seems the safer option.
Artists in Animals
Mark Hankinson 01722 780014
Kate Brooks 07862 706665
Amelia Blackett 07947 591666
James Power 07785 761961
James Armstrong 07801 699281
Anne Nichol-Smith (Nicky Logan) 01665 578463
Camilla Gardner 01489 877111
Dawn Warr 01935 421507