Illustrator and comic artist Ramsey Beyer didn’t start her art career thinking she would be drawing strangers’ pets. The opportunity grew from a time when she offered custom drawings in exchange for a $20 donation when she took part in the National Abortion Access Bowl-a-thon. “I had mostly just been making personal comics and hadn't really opened up to the idea of commissioned work,” said Beyer, who has a BFA in experimental animation and is based in Philadelphia.
There was a high demand for drawing people with their pets, or the pets alone. “I ended up making drawings for weeks to fulfill all of the donation orders,” Beyer wrote in an email to The Huffington Post. “That's when I realized it could be a good way to make extra cash and that there really was a demand for it.” She started offering to draw pet portraits soon after.
Typing “pet portraits” on Etsy returns seemingly endless pages of results, artists promising custom portraits on canvas, on paper, on a necklace, even in 3D-felted models. Opportunities abound for paying tribute to your domesticated pal -- and paying a working artist to create it. And when starting out as a freelance illustrator or artist, it’s the kind of gig that offers extra practice and income when needed.
“I feel extremely lucky that I have something I can turn to when I need a little extra money but can turn down if I'm feeling too busy,” said Beyer, whose comics are online and in the books Year One and Little Fish. “I don't think I would enjoy trying to make ends meet on it, but it's great as a side hustle.”
New York artist Ketch Wehr began his FurFace pet portrait business in 2007, after graduating college. “As illustration work is a challenging and kind of off-and-on business to get into freelance, pet portraits have been a nice reliable project,” he said.
Beyer finds that drawing commissioned work has a different feel from her other projects. “The process is like night and day,” she said. “I was formally trained in art school, so drawing what I see from observation is something I’ve practiced for years, and comes easily to me. That's part of what makes this a good way to make money -- I don't have to wait for the inspiration or the idea to strike.”
Like much of her drawings, Beyer’s portraits are black and white -- she uses smooth bristol board paper, a mechanical pencil and Prismacolor pens to complete each portrait, which average about three and a half hours to complete. But the intricate, detailed style of the dogs and cats she captures on paper differ in style from her looser, rounder comics work. The difference comes partially from having a clearer inspiration in pet portraiture: “I can draw from observation very easily, because it's something that is so practiced, it's cut and dry and reliable -- but for comics, I'm constantly having to translate my ideas into a stylized world that comes entirely out of my head.”
Wehr’s pet portraits are alive with color and lines, full of as much motion as one imagines his subjects to be. “Animals and animal imagery play a big role in my work as an artist,” he said in an email to HuffPost. Wehr’s work was even featured in a book about none other than Internet superstar Lil Bub the cat.
He typically uses watercolor and gouache on archival watercolor paper to create his works, though he’s started using gouache and acrylic on cradled painting pine -- a solid, “really satisfying surface to work on.”
While Beyer and Wehr came to pet portraiture through their fine art training, not all in the biz got there that way. Seattle artist Leigh Jackson is the proprietor of Noisy Dog Studio. She adopted her first dog over 15 years ago, a Boston terrier named Hugo. “I had no art lessons outside of art in elementary school and crafts at camp,” she said. “But something drew me to it. So I started painting him.” Jackson started on spare wood from her house and craft paints, but has moved on to professional-grade paints and cradled birch panels. Since that first spark, Jackson’s work has been featured in Domino magazine, Martha Stewart Living, and Real Simple, among other places. "I just kind of stumbled onto it," she said. "I painted what I love and a career followed."
While the portraits make for custom, eye-catching wall art for their customers, much of the work has a sentimental draw, too. “People would often ask me to paint their pets or a friend’s pet, most often as a memorial, because they knew how I feel about the creatures we share our lives with,” said Wehr. Beyer noticed a similar trend with her portraits: “One aspect of pet portraiture that I didn't consider before starting was how many heartbreaking stories I would hear in the process,” she said.
In many ways, a hand-drawn or -painted portrait can serve as a fitting tribute to a passed pet over a simple photo. Wehr described one portrait he was hired to do for a friend’s brother. “Before Christmas, the brother’s dog died suddenly, leaving them with a memorial before they knew they needed one,” Wehr said. “I was worried that it would be a painful gift, but the dog’s owner called me a while later to tell me how much it meant to him, so that was both comforting and heart-wrenching.”
Above all, the pet portrait world seems to bring animal lovers together in a meaningful way. “I could never imagine when I started, that people would hire me to paint their dogs. It is really an honor to create works of the dogs that they love,” said Jackson. “I know how much my dogs meant and mean to me, so to meet others who feel the same is great.”