For years, I’ve swooned at the thought of commissioning an oil painting of my rescue greyhound, The Turtleman*.
I used to think I was swooning alone, or at least swooning among a very few; that I was a specific (read: exhausting) type of pet owner, which I probably am.
But then the pandemic happened, and custom pet portraiture seemingly exploded. And I discovered that not only was I anything but alone in my (totally healthy) obsession with my dog, I was in a crowd — and in the good company of so many great illustrators.
Flo Perry began producing pet portraits in 2017, after she left her job as an editor at BuzzFeed. She created one for her mom. One of her friends saw it, and wanted her own. So Perry began doing them as a side gig — and then March 2020 rolled around. The promotion for her book How To Have Feminist Sex — A Fairly Graphic Guide suddenly stopped. Afraid of all of her work coming to a halt, Perry decided to put concerted effort into the pet portraiture business, and boosted its presence on her website. Today, she has created hundreds, and it’s become so lucrative it’s her primary source of income.
“It was the ideal job to have during the pandemic, because you only need a small table,” she said with a laugh. “It was just like a sense of stability.”
It’s perhaps no coincidence that the rise in pet portraiture dovetailed with the pandemic. According to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, 23 million households took on new pets as COVID-19 raged — one in five U.S. homes. All told, the American Pet Products Association (APPA) reports that 70% of the country now owns a pet, and spending on said pets rose from $90.5 billion in 2018 to $103.6 billion in 2020, and $123.6 billion in 2021. Sure, the majority of that was food and treats (as anyone whose greyhound consumes bully sticks at an alarming rate can attest). But a sizable $9.5 billion went to expenditures outside of veterinarian care and other necessities.
The biggest driver of new pet acquisitions by far, according to multiple data sets? Millennials. At the risk of adding to the canon of articles scrutinizing the generation like specimens in a zoo, per Forbes, when it comes to art, they value new methods of access to it over auctions and the elitist models of old, “and their inclination toward online spaces means they are able to seek out specific kinds of art and types of artists, while being more willing to invest in emerging artists….”
Which brings us back to Instagram, a key hub for pet portrait commissions.
Joe O’Donnell spent the first few years of his practice thinking he would be an illustrator for editorial clients. Around the pandemic, things were coming in dribs and drabs. He stopped actively reaching out to art directors, and instead invested his time into work that he was enjoying more. “That seems to have worked better for me, and I think I feel a lot more proud of the work I’ve made since then,” he said.
He was painting a fair amount of animals, and he posted a dog portrait on Instagram. After that, someone DM’d him asking if he would do a commission of their pet — “and it kind of snowballed from there quite quickly, which I really didn’t see coming at all.”
These days, pet commissions are the lifeblood of O’Donnell’s income, and the majority of them come from the U.S. He doesn’t see the work as fundamentally different from the editorial projects that many regard as the pinnacle of the illustration field (despite an increasing dearth of markets) — rather, he sees all of his output as a series.
“My work’s pretty stylized, and I have kind of a weird need for everything to look like it fits in the same universe,” he said. “Even if it’s an editorial illustration or something next to the pet portrait, it still kind of makes sense.… I don’t treat it as a different object.”
During the pandemic, O’Donnell had the epiphany that he wanted to make physical work — paintings, woodcuts. He savored the time away from the computer, and even found it therapeutic, and that coalesced perfectly with the commissions.
Illustrator Tom Bingham would likely concur. Bingham primarily focuses on editorial clients, comics, and his online shop, but he also does pet portraits as a side hustle.
“I see it as quite a light-hearted, relaxing process that scratches a different part of my brain to editorial work,” he said. “I feel like creating pet portraits is a time when I can really lean into what drew me to illustration in the first place — making something with my hands away from my computer screen. It is so rewarding to practice a medium/technique I don’t use so much in other aspects of work.” Bingham added that such commissions are also a nice way to polish up an illustrator’s characterization skills, which benefits their entire practice.
Another factor that perhaps strikes at the heart of why so many new works of art are popping up across pet owners’ walls: According to a survey conducted by Money, 58% of respondents said they now value their pets more than ever, and 50% are more affectionate with them than they were prior to lockdown.
“I think it’s safe to say people have spent an extraordinary amount of time in their homes the past few years,” Bingham said. “If it isn’t time spent connecting with their pets, it is also time spent nesting and creating environments that they love. I think pet portraits are a bridge between the two in that regard.
Of course, with any phenomenon comes a company looking to cash in. And with pet portraits — especially those of the Renaissance variety — a growing list of operations offer seemingly quick Photoshop jobs: Crown & Paw. Purr & Mutt. Paint Our Paws. Paw & Glory.
Despite the flurry of “paws” and ampersands, the artists aren’t phased.
“It is a shame when companies sometimes crop up and undercut everyone else in price, but there’s definitely a good amount of people out there that are willing to pay a bit more for something special and handmade,” said Bingham. “I would personally prefer to spend my coin with an independent artist, but I also understand people have different relationships with the art that they hang in their homes. There are enough walls out there for all of us.”
Perry seemed to share the sentiment. “I don’t want to be snobby about it. It’s like, whatever you can afford. I am charging a lot more than Crown & Paw charges,” she laughed. “I think just more people should have confidence to put any kind of original art on their walls. So whatever works for you, do it.”
Ultimately, animal portraits are nothing new, from cave paintings to the Pompeii canine mosaic to the prized pets of actual Renaissance work. Just ask any seasoned tattoo artist, who has documented many the hound, feline and fish. (Like, say, the Turtleman likeness hanging out just above my knee.)
As for why pet portraiture is back with such force, perhaps it’s owing to the cyclical nature of art (and, well, everything). Perhaps it’s because after you splurge on some absurd things like a fitted raincoat for your greyhound, there are only so many other things you can buy for him.
Or, perhaps the pandemic elicited a larger reckoning with our lives and all things we love. Our dogs and cats are here for a finite time. And I, and so many others, will be damned if we’re not going to celebrate them.
*A name I absolve myself of because it was given to him during his racing days.