We often receive emails from students and school children who are doing pet portraits school projects. They email and ask questions for their GCSE’s or A-levels or their art college assignments. We are always willing to help young artists and so we thought we would create this page of information about us and our pet portraits. If you have more questions, just drop us a line from our dog portraits contact page at any time. Try to be specific with your questions as it really does help us tailor them to you and your school project. After all, we want you to get top marks for your essays! You can save and use any of our images on this page too. Best of luck with your projects!
The first Q&A on our Pet Portraits School Project page is an article we wrote which was published in a USA dog magazine in 2017.
Melanie and Nicholas are a unique husband and wife team, working full time as pet portrait artists in the UK. Melanie specialises in graphite pencil drawings and Nicholas creates portraits in oils on canvas. We asked Melanie and Nicholas a few questions about their work and how they got started….
When did you both know you were going to be an artist and how did your journey begin?
I think each of us knew from an early age that we were creative and hoped that a career in art would be possible. We both loved drawing growing up, Nicholas in Cornwall and myself in rural Wales. We met at art college in the mid 90’s and studied Natural History Illustration. We shared the same goals in that we wanted to draw and paint everyday. We wanted to do an art course that could set us on the path of working full time, drawing and painting as a career. Upon leaving art college, there were no ‘jobs’ as such that we could apply for. Nicholas was fortunate to get an illustration agent and illustrated a few books and encyclopaedias. We came out of college on the cusp of a new age. Wildlife and nature illustrators were becoming less in demand, particularly as photography was more popular for encyclopaedias and identification books. Also agencies always took 40% of the commission which we weren't never really comfortable with. We decided we eventually wanted to procure our own painting and drawing commissions without giving away our profits to a middle man. So we set about researching how we could achieve our goals.
What was your first pet portrait commission?
I had grown up on a smallholding with ducks, chickens, geese, sheep, pigs, cows and goats. I befriended all of the animals and gave them all names and enjoyed drawings them for myself from an early age. I didn't realise however, until a neighbour commissioned me to paint their dog while I was still at art college, that other people might want portraits of their pets too! So upon leaving college I had a few commissions for pets, however it wasn't until Nicholas left his illustration agency that we joined forces officially and set up our business.
Was it difficult to set up a pet portraits business in the late 90’s?
Yes. We both put everything we had into developing our pet portraits business and promoting ourselves. We would advertise in dog magazines to help generate work and I learned how to design and create brochures and business cards. I started on a word processor and then as technology moved forward we bought a computer. Although we had some experience of using computers at college, we taught ourselves and looked forward to a time when every home had a computer and dialup internet! It seems quite archaic these days, to even think about dialup speeds in this superfast age we live in, however that’s what we started out with.
What mediums do you work in?
We have created pet portraits in all of the mediums over the years - pastels, coloured pencils, acrylic etc however we have gradually been drawn to the mediums we each prefer to create portraits in. Nicholas paints solely in oils and I work in graphite pencil. We love using them and feel we can really capture each animals personality and character.
How do you motivate yourself to paint and draw everyday, is being your own boss difficult?
We are so lucky to live and work in such a beautiful environment. We have a large heated studio in amongst the woodland at the bottom of our garden surrounded by birds and wildlife. We are also accompanied by our gorgeous Tibetan Terrier called Lily who thoroughly keeps us amused. She is never far away from us in the many beds she has strewn around the studio. We also have chickens in the garden too, which keep us in a good supply of eggs daily. Its never a struggle to get up in the morning and venture down here. We always joke that we have a long commute…all of 30 seconds! Even when the rain is pattering on the roof, its so cosy. We enjoy our job in pet portraits and just wouldn't do anything else. I do think we are sometimes hard on ourselves and work slightly more than we should, but we never want to let our clients down. We are proud to say we have never missed a deadline. Even when it snowed one year, we walked with the portrait to our local village where the client just about managed to meet us to collect it for a birthday surprise!
How do you promote yourself and where does your work come from?
We have 5 pet portraits websites dedicated to our portraits which I have designed and created myself from scratch since early 2000’s. They are each dedicated to dogs, cats, horses, pencil portraits and our main pet portraits site covering all pets. I have used Dreamweaver for many years and not only use the design side of it, I also write html code and create CSS style sheets. I’m pretty old school as I have been doing it for many years. It is a constant task to keep them up to date with the never ending requirements Google insists upon these days. A website is never ‘finished’. Its a living, breathing creature than needs to be tamed and guided as the years go by. Our work comes from all over the globe! It is wonderful to converse with clients from far and wide and some have become good friends. We receive a lot of work via returning clients and recommendation which is simply wonderful. Some clients have filled entire walls of their house with our artwork, some of which you can see in our testimonials section on our website.
Have you created pet portraits for anyone famous?
Nicholas has created oil paintings for a number of notable families, however our most famous portrait was commissioned by Lady Bamford and given to the Aga Khan for his birthday. It was a pencil drawing of one of his stud horses.
If someone was to commissions a portrait, what would they need to do?
The process begins with the clients emailing us photos of their pets. We can create portraits of any animals and have painted and drawn dogs, cats and horses…to rabbits, sheep, budgies, parrots and ferrets. Photos are key for a pet portrait. The photo has to be very good quality as both Nicholas and myself create very realistic portraits and so need to see the pets in plenty of detail. Every portrait and every clients needs are unique. There are no two commissions the same which is fabulous for us. We are met with so many different requests every week that there is never a dull moment when drawing and painting. We also work with two wonderful framers who frame our artwork. They are very high end frames and they really ‘finish off’ the paintings and drawings beautifully. We also offer our clients a bespoke engraving service where clients can have gold, silver or bronze plaques with as many words as they would like. It makes the portraits so personal and unique.
Are you on Social Media?
Yes! You can find us on Facebook, Instagram, plus we have created a number of videos for our clients too view on Youtube. We mostly love writing our Art Studio Blog though and your readers are more than welcome to follow us on there and comment at any time. We blog multiple times per week, not only our artwork and what’s happening in the studio, but also about how we are renovating our 350 year old welsh cottage. We have lots of old features including a big inglenook fireplace and we are restoring it all to it’s former glory. The garden has been developed over the last 10 years and was a blank canvas but its gradually coming together now. So the blog is an all round, good place to visit to find out about us and what we are doing on a daily basis!
How can our readers contact you?
We can be contacted via any of our websites. We have a contact page, a large gallery, an FAQ page and testimonials galore, plus much, much more. Plenty to keep your readers occupied!
Here are a few questions and answers, asked by a recent school student. They are directed mainly to Nicholas and his oil pet portraits
Where are you based?
Born in Cornwall. Now based in south West Wales.
What inspired Nicholas to take off in the art industry?
Art is the only thing I ever wanted to do as a career. I have always drawn and painted, it's what I do. The tricky part was finding an outlet which enabled me to make a living from art. I'm inspired by the challenge and seeing progress in my ability.
Can you give a description of your actual role in the industry?
Self employed Pet Portrait Artist. I work alongside my wife Melanie. Through our website we are commissioned to depict client's pets. The subjects are commonly dogs, cats and horses.
How do you organise your colours when painting?
I organize my paints on my pallet from (generally) dark to light, left to right. Starting with ivory black, burnt umber, French ultramarine, Indian red, yellow ochre, Naples yellow, titanium white. Depending on the subject I may also add alizarin crimson and sap green. It's a fairly limited pallet.
What mark making techniques are commonly used to create the fur?
I don't tend to think in terms of mark making techniques. I couldn't for instance explain to you how I go about representing fur. I treat all textures and surfaces I paint as individual problems to solve. I'm sure I have developed tendencies that a viewer could identify in my artwork. It's not something I focus on though.
What's the surface of the final piece like?
The surface of the painting is very flat/smooth. There are virtually no raised areas of paint or texture. I use very little paint.
How big is you artwork?
Canvas sizes from 12"x 10" up to 40"x 30"
Who is your main market for your pet portraits?
My pet portraits are made for individuals and families all around the world.
Does your work relate to any other artists?
My work is focused on recreating the visual appearance of the client's pet. At the same time I am "trying" to go beyond what the camera captured and attain some of the character and feel of the animal. Artists commonly refer to this as "capturing the animals essence." That can sound a bit new age and airy fairy! In my opinion, by paying close attention to the reference material, the artist can get a feel for the animal and with experience, can impart some of this feel into the artwork. Hopefully the result has the likeness and presence of that particular animal. Not a generic animal of that breed. Hopefully the client/animal owner reacts to this "individual" depiction.
Does Nicholas exaggerate any parts of the animals in order to achieve a better outcome?
That is a very interesting question. It is very dependant on the reference photographs I am using. I should note that I rarely meet or photograph the animals I paint so I have to rely on the client's photos. I don't exaggerate anything structurally. I do make decisions on what to emphasize in terms of focus and detail. Generally I like to maintain sharpness and focus on the eyes and muzzle area. Sometimes these areas are blurred in the reference photographs, so I have to introduce detail when painting. On the other hand I like to "knock back" less important areas using looser paint strokes or perhaps blending to create less defined areas. This all needs to be done subtly.
What tools and materials have you had experience with?
I have used most traditional drawing and painting materials over the years. Gouache, acrylics, watercolours, pastels, pen & ink, charcoal etc. For pet portraits I use Windsor & Newton Artisan oils.
What surface do you paint on? Paper, canvas etc?
My canvases are custom made by Harris Moore Canvases. They are made from Italian linen stretched on tulip hardwood.
Where were you born and what do you remember of that part of your life?
I was born in the South of England however we moved to Wales to a smallholding when I was a child which was a completely different life. I did find it a difficult move, there was a language barrier to start with and uprooting a kid at any age is tough. Hacing said that I loved my new life in the rural area with an abundance of animals and fields to run about in, streams to play in. It was great. A good place for a child to grow up I think.
What ideas and notions did your parents give to you?
I think because of their complete life changing move when I was a child, it instilled in me that 'anything is possible'. You don't have to follow the crowd and if you really want to achieve something you can. Career wise it has been a hard struggle to make it work in pet portraits and I get the determination and stubbornness from my dad and his side of the family. They are all quite eccentric...
Were you good at art in school?
Yes I guess so, I have always had an aptitude for it. I was an only child and so I spent a lot of time drawing, colouring and it just evolved.
When did you create your first 'masterpiece'?
I don't look at any of my pieces as being masterpieces, far from it. A masterpiece in my opinion is something like a Rembrandt and very few people these days can ever come close!
This is still a favourite question of mine: If you were stranded on a desert island, in the middle of nowhere, without power, what things would you want with you?
I have actually thought about this quite a bit as I love documentary style survival TV shows. So I think I would probably fare well on a desert island. I would make sure I had a flint and steel to make fire, a knife and some sensible hard wearing boots. It would be all the back to basics type stuff to survive.
You are a very accomplished artist, but are you still learning and in what way?
Yes I am still learning, every day. I develop new techniques, I discover new things about materials, they way they want to work and not always how you want them to work. I learn a lot about the business side of things too and of course I'm always learning about webdesign and seo. It's never ending!
Do you have a favourite breed of dogs or cats that you like to do portraits of, or a special style?
My favourite are Flatcoated retrievers and do like spaniels and boxers they are a joy to portray.
Are you satisfied with all your accomplishments in Art?
I am pleased with what I have done so far....but I still have a lot I want to achieve.
Would it be fair to say that you're creating a legacy through your art?
It is nice to think that there are paintings I have done all over the world and they will live on, hopefully passed though generations!
What other (non-Artistic) interests do you have?
I enjoy cooking. I have minor intolerances and it can be exacerbated in pre prepared foods, so I cook everything from scratch. I make sure I can source good ingredients and then I know exactly what I'm eating and where it comes from. I have a lot of cookery books....!
What site (or sites) would you direct people to who are interested in purchasing your art?
We have 5 pet portraits webistes between us - dogs, cats, horses, pencil portraits and our main pet portraits site too. A lot of work but I enjoy maintainting and creating them.
You have one of the most awesome studios I have seen for a pet portrait artist. How did this come about?
We started off working in quite a small spare room when we started out. It's what most artists do when they are starting, create a dedicated space in their home. We enjoyed it, but when you work and live in the same place it is very easy to 'work all of the time'. So our aim was to build a dedicated studio in our garden and it was the best thing we ever did! We love it!
What kind of music do you listen to when you're creating your work?
I often listen to Podcasts or audio books while working.
I usually ask artists about a specific piece that they've worked on. Can you comment on a piece of art?
I have a very poignant piece I have panted of a family friend who sadly died a few years after I painted it. For me its one of my best works and now it means even more as he isn't here with us any longer. It was a photo Nicholas took of him that was a quick moment in time which captured the essence of him. It turned out of be a piece I am really proud of. It means even more now and I have it in pride of place in my house.
Who are your favourite Artists of present and of past?
My husband Nicholas...and Rembrandt!
Do you care to comment on how art has evolved from traditional to the digital?
I embrace technology and I think that some forms of digital art is absolutely amazing, like matte painters – wow! If anyone hasn't looked into those its mind blowing! I’m not sure how successful it is for pet portraits though. I don’t think you can ever beat a piece of traditional art.
Just by generalizing (I'm not asking for any trade secrets) can you describe how you go from concept to finalization.
First of all I ask the client to email me some good quality photos and to give me an idea of what they would like in a pet portrait. The majority of the times clients want simple head studies and so the client and myself will choose a photo that captures their pets personality and character. I sometimes make a mock-up of how the portrait will look in the computer by using the clients photos to help them to visualise the portrait. If the portrait is of more than one dog with a background I try to fit the photos together in the computer along with a background of their choice – their garden, beach, hills etc and email them to show them what I have come up with. We can then tweak this if needed. Once this composition is arranged I then take a deposit and they are placed in my commissions list. Once they have reached the top of the list I will start their portrait.
Is there anything that you'd care to comment on?
Enjoy everyday and live in the moment!
What's in the future for Melanie?
Hopefully many more happy years of painting and drawing. Its a great job and I love it!
Will you ever get tired of creating artwork?
This interview was held a number of years ago for an online art website. Im not sure if the interview exists online now, so i thought I would add it here just in case the content is useful for students.
Interview with a Pet Portrait Artist
Melanie Phillips is a full time working artist painting dogs, cats and horses for clients worldwide. She lives in West Wales in the UK along with her husband who is also a pet portrait artist. She has painted pets from all over the world and we caught up with her to ask her a few questions......
Where did you study to become an artist?
I did 2 years of A-levels at school and a foundation course in Wales and then studied at art college in England for two years in Natural History illustration and received a HND with Distinctions. I gained experienced in a range of subjects and mediums during that time, and it enabled me to choose exactly what I wanted to specialise in – animal art.
Do you have an art studio?
Yes my husband and I have a dedicated studio. Its great working from home and a plus point is we don't have to travel to work.
What's it like working full time with your husband?
Its great. Nicholas and I work together here in the studio, we are both pet portrait artists and met at art college. We are a great team and work together in the studio 7 days a week without a cross word which I think is pretty unique. We are lucky in that we can bounce ideas between each other and critique each others work which keeps us fresh and on our toes.
What made you want to paint pets & animals?
I have always had a love for animals. My parents use to live in the south of the UK in a residential area and my dad, who was bought up in the countryside, decided to hatch two ducklings with a chicken as a mum in our spare bedroom. Chickens are great adoptive mums to ducks! I adored them, I must have only been about 5 and my teacher at school thought I was making up stories when I told her 'my ducks had hatched in the bedroom and are now living in the garden'. She mentioned these stories to my mum and dad at a parents evening, she was slightly concerned for my over active imagination. however dad piped up, “oh yes we have, they eat the slugs”! So it was no surprise to our family when we upped and moved to Wales to a smallholding. We had cows, sheep, pigs and of course chickens and ducks. I was in my element. So animals have always been a big part of my life and it was only natural to want to paint them.
Can you give us an idea of your process. If one of our readers were to commission you what would they need to do?
First of all I ask the client to email some good quality photos and to give an idea of what they would like in a pet portrait. I sometimes make a mock-up of how the portrait will look in the computer help them to visualise the portrait. If the portrait is of more than one dog with a background Once this composition is settled I then take payment and start the painting. Its a very simple process and I can deal with clients worldwide.
How long does a portrait take?
It varies on the complexity of the subject, whether there is background involved, the quality of the photo and the breed of dog. The fastest portraits to paint are short haired dogs as head studies, and with a clear quality photo. It also depends on how many hours you paint in the day of course. Usually pencil drawings are around a week and oil paintings are between 1 to 3 weeks.
What has been your most difficult commission and your favourite?
Our most difficult commission was a lab laying in front of a shop 30” x 20” and as often happens we were asked to combine separate photos of the background and the dog. The commissions was for a surprise present so the owner of the dog couldn't be involved in the process. The photos weren't very good quality and to get everything to looking right and on such a large scale was challenging. My favourites are always ones with good clear photos and interesting poses.
What's the best part of being a pet portrait artist?
Apart from actually painting, my favourite part is definitely knowing that we have brought back wonderful memories of dogs that have passed for clients. We have countless letters from owners who's pets have passed away and they are just lost of words when they receive their portrait.
What is the funniest request you've ever had?
I was asked to paint a pet ferret once, that was great! Something completely different!
What are your favourite breeds of dogs to portray?
I love all breads, but I have soft spot for spaniels and boxers, both breeds have such soulful eyes and I love to capture them. And then of course Tibtan Terriers!
What pet do you think is the most difficult to paint?
In general any long haired animal is more difficult.
Do you ever go wrong? Do you start again?
I cant say we ever really go wrong, we always plan each painting or drawing it out well to start with so there isn't any leeway for mistakes. Obviously paintings evolve as they go along, particularly with an oil portrait with a background and that's the beauty of the creative process, its exciting!
What is your preferred medium to use for your pet portraits?
We have tried most of the mediums available but we still go back to oils and pencils as being our favourite.
Do you ever paint other subjects or paint portraits of your own pets?
We would love to paint other subjects, however we just don't get the time. There are always portraits in the list to do and clients always emailing excitedly asking when their portraits are to be started!
How many animal portraits do you think you have completed over the years?
Its difficult to give an accurate number as in the early years I didn't have the facilities to record each piece, but it has been A LOT!
Where do most of your commissions from?
We have clients commission us both from all over the world. Form America, Canada, Australia, Brazil, France, Norway, Sweden and of course the UK. Most commissions come via our website but we do get local commissions and returning clients coming back too.
Do you Teach/Tutor other People to Paint Pets/ Animals ?
I use to teach for over 15 years with the distance learning college London Art College. I have written and illustrated 3 courses. The Pet Portrait Diploma is by far the most popular of my courses and I had students sign up from across the globe. Our Pet Portraits gradually got too busy however and I had to hand over to other tutors.
If you hadn't become an artist what other career path do you think you'd have chosen?
I initially wanted to be a children's nanny and then it developed into occupational therapist but looking back I don't think I would have been happy in either jobs. I worked in a residential home for a short time, but I wouldn't want a career in it. I think if I gave up painting today id want to do something with animals or something on a creative level.
You have a well thought out business, how do you organise it all?
I guess it all does take a little bit of organisation and I'm a pretty organised person but it has evolved over the years, so its not like it has all come at once, and as I get more experienced, things get easier.
Are there times when you just don't feel like creating?
We never go more than a couple of days without doing something creative, and as this is our full time job we always have a list of portraits to do with clients waiting, so responsibility often outweighs these thoughts. Occasionally if perhaps I'm under the weather or if I'm not in the mood there are always other chores in the cottage to catch up on.
Do you have a favourite time of day to paint?
I love to draw in the evening. Everything is quiet, the phone doesn't ring so much, and I know that I have a good 4 hours that I can paint without being disturbed. Light isn't so much of an issue as we live in Wales where it rains the majority of the time, even in the summer. So we have adequate lighting in the studio which enables us to paint any hour of the day or night.
Who is your favourite artist of all time?
Rembrandt. It might be a bit of a cliché as he's one of the more well known old masters but I love the way he paints, the colours he uses etc. I am a huge fan of limited pallets and his use of natural colours in some of his self portraits are out of this world.
Do you like to listen to music while you paint? If so, what do you listen to?
I love a wide variety of music from rock to classical although I mainly listen to podcasts and audio books during the day while working.
What do you do to relax after a hard days painting?
In the winter we have pretty bad weather, so we generally nip back to the cottage for a meal and a nice cuppa. We enjoy watching TV so something good on always does the trick. Summer however is a different kettle of fish! We love to be outside, walking lily and pottering in the garden. We try to take advantage of the dry days if we can....as we don’t get many here in west Wales!
We often receive emails asking personal questions about our work i.e. - how to paint in oils, where to by materials from, how to market work, where to get commissions from, how to make money in pet portraits, how to improve on the business model etc. Over the years we have always been happy to write back and help as 20 years ago, we were there too, struggling to get commissions. We didn’t have the luxury of the internet or have access to any other artist to help us. So yes we struggled! So we have always been happy to give back to those starting out.
However over the last few years, we have found that those who email, rarely reply with any form of thanks. It is quite disheartening to spend the time writing and trying to help fellow artists and not receive any kind of acknowledgement. It has happened so often now that it has made us hesitant in replying.
If you have emailed us and we have referred you to this link, we have written a little information below which might help you,. However very sadly we are unable to give personal guidance any longer. We have written a few general guides below which you might find interesting and helpful and we wish you the best of luck with your artwork and business.
Portrait timings. The most common question we are asked is ' how long does a portrait take'. They take as long as they take. There is no set time. We don’t time ourselves, we don’t set out to start a portrait and say - this is going to take 10 hours. We don’t work in that way. Our sole aim is to create the best possible portrait from the given photos and keep our customers 100% happy. We don’t cut corners, if a portrait takes longer than we thought, its ok.
How to paint - Another popular question we receive is asking how Nicholas paints fur. We just cant help with this I am afraid. There is no formula to painting, there are no magic answers. Every pet, length of fur and photograph Nicholas works from, utilises different techniques. It takes years of practice. You will learn something new on every single portrait you paint. Our advice would be just practice. Take some time to paint say 50 dogs from start to finish, back to back. We can guarantee you will still have questions at the end, but learning to paint is a life long pursuit.
If you find you are still struggling, looking for a tutor or a course might be what you need. A number of years ago we wrote and illustrated a distance learning course on Pet Portraits which you can purchase / enrol on with the London Art College. You can have one to one tuition with a professional pet portrait artist. You can find out how to do most of these things from there.
Pet Portraits Diploma Course - Teaching you how to paint and draw portraits.
Marketing - Our advice would be to talk to someone in business, someone who can help you in this day and age to promote yourself on social media and online. We don’t really have any experience in this, we rarely post on social media and so are unable to give any advice. For obtaining local work, only you know what its like where you live and what resources are available to you - i.e. shows, fares, dogs shows etc. So try to find someone locally to you who is experience in selling products at shows and ask them questions.
Materials - As the old adage goes - a bad workman always blames his tools. We do have pages on our website where you can find out what materials we use however using the exact same materials as us, may not give you the results you are looking for. Often learning your craft is more important than specific materials.
Finally - be unique and be yourself. Artist copy us, we know that. Artist use our website as a template for theirs, they use our text and write their website like ours. They also try to paint like us, draw like us and set their prices the same. We are flattered by this, but it doesn’t mean to say we are doing everything right. It might look like it from the outside....but everything looks different from the outside. We make mistakes, we trial things, we don’t always get it right. Be yourself, have your own ideas... try to stand out from the crowd.
Here's some links you might find useful...
How to Transfer your Photo to Canvas - Written by my good buddy, Christopher Chalk.
Magazine Article, How to Draw a Dog - Written and illustrated by Melanie Phillips
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