March 5, 2009

Play and Rest in Peace, Dear Hutch

One thing I love about my job is getting to know so many wonderful pets vicariously after looking into their eyes for the 10 or more hours it takes to complete a portrait! The flip side of that coin is bittersweet: To know them vicariously is to also feel a loss when they pass away.

This week I received this message from Nancy Roach about her beloved dog Hutch, whose portrait I did in the summer of 2007:

Hutch in the Meadow - Watercolor and colored pencil painting by Susan Donley

… I had Hutch put down last Sunday. She developed an aggressive form of lymphoma and was not feeling well.

She had a last day of eating snow, slept with me and Greg, had beef and bacon for breakfast and was scarfing down a tube of liverwurst when the vet gave her the sedative. My heart was breaking, but I know she left this world very loved, and with liverwurst on her tongue.

Your picture of her is a huge comfort to me.

Hutch hostesses the retreat

I haven’t met most of my subjects personally, but I had the pleasure of meeting and spending a few days with Hutch in May 2003. We were having a nonprofit board retreat at the Roach home in Hood River, Oregon and Hutch joined us as unofficial mascot for the weekend. She was good about sharing herself with anyone who needed the endorphin release of a good dog petting. We thanked her for her hospitality with the gift of a big ceramic treat jar (and advising her mom to keep it filled!).

If I hadn’t seen the incredible meadows of the Oregon Cascade Mountains with my own eyes that spring, I would have doubted the photos of Hutch sitting amongst the wildflowers near Mount Hood. The colors were so saturated that I had to keep checking that I wasn’t making them too bright. But, no, that’s how vivid the flowers really were up there drenched with sunlight in the clear mountain air!

I like to think of Hutch romping right now in the meadows (click for a larger view of the painting) on the other side of the Rainbow Bridge, waiting happily for her family. Play and Rest in Peace, Dear Hutch!

November 7, 2008

Memorial Portrait of Jack, a Rottweiler from the Shenandoah Valley

Now that Jack the Rottweiler’s human dad’s birthday is over, it is safe for me to post his memorial portrait. Katie Warner of Harrisonburg, Virginia commissioned Jack’s portrait for her boyfriend Allen, who grieved the loss of his hiking buddy earlier this year.

Finding good photos for memorial portraits can be a challenge, since there is no going back to take new portrait-worthy reference photos for me to work from. Doing it in secret for a gift can double the challenge! Over time Katie snuck me several photos, each showing a different side of Jack’s personality.

The photo we finally chose showed Jack taking a hiking break on the Blue Ridge Mountains in Virginia, over-looking the beautiful Shenandoah Valley. The 11×14 inch size allowed me to include enough background to set Jack in the mountains plus his massive chest. Oil pastel captured the vivid greens and blues of the Blue Ridge and the velvety black of Jack’s coat.

I received this lovely note from Katie after Jack’s portrait arrived:

I just got it, and it is absolutely beautiful. Thank you, thank you. I can’t wait to order another. Thank you so much for being so patient with me over the past few months, I know it took me awhile to get the ball rolling.

You are a truly talented artist, and I can tell how compassionate and caring you are. Thank you for giving us a memory of Jack that we will treasure forever. I look forward to working with you again soon.

By the way, none of the photos showed a hint of the supposedly aggressive side of Rottweilers that has landed them on some communities ill-concieved Least Wanted Dogs list. Such “breed profiling” is an ill-concieved way to control aggression in dogs. The real problem isn’t aggressive dogs, but people who don’t have control over their dogs because they don’t bother to train them to be good citizens.

Anyone looking into Jack’s sweet face can see the true nature of this noble breed! For a closer look into that face, visit Jack’s page on

Did you know Jack or another lovable Rottweiler who defies the stereotypes? Please share your memories in the comments!

October 30, 2008

A Halloween Reminder: Holly’s Chocolate Horror Story

Chocolate is a Frightful Poison for Pooches and Pussycats

Holly, Standard Poodle - Graphite drawing by Susan DonleySeveral months ago, a treasured member of the Pack, Miss Holly Wood (my portrait of Holly at left), had an early Halloween Horror. The beautiful Miss Holly, a white Standard Poodle, and the human she owns, photographer Johny Day, live in Montreal, Quebec. I met them on, where Johny runs a popular Standard Poodle discussion group.

Seems that Johny isn’t a big fan of chocolate (what?!) and threw away two pounds of it uneaten. (That someone would throw away chocolate isn’t even the most amazing part of this amazing story!) Though he secured the garbage, Holly used her canine scavenging skills to root out the chocolate while Johny was out for a moment.

Any pet lover can imagine Johny’s horror when he arrived home to find garbage strewn on the floor, the chocolate eaten, and Holly lying in a coma! Chocolate is toxic to dogs, in spite of the fact that they love it. Johny, an ex-EMT (Emergency Medical Technician), rushed her to the vet for treatment of her poisoning.

Look at the frightful picture of this beautiful dog at death’s door and read the whole amazing story on Flickr.

Amazingly, Holly survived, after the vets giving her little hope during her days in Intensive Care. But the most amazing part of this story may be the tremendous out-pouring of support Johny, who is always there for everyone else, and Holly received from all over the world through the Flickr community of photographers and artists. Prayers and messages poured in and people contributed to Holly’s vet bills. Pet lovers reach out to each other over the miles when they relate to the deep love we have for our pets and the horror of losing them.

Holly is fine now, but the lesson is clear: Keep chocolate away from dogs and cats! For that matter, keep all human candy and snacks away from animals. Another surprisingly toxic ingredient in sugar-free chewing gum and candy are the artificial sweeteners xylitol, sorbitol, and mannitol.

So, if your dog goes trick-or-treating or your cat answers the door in costume, treat them with their own goodies, don’t share your own candy!

September 30, 2008

Meet Sebastian, an English Springer Spaniel

Graphite Pencil Portrait, 8×8 inches, Susan Donley, 2008

Fresh off the drawing table is Sebastian, an English Springer Spaniel, whose mom, Roberta Pierce, I met at the Bloom in Oakmont Fair in May. She commissioned a graphite portrait of this handsome boy just in time for Sebastian to be my “demo dog” at the Oakmont Street Sale in July. No, he didn’t sit for his portrait, but he did come by my booth that day to supervise and make sure I captured all his beautiful freckles!

After the portrait was finished, Roberta told me a little more about her very special dog with special needs:

Sebastian, English Spring Spaniel - Graphite pencil drawing by Susan Donley

I adopted Sebastian in February, 2003 from the Mid-Atlantic English Springer Spaniel Rescue Group (MAESSR) where I also do volunteer work in interviewing applicants and occasionally transporting a dog from one destination to another. Sebastian is actually a local dog and had been dropped off at the Animal Rescue League in East Liberty (Pittsburgh, PA) who then contacted MAESSR. He was then fostered for about a month in Greensburg.

I am telling you it was divine intervention. My mother and I drove to Greensburg to first meet Sebastian and it was love at first sight. I could have picked him up then but decided to wait a week so I could think about and make sure it was ‘right’. It was. I went back the following week and it was as if Sebastian knew he was coming home to me. He was absolutely perfect in the car.

At that time he was 6 years old and we later figured out he had been pretty traumatized about being given up as he had suffered several seizures when we first got him. I had never had that experience before and it was dreadful to watch and all you can do is hold him and pet him and talk to him in a calm voice until it’s over. I am quite happy to say he hasn’t had a seizure in probably 3 years now which is such a relief. Whoever owned him before had been very good to him as he was well trained and well behaved. We think it was because they were expecting a baby and didn’t want him anymore which certainly was a blessing to me.

Sebastian is the most laid back, calm dog I know. He loves to play ball and Frisbee and going in the car. He’s an absolute gentleman and doesn’t jump or table surf or get on the furniture. I know that we will never have another dog quite like him so I give thanks every day that I have him.

See Sebastian up-close and personal on his very own page. Welcome to the Pets Pictured Pack, Sebastian!

August 15, 2008

Happy Sixth Birthday, Rosie!

Rosie - Graphite Pencil Portrait by Susan DonleyInk Sketch of Rosie Sleeping by Susan Donley

Today is my Standard Poodle Rosie’s sixth birthday! I can’t believe she’s been with me so long. Wasn’t she just a puppy?

We just came back from the pet store where she picked out her own treats from bins that they conveniently locate at nose level! She’s definitely partial to those little fake bones filled with fake marrow. Then we bought a ball to replace her loved-to-death ball.

Tonight she gets a hotdog for dinner! I also thought I’d celebrate by posting a few of the many sketches and finished portaits I’ve done of Rosie, but I don’t think she’ll appreciate it as much as the hotdog.Rosie's First Fall - Colored Pencil Drawing by Susan DonleyGesture pencil sketch by Susan DonleyHappy Birthday, my sweet Rosie O’Donley!

How do you celebrate your pet’s birthday?

March 2, 2008

Meet Gerry, a rescued Beagle Mix

I’m among many who were tickled when the always-a-bridesmaid-never-a-bride Beagle became top dog at this year’s Westminster Kennel Club show! The All-American Beagle, of Snoopy fame, has gone decades without winning the coveted place, until Uno took the prize last month! Uno stole the hearts of many in the crowd at Madison Square and watching at home on the tube, just as so many of his kin have stolen the hearts of millions of dog loving families.

Like so many, I have a soft spot for Beagles. I’ve already told the story of Sadie, the Beagle who get me started on this line of graphite pet portraits. Just before Christmas I finished a portrait of Gerry, actually a Beagle mix, for the Pavlak family. Gerry’s dad wrote:

The picture is absolutely georgeous. It is amazing that you were able to capture him so well…. Thanks again for everything, we had quite a few compliments on the drawing, when we took it to get it framed.

I asked Mark Pavlak for Gerry’s story, since I’ve learned every rescued dog seems to have one. He writes:

Gerry’s Story:

Gerry, Beagle Mix

We finally decided it was time to get a dog for the family. We wanted to get a beagle, since I had some experience with them growing up as a kid. We looked in the local shelters for our dog and their weren’t any beagles showing up. A few weeks had passed by and finally a beagle came up in the local paper. My wife and kids rushed over to take a look, but unfortunately the dog had been adopted already, talk about disappointment! A few more weeks passed by and and no beagles. What are we going to do?

My son happened to look in the local paper one day and found a beagle available in town. We called first to make sure he was still available. The person at the shelter said he was available, but that he had many problems and wasn’t sure if he would be the right fit for us. We rushed over right away to see “Gerry”. He looked so small in his cage, but his tail was wagging a mile a minute when we stopped in front of him. When we took him out to play with us, he picked up his little Ernie doll and strutted out of the cage, like he owned the place. He won us over immediately. We signed the papers for him on that Thursday and he home with us on Monday. Gerry did have a few problems when he came to our house, but they were fixable with a little time, effort and a lot of love.

Who wouldn’t have problems if you were abandoned and plunked in strange place without friend or family? My hat is off to folks who look past the “many problems” of pets who end up in shelters and adopt anyway. Thanks to love of family, Gerry and many other like him, live to tell the tale — or is it tail?

December 3, 2007

Rosa and Ranger: My First Horse Portraits

Mama Rosa, Arabian Horse
How did I get to middle age without going through the typical pre-teen horse-drawing stage? As a girl, I was one of the few who didn’t spend rainy “inside recess” days covering sheets of ditto paper (remember “dittos”?!) with drawing after drawing prancing ponies. (I busied myself honing my portrait skills by trying to capture likenesses of the Beatles and other teenybopper idols.)

So, when potential clients have asked me if I do horse portraits, up till now I’ve answered, “Not yet, but I’m sure I can and would be happy to draw yours!” Not exactly confidence-inspiring — I don’t blame them for not being impressed! Most non-artists don’t realize that there isn’t a secret formula for each subject. The secret to successful drawing is being able to see your subject as lines and shapes, lights and darks, colors and textures. The same process applies whether the subject is kitties or kangaroos.

Adolescent Grin - Ranger, Arabian-Tennessee Walking HorseThe problem for me, a gal from the suburbs, has been access to horses. That all changed this summer when my brother bought property in the country with barn and pasture, but no horses. His next-door neighbors’ (cousins of ours, as it happens) horses, Raven, Rosa, and Ranger, happily visited the greener grass on the other side of the fence to keep his pasture mowed (and fertilized!). I was delighted to have the chance to have equine subjects at such close hand and gather lots of photos for later portrait-practice.
I recently finished these two portraits of shy Rosa, a full Arabian horse whose lineage includes Ulysses Grant’s horse!) and her son, Ranger, a frisky three-year-old whose sire was a Tennessee Walker.

Now I can finally say, “Yes, I do horse portraits — here are some examples!” But mostly I enjoyed watching their personalities come to life under my hand, especially that Adolescent Grin of Ranger’s! If he weren’t so big, he would look at home in any 7th grade classroom! ;-)

I’ve added Ranger and Rosa to my Cafepress store just in time for Christmas.

Reference photo credits: Rosa’s portrait from a photo by Ed Donley; Ranger’s portrait from a photo by Kithmini N. of Indiana, PA”

November 5, 2007

Drawing pets from life

I’m often asked “Do you actually draw pets from life?” by pet lovers who wonder what my secret must be to keeping a dog or cat still for the hours it takes to finish a portrait. The only magic I employ for long sittings is the magic of photography. It’s hard enough to get a pet to stay still long enough to take a photo, much less to do a portrait!

gesture sketch of poodle eating boneI do draw from life, but the detailed drawings drawings I’m known for are not the result (they take 8-10 hours to do)! When I draw from life, I try to capture the lively movement that would drive me crazy if my goal were a detailed portrait. In these sketches (called “gesture drawings” by the artists, for obvious reasons) I quickly try to follow the movement of the animal with the movement of my hand without letting my brain interfere too much. No erasing — I just leave the lines be to record the action. I love looking back at these sketches, since they trigger vivid movie-memories of the live action.

These two drawings of my Standard Poodle Rosie record her chewing a raw knuckle bone with great gusto right beside my desk chair.

gesture sketch of poodle eating boneI don’t expect anyone else to appreciate them (that’s not the point) and they usually stay snug in my sketchbook. I’m surprised that occasionally someone does respond to them, which made me decide to post some of my favorites here from time to time. If you don’t “get” them, ignore — it’s like trying to read someone else’s notes. If you do “get” them, enjoy!

October 9, 2007

In Memory of Bailey, 1999-2007, Soft-Coated Wheaten Terrier

Memorial Portrait of Bailey, Soft-Coated Wheaten Terrier

When Bailey crossed over two weeks ago at the young age of eight, her mom Karen’s friends chipped in together to send their condolences in the form of portrait. What a great way to lend their support while giving Bailey’s people something tangible to recall all the good memories. I was honored to be a part of this heart-warming show of sympathy between friends!

While working on pet portraits, I often wonder about my subjects’ personalities and am grateful when owner tell me stories about their pooches and kitties. If you have a story to share about Bailey, or words of comfort for her family, please feel free to post them in the comment section below. It would mean a lot to them — and to me.

September 27, 2007

One “Happy” Ending to Animal Abuse

Bloggers United Against Abuse

97653CBD-3250-4835-949A-8CA35AEDFE8A.jpgToday, September 27, a group of bloggers from all over the world are uniting to write posts against abuse — of all kinds. Naturally, I’m choosing animal abuse…

Thanks to Michael Vick, we’ve all had our awareness raised about the abusive “sport” of dog fighting. It’s not hard to see the cruelty that forces dogs — normally friendly, social animals — to turn viciously on each other. Hopefully, getting tough on such a high-profile case will send a message to other dog-fighters.

But what about the low-profile animal abuse that goes on day after day in a backyard near you? Animals chained outside to doghouses — their entire world a 30-foot circle. Crate training turned into crate incarceration. Adolescent puppies turned into shelters for chewing and digging — thrown away just for acting like dogs, because no one has taken the time to train them to behave otherwise. Un-neutered cats dumped to live off the land and bring more uncared-for offspring into the world.

This is the kind of neglectful abuse that keeps the pounds full. Millions of dogs and cats receive capital punishment by lethal injection for the crime of belonging to owners who don’t bother to learn how to be a responsible guardian. For sheer numbers, I’m guessing the victims of this kind of abuse far outnumber the poor pit bulls and greyhounds victimized by organized cruelty of dog fighting and racing.

Because of the pet portrait work I do, I’m very fortunate to deal with folks who love their pets dearly and wouldn’t dream of hurting them. In fact, many of them are quietly working against abuse by taking these neglected and thrown-away creatures into their homes and hearts.

These kind souls don’t make the headlines like Michael Vick, but thank God they are there, working in the shelters and rescue groups, fostering and adopting animal victims of neglectful abuse.

A Bittersweet “Happy” Ending

Memorial Portrait of Happy, a Mixed Breed Success StoryI was recently commissioned to do a memorial portrait of “Happy,” who was rescued by Jessie Uptigrove. Happy spent the first six months of her life in a cage before her previous owners apparently decided that even a caged dog was too much trouble (please excuse the sarcasm!). Jessie found her at the Forrest County (Arkansas) Humane Society shelter and adopted her. For the rest of her days, “Happy” repaid her with a joyful disposition! It was an honor to do her portrait and now to acknowledge the generosity of her human “mom” Jessie, one of many quietly waging war against animal abuse, one critter at a time.

You can read Happy’s success story on the Forrest County Humane Society’s web site, which was given in memory of Happy. If you knew Happy please feel free to tell us more about here in the comments below. Or if you’d like to acknowledge other workers in the war against animal abuse, honor them here!

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Random peek into my sketchbook