When the 2010 financial crash dried up her commercial work, Shannon Abbey began painting commissioned portraits of pets - large works in acrylic paint on wood. Now that Covid-19 has pushed the economy into another free-fall, the Petaluma artist has re-conceived the pet portrait as a pastel work on paper, smaller and less expensive than the acrylics.
Abbey explains that the acrylics take a long time because of all the layering of paint required to capture the lovable, furry faces of dogs and cats. With pastels, she can work much faster. Also, for the acrylic works, Abbey takes the photo that will serve as the model for the painting. With the pastels, the pet owner provides the photo, albeit with tips from Abbey.
Before beginning a work, Abbey needs a good photo. But you can’t expect a pet to sit for a portrait.
She provides helpful hints to the pet owner on how to take it, stressing that the photographer must get down at the pet’s level. Otherwise, the animal must crane its neck upward, which can distort the image and even alter the pet’s expression. The other essential is good lighting without a flash.
Before the virus hit, Abbey had been planning to launch an online course on how to paint a pet. Using her phone’s time-lapse feature, she began making videos of her work process. This project has been put on hold for now. As the virus was unleashing its force, Abbey began posting some of the pet pastels on her Facebook page. She didn’t anticipate the response. She now stays busy painting peoples’ pet, roughly two-thirds being dogs, the rest cats. Abbey says that around half of those are memorials to dead or aging pets.
Three years ago, she hooked up with the Cavalier King Charles Spaniel Club, a national organization for owners of the breed. “I had made friends with Kathie Fowler, who is involved in the Cavalier community,” Abbey recalled. “I was visiting one of the group’s meetings to talk to folks about my acrylic paintings, and Kathie suggested I offer sketches and take a table at their annual specialty show.”
The artist has done pastel portraits at the show for two years and was invited to be the featured artist this year, but the event has been cancelled. “I’ve been painting a lot of those dogs,” she said, adding that it’s not hard to tell one spaniel from another because they have many color variations.
The impact of Covid-19 has not been as extreme for Abbey and her husband as for many others because they were already used to working at home in isolation. But their 17-year-old son Jacob, like most teenagers, misses being with his friends. And like many children of elderly parents, Abbey worries about her mother, 88, who recently moved to Seattle to be near Abbey’s sister.
“Not seeing people is hard,” Abbey said. “I’m working on a children’s book project about a little girl with parents who are undocumented,” Abbey said. “The danger for me can be that I have so many ideas. It’s been lovely to focus on these portraits right now. I wake up with a purpose. We are so comforted by our animals. I’ll do the portraits for as long as people enjoy them.”