Petamorphosis: My journey into, and out of, pet portraiture
by Kathy Weller
I started doing pet portraits in late 2004. Choosing pet portraits as an independent creative business hit so many important areas of growth for me - areas that I wanted to really push hard. Pet portraiture hit them all. It was a match made in heaven. And I did push hard. I pushed really hard. I did not even know I had such ambition and drive before I decided to do pet portraits. But I found that it was there, lying dormant, waiting for a context to live within.
© Kathy Weller
With pet portraiture, the dam broke. The dam held a lot of my long-held dreams and hopes to find a special and unique outlet for my art. I have always been an artist, and a pet lover too—but I haven't always been so good at all the other skills necessary to turn your art into a business. Once I began to gain knowledge in the areas that were important for the growth of my pet portrait business, I learned how much more capable I was in many other areas. Learning business and marketing fueled my self-confidence. Creating the portraits sharpened my technical drawing skills, maybe more intensely and consistently than any class I've ever taken. Communicating with clients, especially clients of emotionally-faceted custom work, turned me into a customer service guru. And doing everything on my own (no buck-passing!) proved how resourceful I could be.
© Kathy Weller
Doing portraits was great, and so exciting. I was thrilled with my new business! I had my own 'thing' - something I built myself, something that was unique and was focused on animals, which I loved. It was perfect! Then, after the first couple of years, I discovered that the business model I'd built my house on might not be conducive to a lot of growth. There were only so many portraits I could complete in a given time frame, and, while I did revise my prices several times during my tenure, there was a sort of 'invisible ceiling' that I really didn't think I could break without pricing myself out of the market. Aside from everything else, I was also starting to feel creatively confined. While I had initially set out to "learn-by-doing", I started to notice a few side-effects, some of which I wasn't completely prepared for. When I noticed my work was growing far more technically tight, I worried what the catalyst was for that change: Was the change due to the natural progression of my skills, or had I molded into this new 'shape' partially due to client feedback? Regardless, it was clear that I had begun to grow too close to the creative template I'd set. And, unfortunately by that point, it was really set in cement. Maybe not through an objective lens, but I could not see past my nose. I didn't know how to change it, if I even wanted to change it, or how I would change it, if I could. Where pet portraits were concerned, I was having trouble defining, or feeling like I was holding on to, my own artistic voice apart from the "custom" part of the "custom pet portraits" style I'd so carefully crafted. It seemed that I could not see the forest from the trees any more. This was something I did not plan for.
© Kathy Weller
I started to mix it up with some other creative work, in addition to my portraits. This helped my perspective a great deal. It also took some of my time away from doing portraits. I did not mind; the change felt good and I was so proud of the new roads I was traveling. As my confidence grew, so did my goals. I finally felt like I had a real compass for my creative career, plus the business skills to back it up. After all, the 'business' part was already set up.
© Kathy Weller
My compass grew ever larger: I got a job to illustrate a children's picture book, which led to a partnership with an agent, which led to more children's work and a new career in children's. Now a career in children's was something I'd always wanted, pined for, even- for years and years. But I never knew if I could, or would, accomplish it. Now that this myth had been effectively - and thrillingly - shattered to pieces, my goals grew bigger and I grew more confident in my ability to accomplish them. At this point, it was clear to me that my pet portrait business was just not built to contain this tornado I'd started.
After much thought, I'd established a truth with myself: if I was going to continue with pet portraits, there were some fundamental things that needed fixing. One of those things was that it would have to be a completely new and more flexible model, because my current one was just as tightly rendered as my portraits were. After much deliberation, "what if" scenarios and various theories outlined and discussed at length, the only real, viable answer to the problem was that I needed a clean break. There was no way around it.
I knew this for some time before I actually acted on it. It took me time to accept this and to move forward. In fact, I didn't actually move forward until things got to the point where continuing on with pet portraits was actually hindering my time and energy I wanted to spend on other goals I so desperately wanted to pursue. It was hard to let go, and scary, too. Pet portraiture was so much more to me than the catalyst for 'Business 101'. Obviously I am a huge pet lover and parent, and having something of value to help out animal advocate organizations was an important and positive element in choosing the business to begin with. Portraiture also opened me up to a warm, generous community of other pet artists, pet lovers and pet parents. (Hey, these were 'my people'!) Not only that, but after awhile, my pet work informed my artistic identity - especially externally. I became known for my pet portraits and during my tenure, I got a good amount of press featuring my work. All told, closing up shop was not at all an easy thing. Saying good-bye to my pet portrait artist identity and all that came with being an active part of the pet portraitist community was just as hard as hanging up the portraits themselves.
I probably waited a little longer than I should have before quitting. But, in the end, it's a good thing that I took the extra time. When I look at the portraits I completed during and after my decision, they take my breath away. I experienced an incredible sense of freedom and ease and, by extension, had more fun working on the last few portraits than I had in a long time. I guess it should not be a surprise that my work on these portraits is among my most technically proficient as well. In hindsight, the worries I had during my pet portrait creative identity crisis were, ultimately, all for naught. I see now that I was just experiencing artistic growing pains, but within a situation and a context that was, at the time, unchartered territory. I wasn't seeing the forest for the trees. I see now that a little distance can do wonders. In the end, I am proud to have ended my portrait work on a high note in every way.
For more of my pet portrait writings, please see the following links.
Why I Chose Pet Portraiture Part 1
Why I Chose Pet Portraiture Part 2
Posts all about my last custom portrait (several with musings on leaving pet portraiture)