Class helps artists capture fine points of pet portraits

When Georgia Lawson teaches a pet portrait workshop, she has her students start with the eyes.

With the enlarged photo of their chosen pet — sometimes their own, sometimes a friend’s or family member’s — on the table beside them, the students brush two dark, glossy circles onto the canvas.

“You want to have the soul there, so you can see what you’re painting,” Lawson says. If they add the eyes at the end, the eyes appear lifeless, without the sparkle the pet’s owner has come to know and love.

Then, they move onto the nose, working out from there. At Thursday’s daylong pet portrait workshop at City Lights Art Gallery in Henderson, five students worked with oil paints on subjects including a white terrier, a husky and a goat under Lawson’s guidance. After years of teaching painting classes throughout Las Vegas, pet portraits are now something of a specialty for the 75-year-old, who only seriously took up painting in the past 20 years.

YEAR AFTER YEAR

Lawson has taken life in stride. Though she grew up watching her mother paint and drawing horses, Lawson didn’t begin her own artistic career in earnest until her 33-year marriage ended in 1995. The divorce ultimately allowed her to discover her passion for painting.

“You know, life changes,” Lawson says. “I look at it this way: I think about every five years, I like to see a nice change in my life, or go forward to something else. I think that keeps you young. You never know what tomorrow brings you, so go forward and have fun with it.”

At the time, going forward meant moving to Corvallis, Oregon, where her best friend lived. Her first weekend there, she met a woman who reminded her of her mother and insisted that she take up painting. Lawson began taking classes from some highly regarded artists in the area, unbeknownst to her then, and for years used the seashore as her primary subject. Eventually, she began selling her work in shows.

Nearly nine years ago, Lawson moved from Oregon to Las Vegas to be closer to family. Soon after, she started teaching oil and watercolor classes at local art supply stores, community centers and studios. Animals were always one of her favorite subjects, and she began taking commissions for pet portraits. Though she doesn’t have the time or space to care for pets of her own, she’s had many animals over the years and now regularly pet-sits.

“I think people like to see their animals presented in an art form, more than a photo,” Lawson says.

PAINTING POOCHES

At the pet portrait workshops like Thursday’s, most of the students have painting experience. Lawson guides them through the steps, first enlarging a photo of their pet and then showing them how to transfer a blue and white outline of their image to the 12-by-12-inch canvas.

“Georgia shows you little ways to do things so that it turns out well,” says Libby Chan, the City Lights Art Gallery director and a student at the workshop. She painted her son’s husky.

After getting the eyes and nose in place, they fill in the face with layers and layers of oil paint. Lawson never uses black paint, even for animals with black fur, and instead uses indigo. “It’s so dark, but you can’t tell it’s not black. Normal black, when it dries, lays flat, where indigo stays alive, that’s the best I can explain it,” Lawson says. “Once they use it, they never use black again.”

Lucia Sullivan mainly paints landscapes, but joined the workshop to paint her husky-shepherd mix. “I’ve always enjoyed the way that Georgia paints because (the animals) look animated and just seem less realistic and more of a personality,” she says. “It’s just fun to do different things. It’s always good to keep up your skills, that’s what makes it fun.”

Behind the animal, they paint a solid background in a contrasting color — blue behind a dog with orange fur, for example. Around the face the students add some shading to create dimension and help the pet pop off the page.

When the oil paint has dried in about a week, each artist will go back in and add a few transparent wisps of paint for the whiskers.

The last step for today, though? Toasting a day well spent the best way Lawson knows how: with a glass of bubbly.

Read more from Sarah Corsa at reviewjournal.com. Contact her at scorsa@reviewjournal.com. Follow @sarahcorsa on Twitter.

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