Leah Davies Fine Art Pet Portraits
When you look at one of Leah Davies’ pet portraits, you’ll do a double-take. Initially, you may think it’s a particularly sharp and vivid photograph of a cat sunning itself on a window sill beside a plant, or of two labs standing on a rocky beach that someone took on vacation. But when you look closer, you realize you’re looking at a painting, one that conjures up more detail, color, and personality than a photo ever could.
“I like to think of myself as an observationist. I really like to, and I think that comes through in my artwork. I really like to look at nature, and really look at what makes…” Leah trails off and sighs. “How do I describe it? I just want to look at all the details of absolutely everything. I love taking all that in.”
Leah’s studio is located on the first floor studio in her townhome in Winthrop, Massachusetts, and there are animal portraits of various sizes in varying states of completion on easels throughout. A black and white cat against a turquoise background stands out perhaps the most; it’s sitting up in mid-clean, one leg stretched in the air, staring as though surprised to be caught in such an awkward moment. These four-legged friends are Leah’s inspiration and focus, and it all began with her adorable French bulldog, Henry. During our interview on Leah’s back patio, looking out over her backyard and the ocean, he happily lounges in the sun on his little doggie bed, chewing on a bone.
“Henry is just the beginning of the entire business nearly twelve years ago,” Leah explains, “Because he’s twelve now, and when he was about one I painted his portrait. And I happened to be working at a frame shop at the time, and when people would come in, we had it on display. People would go gaga for it.”
And for good reason. Leah’s training and background in fine art are put to good use in her customers’ commissioned oil paintings and graphite drawings of their own pets. These pieces are complex and beautiful works of art, but they also capture the personality and charm of her subjects. A scroll through her instagram page shows dozens of gorgeous (and also adorable) pictures of dogs, horses, cats, and birds. Many of her customers have shared how her work have been lovingly displayed in their homes through social media. These portraits range from pets her customers currently have as members of their families, to pets who have died, which adds another dimension to her work and interactions.
“It can be really sensitive work,” she says. “You have to have a really fine touch with some of the people you’re talking to. Sometimes it’s happiness, and they’re just celebrating their dog or their cat, but there are a lot of people who are losing their best friends. And I try to be very sensitive to that. You know, having my own story, and then hearing the stories of my customers makes me realize how important these animals are to my life, their life. I can share that with them. I often say I am my customer. I like art, I’m obsessed with my dog, I want those two things to be joined together. And I’m always thankful when other people share those two things with me.”
Leah’s portrait business grew to the point that she was able to transition to portraiture full time. She treats her work like a normal nine-to-five work day, and as a result, has seen her skills become honed to the point where she’s been able to increase her rates and pricing. However, this has also led to new challenges many entrepreneurs and local makers face. She’s found customers, gained a following, and found success as a small-business owner, but now she’s looking for new markets, locations, and selling possibilities.
But this is in some ways a good problem to have, since it is an indicator of the health of her business. “Even in this moment right now, that I feel like I’m struggling, I don’t want to give up. That’s not my goal. I want to persevere through it, and I think that you have to do that in every single road bump you come to. I mean, it’s growing pains. What I’m feeling is growing pains.”
Something that’s helped with the growing pains are her professional and personal connections she’s made with the local maker community through meetings and markets. When she first started out in the early aughts, there weren’t as many outlets for this sort of connection, but now with the help of social media, it has been a major help as she wrestles with the struggles and growing pains of running her own small business.
“Facebook and facebook groups specifically have really changed how I connect with other artists. Being a maker can be super lonely, and not only super lonely because you’re by yourself creating, but it can be super lonely when you’re going through these things and you’re not sure if anyone else understands what you’re going through,” she explains. “Even the small business meetings that [I] go to on Mondays, that’s so helpful. Just sitting in a room with other people who are going through the same thing and understand, and you can say these things out loud, and people go, ‘Mmm-hmm.’”
Something that’s emerged in the midst of transitions and changes in her business is an interest in educating her customers about what goes into her creative process. Currently, it’s easy to get an inside view of works-in-progress along with finished products on her social media sites, but Leah has some other ideas in mind.
“One of the endeavors I’m trying to embark on next are tutorials, sharing a little bit of my knowledge that I’ve been collecting. It’s a whole other job unto itself,” she laughs. “So I’ve taken a lot of film of what I’ve been doing. It’s just taking the time to edit it and get it out there.”
Part of her motivation stems from Leah’s natural tendency to take something that can be frustrating or daunting and tackle it by giving it a more positive spin. After many interactions with customers and people walking through her booths at various markets and fairs, she saw they often didn’t understand the amount of work and skill that goes into the kind of handcrafted, custom art she creates.
“Very early on in doing this, I realized a lot of people just don’t understand how it goes from the blank canvas to what I’m showing them. A lot of people think I’m painting on top of photographs, and that’s so deflating,” she admits. “But instead of getting bent out of shape, I try to take them in... and sharing those progress pics is part of that. It doesn’t just happen, it’s not overnight, it’s not an afternoon, I’m literally taking months creating this. It’s custom.”
And yet, while Henry rolls on his back in the grass and basks in the sunshine, it’s easy to understand why, despite the challenges, time, and elbow-grease required to create her one-of-a-kind portraits, Leah wouldn’t have it any other way: “Being here [at home] is definitely joyful. I consider myself ultra-blessed. Every day I get to look out at this view, I get to hang out with my dog, being able to practice my craft. Every single day is a blessing.”
Photography by: Rusty Kinnunen, except where noted.