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Petaluma Profile: Artist creates market for pet portraits

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About Petaluma Profile

(Petaluma Profile runs weekly in the Argus-Courier. Have a suggestion of a fascinating local person you think would make a good Petaluma Profile subject? Drop a line to Community Editor David Templeton at david.templeton@arguscourier.com)

To survive, an artist must think on her feet.

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 freefall, the Petaluma artist has reconceived the pet portrait as a pastel work on paper, smaller and less expensive than the acrylics.

She can barely keep up with the orders.

While the acrylic works can range up to $3,000, the pastels cost only $300. Examples of both can be viewed at the artist’s website, shannonabbey.com.

Abbey explains that the acrylics take a long time because of all the layering of paint required to capture the loveable, 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.

Abbey was born in Eugene, OR, and raised in Pullman, WA. She graduated from Western Washington University in Pullman with a degree in visual communications. While at Western, she took a figure drawing class and quickly discovered that drawing was her talent.

“I could draw right away,” she said. “They put me in a show the first semester.”

She also showed a natural talent for drawing from nature.

Abbey’s affinity for drawing and painting animals, birds, fish and nature in general stems from her childhood, hunting and fishing with her father. The family always had hunting dogs, which she considered her best friends.

After college, Abbey moved to Seattle for five years, a period she describes as “floundering.” One day a friend showed her a brochure for the Academy of Art University in San Francisco. She enrolled. The director of illustration at the time, Barbara Bradley, recruited her into the illustration department because of Abbey’s fine draftsmanship skills. Abbey has fond memories of Bradley, who passed away in 2008.

“When I was just out of art school,” Abbey said, “I worked at I. Magnin doing quick pastel portraits of women as part of a few cosmetics promotions.”

This early work with pastels has proved to be valuable.

While in San Francisco, she met her husband, Pete McDonnell, through the San Francisco Society of Illustrators. McConnell is also a professional artist. One of his gigs is serving as the political cartoonist for the Argus-Courier. They moved to Petaluma 17 years ago, where she soon found herself painting chickens, cows and birds.

“I still do a lot of bird painting,” she said.

She and McDonnell live in the house they bought then. Each has a home studio. His is in the remodeled garage, hers is behind the house in a modular unit.

About Petaluma Profile

(Petaluma Profile runs weekly in the Argus-Courier. Have a suggestion of a fascinating local person you think would make a good Petaluma Profile subject? Drop a line to Community Editor David Templeton at david.templeton@arguscourier.com)

“I need my own space,” she said.

Among Abbey’s many gigs over the years was working on the sign team at Trader Joe’s.

“Great company, and I got paid to draw every day,” she said.

According to Abbey, she’s had many interesting gigs as an artist.

“I did quite a few illustrations for a weekly column on wine for the Wall Street Journal,” she said. “That went on for maybe a year. I illustrated a home decor book for Pottery Barn, and some displays for AT&T. I also taught painting to big groups of summer interns at the LinkedIn campus, and at the San Francisco Zoo as part of a team building event.”

Abbey says that prior to 2010, she had done a few paintings of pets, and found that experience to be valuable when the recession hit.

“They were part of my strategy to compensate for lack of illustration contracts during the downturn,” she said.

Abbey’s husband, in addition to his political cartoons, works primarily as an illustrator, doing corporate work, as well as comics. The virus has stopped much of those assignments.

“But it seems like when one door closes, another one opens,” Abbey said, explaining that McDonnell was recently approached by a collector of game art from the 1990s, of which McDonnell has a substantial collection. The collector has begun buying pieces from him.

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.”

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