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Pet Portrait Artist Captures Personality

Bel Air grandmother Ellie Elgin paints lifelike mannerisms of dogs and cats.

Ellie Elgin likes to draw animals because they don’t pose.

Dogs don’t mug for the camera; they cannot be self-conscious. Cats don’t cock their heads because they think they’re cute; they are not theatrical. Horses don’t suck in their bellies and fret about double chins. These animals are not contrived or dramatic.

No, animals will only hold a pose, by their own choice, if it’s natural to them. An animal’s poise is unpracticed.

And that’s what Elgin likes to draw.

Elgin, a Bel Air resident and a grandmother of five, who often comes to Lutherville-Timonium to draw her clients’ animals, is a pet portrait artist. She does a lot of thinking about how animals hold themselves.

“Dogs, just like human beings, have their favorite ways of holding their heads,” she said. “All of us have gone to the photographer, and when you hold your head naturally, the photographer goes, ‘Oh no-no, tilt your head this way, and that way.’”

Elgin keeps it natural, since the animals do.

“Animals are genuine,” she stressed. “What you see is what you get. So I don’t try to make them into something they’re not. A natural pose is who you really look like, rather than what the artist wants you to look like.”

Elgin tries to capture the animal’s personality, and even its relationship with its owner, on her canvas.

“There’s a lot that goes on between the owner and the animal, and not many people see that,” Elgin said. “And most pets really do reflect the owners in their own special way.”

An animal will certainly reflect its owner’s mood. A fussy and particular client will typically yield a fussy and particular pet that won’t sit still for even a quick sketch. Elgin likes to host her animals in her Bel Air studio, so she can set a relaxing tone by giving a visiting dog some run-around time with Mac, her 3-year-old Airedale Terrier.

“But,” she emphasized, “if you have a shy pet, and they’re more comfortable in their homes, and they’re more comfortable with you, then I come to you.”

Elgin likes to meet an animal in person to get a sense of its personality, its stance, and the true colors of its eyes and fur. She will do a quick sketch from life, and then often will use photographs to finish the job at home in her studio.

“I love pastels. And I love oils too. I just love the malleability of these two mediums,” Elgin said.

She even confessed to loving the smell of turpentine.

Elgin has been drawing her entire life. The daughter of a Pimlico Racetrack jockey, her first animal drawings were probably Baltimore’s horses. She quickly branched out into other subject matter, often spending youthful hours after school at the Walters Art Museum, lingering until the guards asked her to leave at 5 p.m.

Elgin’s husband, Cliff, helped her put her talent to some use after they had started their family.

“He looked around and said, ‘All the artwork on the walls is yours,’” Elgin remembered. “He said, ‘Why don’t you do something with this? Like going back to school and getting a degree. Other people should see this stuff.’”

So Elgin got her Bachelor of Fine Arts degree from MICA while raising her two children, and her Masters of Arts in teaching from George Washington University. Her career path has taken her to work in museums, where she taught classes at Baltimore’s now-closed Peale Museum.

She currently works at the Maryland Commission for Women to help develop the museum side of The Maryland Women's Heritage Center.

“I love museums,” Elgin said. “I’ve loved museums as long as I can remember. I can remember visiting museums as a kid, and coming back home and drawing pictures of what I’d seen.”

But she’d scrap it all in a heartbeat if it meant more time in her studio with her beloved pastels and oils.

“My greatest love is just doing this,” said Elgin, gesturing to an oil painting of a grinning, lively poodle that looks like it’s about to spring right off the canvas. “I am quite happy with my paintbrush in hand. There is something magic when I am in my studio. I lose time. My husband has come looking for me.”

Elgin offers discounts if your pet is a rescue, and will donate a percentage of her payment to the rescue organization of your choice. Her prices range from $55 for a quick sketch, to oil paintings that start at $150.

She’s happy to work strictly from a photograph if your pet has passed on. But she will ask you lots of questions about him, so she can get to know him in his absence.

You can check out Elgin’s Web site here. She uses her maiden name, Tryon, for her business, as a nod to her artistically talented father and a famous cousin,  turn of the century American landscape painter Dwight Tryon.

And she’s up for a challenge if you have an exotic parrot or a carnivorous lizard—pets come in many more shapes and sizes than simply canine and feline. 

“I would do it!” she said gamely. “I’d give it a shot.”

tom carr April 17, 2011 at 09:22 AM
I love pet portraits! I porderd one from portraitpaint.com

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