Delaney, a black cat as dark and mysterious as his name suggests, winds his way through a maze of webs in Amy Roach’s home studio. He then settles quietly in a corner of the sun among the pillows of a daybed.
Like Roach’s two Jack Russell terriers and three other cats, Delaney has been the subject of many colorful oil paintings. The same goes for pets belonging to several other people.
Over the past two years, Roach’s popularity as a pet portrait artist has grown. People in the Chicago area and across the United States began to seek out his talents in capturing the character of their beloved pets – both the living and the dearly departed.
While some pet portraits end up in bedroom corners or on shelves amid displays of family photos, others have earned placement status on mantelpieces.
In some, the dogs huddle together. Another portrait shows a dog wearing a bow tie amidst two straight-faced family cats.
Other pets appear independent, scrappy, happy, and athletic. A portrait Roach is working on shows a puppy diving underwater for a tennis ball.
Regardless of action or configuration, each animal depicted exudes its own unique personality.
“I have a process for doing it,” Roach said. “I ask them (pet owners) to send me several photos showing the dog’s or cat’s personality, and I ask them about their pet’s personality.”
Roach forms an impression of the animal based on this information, then goes even further into the artistic ether.
Music plays an important role in her creative process, Roach said.
“My neighbors know I’m painting if the windows are wide open and the music is blaring loudly throughout the house,” she said.
Roach loves country music, but when she paints animal portraits, she opens up to the animal’s preferences. “I let the animal dictate, either what’s on the radio or pandora station, or the serious station, or the CD collection,” she said.
While painting two deceased dogs that once belonged to a Michigan woman, she turned to listening to the blues. “That’s what the dogs wanted me to listen to,” she says.
Roach said she generally feels a strong connection to the pets she paints, whether she has known them through neighbors and friends, or their owners live farther away. That’s partly because most pet owners have a strong bond with their pets and provide multiple photos, sometimes even videos, she said.
Roach’s interest in art started early.
“I’ve always liked to paint,” she says. “I started by doing pastels, then I moved on to oil. I took a painting class and fell in love with it in high school.
Roach grew up in Indiana and lived in Texas for several years. She eventually moved to Beverly because her significant other is from West Beverly. She has taught art classes and the Beverly Arts Center, and still teaches oil painting from her home studio.
It wasn’t until Roach reached her late 40s that she earned a degree in art history from Saint Xavier’s University. At 55, in 2020, she obtained a master’s degree in art from the Academy of Art-San Francisco.
“When I started painting, I did a lot of landscapes, but I wasn’t very good at it. I did a painting of one of my dogs, but it wasn’t fancy. It started about 10 years ago when I was painting cows in different colors, which didn’t look like a normal cow.
Soaring into the fantasy realm, she painted one of her dogs, Evie, wearing a flower crown. “Although it doesn’t look like the painting at all,” Roach said. “She’s a kid.”
Roach reminds people that his pet portraits are works of art, and not always strict representations.
Her other Jack Russell terrier, Emily Joe, also appears in a portrait wearing flowers on her head. She uses wheels to walk due to a degenerative neurological disorder that has weakened her hind legs, but Roach doesn’t identify the dog by disability, so the portrait doesn’t indicate that either.
Roach charges around $350 for a small portrait of a single animal. For more than one pet, she uses larger canvases and charges $750 to $1,500, depending on the level of complexity and the number of animals.
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Each oil painting takes about three to six months to produce because the oil goes on in layers and each layer takes time to dry. Even so, people are willing to wait.
“People seem to really want this kind of thing,” she said. “I am surprised.” For the third consecutive year, Roach exhibited his paintings at the Ridge Park Art Fair.
A steady stream of visitors came to ask questions about his art and took cards to consider commissioning portraits of their pets. Roach also sold some unordered paintings that day in late July.
“I kind of have a sequel,” she said. She regularly attends the Batavia Artisan and Farmer’s Market, every third Saturday of the month. Roach works for a company in Addison that makes display cases for museums. Driving to work shows his affinity for animals.
She said she enjoyed seeing foxes and coyotes while driving through forest preserves and had painted lots of wildlife and farm animals in addition to pets.
“For a while there, I couldn’t help but paint birds,” she said. Alongside several other paintings, she is working on a painting of herons. His paintings of iron fences and gates contain magical-looking spiders and webs.
Susan DeGrane is a freelance writer for the Daily Southtown.