After Darby died, Cleveland-based dog artist James Ruby gifted me with a portrait of him. Then, a few months later, he surprised me with a portrait of my new dog Tyler Foote. The two paintings sit on my mantle and together they have a special power.
Grieving Darby took a toll on my creativity. I haven't finished my "Darby Calendar." And guilt, frustration, and paralysis blockaded the projects I thought about beginning with my new muse. It's been lose/lose. No Darby art. No Tyler art. No art.
Seeing my boys together, painted in the unifying style of a single artist, has been very therapeutic. When I look at the portraits I see cohesion that gives the process of grief and recovery continuity. And it gives me permission to live in the overlap. These are my dogs, together. Loving and focusing on one doesn't negate the other. I've known that intellectually, but actually honoring it, getting back in the studio, has been a challenge. The paintings are making a difference that surprises me.
I wanted to explore the delicate issue of painting dogs who have died with James and talk to him about his process.
Here is our Q + A:
Moira McLaughlin: Is your approach different painting a dog that has died or one that is alive (example: Darby vs. Tyler)?
James Ruby: When I’m contacted to paint a portrait of a pet, I always prefer to take reference photos myself. Often, though, distance requires me to instruct the pet owner on taking a few photos that will work best or maybe even a short video. When I’m commissioned to paint a portrait of a deceased pet, my approach to the canvas depends greatly on the reference photographs that are available. If none of the images captures the details or an angle that I would normally try to capture, I may choose to proceed with a more traditional composition.
MM: have you had a dog who's passed away and then painted him/her after the death?
JR: I've never painted a portrait of a deceased pet of my own. Prior to Smooch and Newburgh, I hadn’t owned a dog since high school.
MM: Do you paint many portraits of Smooch and Newburgh, or wish you could paint them more?
JR: Smooch and I have been together for eleven years and he’s been the subject of five of my paintings. I have painted my newest addition, Newburgh, twice since he wandered his way to my home in January. Smooch is enjoying the reprieve from being my muse.
MM: Did you begin with this style of the intimate dog close-up? Or did your work evolve?
JR: Although I feel my work is always evolving (and hopefully improving), I still approach each dog’s portrait as I did with my very first. My initial painting of Smooch was inspired by his morning greeting – his snout peaking over the side of my bed as he anxiously awaits for us to begin our day. I’m fortunate to have stumbled upon a perspective that other dog lovers experience daily and find endearing.
MM: Do you have any thoughts on grief, creativity, and healing that you would like to share from the front line of pet portraits? I know several dog artists who have stopped painting dogs for because it can be so intense. Do you still enjoy it?
JR: My first dog portrait was a simple exercise to lift my spirits following several sad personal events. An innocent enough painting of my absolute favorite thing, Smooch, truly changed the direction of my art and my life. For the past four years, dogs have been the subjects of every painting I have undertaken, and I have no desire to change direction.
I’m honored each time I’m contacted by a dog lover that would like me to capture their favorite companion’s image. Each time a client responds to their completed painting with tears of gratitude, it reinforces for me that I’ve made the right decision in choosing dogs as the subjects of my work. There’s something special about animal lovers and without exception each client experience has been wonderful and many have resulted in great friendships.
MM: Thank you so much for your portraits of my boys. I treasure them.
Visit James Ruby's website to commission a portrait of your dog.