Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Pets in history - interview with Paul Carpenter from Pompous Pets

Napoleon and Nelson
Michael and Hero, as Napoleon and Nelson, painted by Paul Carpenter.
I don’t know much about art, but I do know that art featuring non-human animals is the best kind. Which is why I was drawn to Paul Carpenter’s work. Paul creates historic portraits featuring people’s pets. I read about him in a newspaperarticle, then could not stop browsing his online gallery. His deliberately anthropomorphic artworks are stunning. We ordered a Pompous Pet portrait for my boss, and of course one could not stop there. Paul chatted to SAT about his inspiration and muses.

What is your day job?

I’m what they used to call an ‘art director’ in advertising. However, the role is much broader these days with technology and the internet available to every man and his dog you have to be able to offer more than just how the ad looks. You have to be able to photograph something, retouch it, write about it, understand how it can work across social platforms like Facebook and Twitter. The role has become very diverse.

How did Pompous Pets come about?

Pompous Pets came about while I was working in a large multi-national advertising agency that had a big telco account. At the time this particular telco used animals as their ‘advertising device’, so I was involved in many shoots that incorporated animals in one way or another and I guess it just kind of rubbed off. However, I have always been an animal lover and as a child would make a concerted effort to visit the local zoo as frequently as I could. Even as a young adult backpacking around Europe I would always make sure that a trip to the cities zoo was on the agenda. There’s some great zoos in Europe.

Can you talk us through the creative process: how do you work out which painting to feature the animals in?

This is an area that is very hard to rationalise. It depends how much information the customer gives me as to how much I try to incorporate into the portrait. Some customers give me reams of detail about their pets and send me photos of their favourite toys, blankets, or mannerisms.
Others give me very little and seem to trust that I will create something that works.

To be honest, the best commissions are the ones that give me lots of detail about the pet and send images of their belongings. It gives me an understanding of the personality and allows me to make the portrait personal.

For example, one customer told me that her dog used to chase the chickens and steal the sausages off the BBQ. This kind of information allows me to have some fun with the portrait albeit in a small way.

I have created some more ‘modern’ styled portraits when requested. For example, one lady asked for her dog to be dressed up as a Liverpool Soccer Player and she was very specific about the particular year of the kit. I had to re-create the portrait after I’d placed the dog in the wrong strip for the particular year she had requested. Some people are very particular and fair enough as they are paying for a bespoke piece of art.

The main reason I create old master portraits is that they make me laugh, but from a copyright perspective it gives me a lot of freedom too. As the original artworks that I borrow from are past their copyright date.

There is just something quite funny about an animal posing for an oil painting in the style of the old masters. Commissioning a portrait was such a decadent thing to do in those days that the mere thought of an oil painting being dedicated to the family dog or cat seems even more decadent and ludicrous.

It’s not a new idea. Artists have been portraying animals as humans for centuries, starting with the Ancient Egyptians. Cats and dogs heads on human bodies were all the rage back then.

And in the beginning of this century there was the famous paintings of the dogs playing poker which were commissioned by an American Tobacco company for an advertisement. The artist was Cassius Marcellus Coolidge.

What species have you been requested to paint?

The portraits I’ve created to date are primarily dogs. I would say 85% are dogs, 12% cats. I’d love to get more cat commissions and the remaining 3% a bird, a kangaroo and two rabbits.

The dog breeds are mainly smaller ones like Beagles, Chihuahuas, Maltese terriers, Kind Charles Spaniels, Dachshunds, Whippets, Griffon Bruxellois. But we have also created portraits for Bulldogs, Weimeraners, Border Collies, Labradors, Rottweilers, German Short Haired Pointers, Schnauzers and more.

Which species is easier to portray on canvas?

They all have their good and bad parts, but generally the lighter or mid coloured coloured pets are easier to create. Black is always harder as it sucks up so much detail. However, if the photos people send me are well lit, it’s fine. The better quality the photos are the better the final piece will be.

Some people have sent me photos of their pets asleep. This makes it quite hard to create a portraits with the eyes open as the eyes are the key to a great portrait. I have to follow my gut and look at the breed in general to see what their eyes are like and try to recreate them.

My favourite portraits are the ones where the pets are looking at the camera, but are turned slightly away. It makes them look so human. The sideways glance.

Stanley the King Charles Cavalier on my website is my favourite and he is the one I have on my business card.

Can you tell us about the non-human animals in your life?

Otis in action.

Otis is my little rescue dog. He’s part Maltese Cross with (maybe Chihuahua or some kind of terrier). When we got him he had been collected from a disreputable pound somewhere out near Blacktown. He was covered in mange and had has his front teeth removed.

He has an underbite, but only one canine tooth projects upwards from the left. His ear was stuck out to the right when we got him, but that seems to have corrected itself now.

He hates the postman on his bike and will throw himself up chairs, over my desk, around my computer and at the window to get to him. He starts to get fidgety about three minutes before the postman arrives. I’ve just realised that he can hear the squeaky brakes before we can. I now make a clear path and back away when I see him fidgeting. It’s not worth getting in his way.

My son has a leaf-tailed Gecko and a tropical fish tank with Angelfish, tetras and Tiger Barbs.

What have you learned about the human-animal bond?

I’ve loved animals all my life and would have given my right arm to have gotten a job working closer to them. Unfortunately, growing up in working class London in the 70’s, 80’s there wasn’t a lot of opportunity to work with animals in a way that would support me. I did apply for jobs in zoos and Nature Reserves and had a little success. This affinity for animals has always made me fearless around them and I think they pick up on that. I’ve learnt to hold, touch and stroke them in a way that they respond well to.

Dogs check you out firstly by your body language, facial expression and sound and then by smell or scent. If you look relaxed, smile and talk softly and then let them sniff your hand 95% of the time they will respond well to you. It’s said that cats can sense your mood and measure you by your pupil dilation. Wide open pupils are good, small ones not so.


Thank you Paul for your time. You can see more of Paul’s paintings here.

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