Class leads artist into painting portraits of other people’s dogs

BY TOMMY MUMERT/Contributing Writer Published October 12, 2014 at 12:00 a.m.
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Tommy Mumert/Contributing Photographer

Artist Beth Whitlow of Russellville is shown with Case, one of her three dogs and the subject of one of Whitlow’s first portraits.

RUSSELLVILLE — When Beth Whitlow began taking an oil-painting class in Russellville, her goal was simple.

“My great hope when I started oil painting, and I knew I couldn’t do it right off the bat, was to paint my dogs. That was my main goal, to get good enough to paint my dogs.”

But when she began the class after being encouraged to do so by a friend, Whitlow had her doubts.

She said her friend had tried the class and was enjoying it.

“You need to try this. You’re going to love it,” Whitlow said her friend told her.

“So I showed up the first day and I thought, ‘I’m going to be terrible at this. I mean, I’m going to be really bad,’” Whitlow said. “But I just thought, ‘It sounds like so much fun, and I want to try it.’ So I showed up, and it went OK, you know?”

Four years later, things are more than OK, and Whitlow has developed the skill to paint her dogs. However, thanks to some “royal’ inspiration that has produced a splash of whimsy in her art, she has very little time available to paint her own dogs.

Instead, Whitlow, a Russellville native, is too busy working on commissioned paintings of other people’s dogs. Her work, advertised as Whimsical Oil Paintings, now includes more than 30 portraits of dogs. Her goal with the paintings, she said, is to have fun and showcase each dog’s personality.

Discovering her subjects’ personalities means that Whitlow, whenever possible, first meets the dog and takes photos of the pet herself, before she begins the painting process.

“I really, really enjoy meeting dogs, and I enjoy all breeds of dogs,” Whitlow said. “I also take into account the personality of the owner and their relationship with their dog.”

She may then spend hours looking for that right bit of whimsy to match the dog’s personality, and that is where the royal inspiration is involved.

Whitlow had recalled watching the wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton, “and I thought, how funny that they’re wearing these huge fascinators, hats and things, and I thought how funny it would be to put one on a dog.”

She recalled finding photos on the Internet to practice with “and started creating stuff from there. I find the dog; then I find the hat, and I put it together,” she said.

As she was doing that, Whitlow’s friend and fellow artist Jeannie Stone was scheduled to have her work exhibited at the River Valley Arts Center.

“She loved what I was doing and asked me if I wanted to share her show with her,” Whitlow said of Stone. “I said, ‘That sounds like fun,’ so I got really busy and started painting a lot of stuff. And it all kind of snowballed from there.”

Whitlow’s website, bethwhitlow.com, includes all the pet portraits she has

completed. On the website, viewers can find portraits of dogs wearing fashion accessories ranging from a bow tie to a New York Yankees cap.

Once she has a feel for the dog’s personality, she begins the search for the fashion accessory to complete the dog’s look. That search may involve hours on the Internet or looking through local shops for the perfect hat or other accessory. Then the painting process begins.

The process is not always an easy one, as artists can attest, she said.

“Painting is weird. It’s like you have to be feeling it,” Whitlow said. “When I’m not feeling it, that’s when I walk away from the painting. But nine times out of 10, I come back to a painting and love it.”

Whitlow said she prefers oil painting because of its richness and its ability to show a variety of textures. However, using oils can also be a time-consuming process because it takes some time to allow the oils to properly dry as the painting progresses and different layers are added to the portrait.

In those early days as an art student, Whitlow did paint portraits of all three of her dogs. But those early

paintings were not in her current style.

“I was still learning, and while I do love that I have those little paintings, they are not nearly as good as I would like for them to be,” she said. “And once I started doing this [commissioned work], I didn’t have time to paint my dogs.”

Finally, during this past Christmas holiday, Whitlow painted her dogs in her current whimsical style.

“I decided I was going to take a month off from commissions, and I started painting my dogs.”

While working on commissioned pieces, Whitlow has continued to take oil-painting classes from local artist Sarah Keathley at the Lemley House Studio in downtown Russellville.

“Sarah is the most wonderful art teacher,” Whitlow said. “She is very knowledgeable and very, very encouraging about our work.”

Whitlow said she began the classes with no art background.

“But I always enjoyed making things with my hands,” she said. “If I was not doing something, I felt like I needed to be creating something.”

Her first works in the class were oil paintings of a variety of subjects, often copying paintings she liked that she found online.

“We copy to learn,” she said.

Considering Whitlow’s success as an artist and her rapidly growing popularity throughout the River Valley region and beyond, is there any need for her to continue her art classes?

“I think you can always learn more,” she said. “I’ll never know everything there is to know about art, so why quit learning?”