Delaney, a black cat as dark and mysterious as his name suggests, winds his way through a labyrinth of canvases in Amy Roach’s home studio. He then quietly settles in a patch of sunshine 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. And so have pets belonging to several other people.
In the last couple of years, Roach’s popularity as a pet portrait artist has grown. People from the Chicago area and all over the United States have begun to seek her talents to capture the character of their beloved pets — both the living and the dearly departed.
While some pet portraits end up in corners of bedrooms or on bookshelves amid displays of family photos, others have earned the status of placement over fireplace mantels.
In some, dogs snuggle together. Another portrait shows a dog wearing a bow tie amid two straight-faced family cats.
Other pets appear independent, scrappy, ecstatically happy and athletic. One portrait Roach is working on shows a pup diving underwater for a tennis ball.
Regardless of the action or setup, each animal pictured exudes its own unique personality.
“I have a process for doing this,” Roach said. “I ask them (pet owners) to send me multiple pictures showing the personality of the dog or cat, and I ask them questions about their pet’s personality.”
Roach forms an impression of the animal based on this information, then reaches even further into the artistic ether.
Music plays an important role in her creative process, said Roach.
“My neighbors know I’m painting if the windows are wide-open, and music is blaring loudly throughout the house,” she said.
Roach favors country music, but when painting pet portraits, she opens herself to the pet’s preferences. “I let the animal dictate, either what’s on the radio or Pandora station or serious station or CD collection,” she said.
While painting two deceased dogs once belonging to a woman in Michigan, she gravitated to listening to the blues. “That’s what the dogs wanted me to listen to,” she said.
Roach said she usually experiences a strong connection with the pets she paints, whether she has known them through neighbors and friends, or whether their owners live further away. That’s partly because most pet owners have strong connections to their pets and supply multiple photos, sometimes even videos, she said.
Roach’s interest in art started early.
“I’ve always loved to paint,” she said. “I started out doing pastels, then graduated to oils. 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 at the Beverly Arts Center, and still teaches oil painting in her home studio.
It wasn’t until Roach was in her late 40s that she earned an art history degree from Saint Xavier University. At 55, in 2020, she earned a master’s in art from the Academy of Art-San Francisco.
“When I first started painting, I did a lot of landscapes, but I wasn’t very good. I did a painting of one of my dogs, but it wasn’t whimsical. That started about 10 years ago, when I was painting cows of different colors, not looking like a normal cow.”
Lifting off into the whimsical realm she painted one of her dogs, Evie, wearing a crown of flowers. “Although, she’s not at all like the painting,” Roach said. “She’s a brother.”
Roach reminds people that her pet portraits are works of art, and not always strict portrayals.
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 back legs, but Roach doesn’t identify the dog by her handicap, so the portrait doesn’t indicate this either.
Roach charges around $350 for a small portrait of a single pet. For more than one pet, she uses larger canvases and charges from $750 to $1,500, depending on the level of complexity and number of pets.
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Each oil painting takes around 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 really seem to want this sort of thing,” she said. “I’m surprised.” For the third year in a row, Roach has displayed her paintings at the Ridge Park Art Fair.
A steady stream of visitors came to ask questions about her art and took cards to consider ordering portraits of their pets. Roach also sold a few non-commissioned paintings that day in late July.
“I kind of do have a following,” she said. She regularly participates in 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. While driving to work, her affinity for animals comes through.
She said she appreciates seeing foxes and coyotes while driving through forest preserves, and that she has painted plenty of wild animals and farm animals in addition to pets.
“For a while there, I couldn’t stop painting birds,” she said. Along with several other paintings, she’s working on a painting of herons. Her paintings of iron fences and gates contain spiders and magical looking webs.
Susan DeGrane is a freelance reporter for the Daily Southtown.