AS ANIMAL LOVERS WILL ATTEST, pets are the real gifts that keep on giving. So why not immortalize them in a unique form of art? Pet portraits are increasingly popular, and a number of local artists have turned their passion for animals into businesses that help pet owners honor their loved ones.
Steve Mercer, who co-owns Portraits for Pits (www.portraitsforpits.com) with his wife, Evie, offers two options for pet portraits: digital portraits and acrylic paintings based on photographs supplied by pet owners, who can upload photographs to the business' website. The couple creates artwork for all kinds of animals, including cats, ferrets, birds and pigs — not just pit bulls as the name might imply — but they have a soft spot for pit bulls and donate proceeds to various rescue and advocacy organizations for the breed. The company often donates gift certificates to fundraisers for pit bull rescue organizations.
"We do all kinds of custom work," Mercer says. Each piece takes about six weeks to complete and prices for portraits range from $75 to $275. The portraits make popular gifts year-round, he says.
For a list of needed donations and supplies, visit each group's website.
"The art is fun and colorful," Mercer says. "I think it offers a fun memory."
Lillian Aguinaga is another local artist and the founder of Painted Paws (www.artoflillian.com). She creates acrylic paintings of customers' pets and accommodates requests for quirky details to be included in the rendition. (One client, for example, requested that a dog be painted in "Game of Thrones"-style regalia.)
Aguinaga's prices depend on the size of the canvas and the number of pets included, but typically range from $300 to $1,000. She also offers charcoal drawings, which start at $150, as well as gift certificates. Like the Mercers, she believes in giving to charity and donates 10 percent of her commissions to the animal rescue group of the customer's choice.
"I like giving back, and it adds a little extra something to commissioning a pet portrait," she says.
Julie Dalton Gourgues (www.juliedaltongourgues.com) is a local painter who mainly uses oils and acrylics to create pet portraits. Nine years ago, she gave some of her friends portraits of their pets during the holiday season. They were a hit.
"Everybody loved them," she says, and her portrait painting business began to spread by word-of-mouth and on social media. "It's really very gratifying," she says of the work, particularly because she often spends time with her subjects, getting to know their personalities.
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"It's a fun, collaborative effort," she says. "They'll send me photos, we'll go back and forth, and they get to see the process, starting with the sketches, and they can approve of things as we go along."
Laura Helen Marks' Stone Cold Stones (www.facebook.com/stonecoldnola) uses a different medium — colorful mosaics — to capture the likeness of furry friends. Often, her creations memorialize a pet. She says the stones function a bit like a tombstone but "less morbid" as they are works of art that can be garden features.
"Most people's pets spent time in the yard, and I sense that customers really love walking through the yard and spotting their beloved pup, kitty or tortoise sparkling in the flower beds, looking happy," she says. "The stones are celebratory."
Pet owners also can consider the Louisiana SPCA's (www.la-spca.org) offerings. Earlier this month, the organization hosted $25 "Pawliday Pet Portraits," photo sessions during which families could have their pets' photos snapped alongside holiday props and costumes. Another program called "Mutt Mondays" takes place during Celebration in the Oaks at New Orleans City Park. On Dec. 17, Louisiana SPCA team members will be on site to assist with the seasonal dog celebration and run a photo booth.
"Photos of your pets during the holiday season help you celebrate and remember each and every holiday spent with your loved ones," notes Rebecca Melanson, the SPCA's communications coordinator.
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No matter the medium, Aguinaga perhaps sums it up best: "When you see someone react to getting the gift of a pet portrait, it's pretty special," she says. "Pets are like children — they mean a lot to us; they are special creatures. A pet portrait is one of the most thoughtful gifts you can give."