The Dog Who Could Have Been

We first met Bella, a lovely smooth coat Jack Russell terrier, in our veterinarian’s office during one of our many visits with our poor, chronically ill, miniature schnauzer, Cleo. My daughter instantly fell in love with Bella and, as luck would have it, Bella fell in love with my daughter. Whenever we had to make a visit to the veterinary clinic, we had to pay a visit to Bella too, as the clinic kennel was Bella’s home away from home. She was (and is) one of Dr. Bill’s own dogs. And last summer, for a very brief time, she was also ours.

Cleo was my daughter’s special dog, and unfortunately she was a dog with myriad health problems. We knew that her life would be cut short, and sure enough last spring, just past her ninth birthday, Cleo had to be euthanised. Her death left a gap in our little pack and a hole our affections.

We had often joked with Dr. Bill that if he ever wanted to get rid of Bella, he knew who would take her, seeing as the dog and my daughter had hit it off so spectacularly. He told us that he had always wanted a Jack Russell and when he found one that was returned to its breeder in a divorce case, he jumped at the chance to adopt it. This was how he came to have Bella. Dr. Bill really liked her, but as time wore on it became obvious that the dog did not feel the same way. Not that the animal was hostile to him. No, in fact it was worse than that. As anyone who has experienced unrequited love will tell you, active dislike or hostility is at least something. The opposite of love isn’t hate: it’s indifference. My vet found himself in an unfulfilled, emotionally lopsided relationship with his dog. Naturally, he began to wonder if perhaps she would be happier somewhere else. So the next time we had business at the clinic, we came home with a Jack Russell terrier.

It started with the rabbit. Our pet rabbit Jasper, who completely lacks a fear of dogs (he must not have received the “prey animal”memo), looked on with placid amusement as this new deranged animal danced, yapped, bounced and snapped at his cage over and over again. She seemed never to tire of it, despite our repeated scoldings and corrections. A dwarf lop-eared rabbit and a Jack Russell in the same house was an accident just waiting to happen.

Then she fixated on our cats. First to catch her eye were the barn cats, and when she had succeeded in thoroughly terrorizing them, she turned her attention to our house cats. I knew that Jack Russells had a reputation as persistent hunters and could be problematic with animals of the feline persuasion; but, as Bella was already accustomed to living in a multi-cat household, and as Dr. Bill had assured me that she showed not the slightest interest in his cats, I didn’t think this would be a problem. I could not have been more wrong.

The pursuit of our cats both indoors and out quickly progressed from an irritating game to something considerably more sinister. We were unable to correct Bella’s behaviour because, quite simply, we couldn’t catch her in the act. Hell, we couldn’t catch her period. She was greased lightning on four legs, a white and tan Jack Russell whirlwind. Chased upstairs, downstairs, over the sofa, under the bed, up trees, and under the porch, our cats eventually became so panic stricken that they went into hiding. Obviously Bella couldn’t stay. Even my daughter, who loved the dog, was not willing to sacrifice the life of one of our cats. Shortly thereafter we returned Bella to Dr. Bill. And do you know what? She was HAPPY to see him!

What’s on the Easel

I couldn’t send Bella back home without immortalizing her, now could I?

Bella Looks Up – painted paper collage on panel ©2010 Alyson Champ
In the collection of Dr. William Johnston.

Some of the Nicest People I Know Are Dogs

I love dogs. I love dogs and I have three of them. And while they sometimes drive me crazy, usually I find them charming and entertaining. Happy, optimistic, and easy going almost to a fault, they truly make the best companions.

Cocker Head Study- 8×10 charcoal/white chalk on gray paper ©2009 Alyson Champ

Pretty much anything you would like to do is ok with a dog: You’re going to the store? Hey, can I ride in the car? You want to get the mail? No problem, I’d love to go for a walk. Roast chicken for supper? Great! I’ll just sit here beside you, you know, in case something falls on the floor and that way you won’t have to clean it up!

Just as my love of horses and my need to create often converge, so too does my artwork with my fondness for dogs. From time to time I get asked to paint a portrait of a family pet, usually a dog. Painting an animal portrait, just like painting a human portrait, is a tricky business. The most obvious problem is the question of getting a “likeness” – making the animal look the way it actually does. Photos supply most of the information required, but it is nice to actually be able to meet the animal, to see it move and to touch it. Dogs, like people, have character, and catching that individuality, that spark of life, or soul, is the hardest thing in painting any portrait. A painting can be accurate in representation and still fail to capture the “essence” of the subject. The result is a dead looking painting. Unfortunately, I’ve painted my fair share of those.

Once in a while though, I do get it right. I remember one particular case where I was commissioned to paint the portrait of a dog. The dog had recently died and I was given a stack of family photos to use as reference material. The owners told me a bit about the dog’s personality, the things he would do, how he behaved, and even how he had died. They then left me with my task.
I wasn’t sure how much success I was going to have: I hadn’t even met the dog! Nevertheless, the portrait was painted and when I had finished it, I invited the dog’s owners back to studio to see and assess the results- I was expecting to do a lot of touch ups. I had set the painting up so that it was the first thing they would see when the walked in. They were surprised to the point of silence, and then openly wept. Somehow, and I’m not sure how, I had painted their dog.

What’s on the easel

One of the projects I’m working on in the studio right now is a commissioned portrait of a cocker spaniel. This dog, thankfully, is very much alive and I was able to take the photos myself, so I had the pleasure of meeting him. He’s quite a guy: funny and goofy and full of mischief. The owner came here this morning to decide on the final pose for the painting from the three preparatory drawings which I have just finished.

She has opted for the pose directly below, as she wanted a full body pose, but she loved the head study above so much that, as a kindness, I offered it to her as a gift. Happy owner, happy artist. Now I just have to do the painting!

Cocker portrait study-8×10, charcoal on paper ©2009 Alyson Champ

Cocker portrait study 2- 8×10, pencil on paper ©2009 Alyson Champ