Written by Bwog Staff
Last Weekend B&W staffers Lydia Ross and Brendan Ballou talked with Mimi Vang Doren, the pre-eminent pet portraitist of the East Village. Ms. Vang Doren has traveled around the world as a pet portraitist—here she talks about her inspirations, her clientele, and the fall of the New York art scene.
What are your influences?
Every painting I ever looked at, I suppose [laughs]. And I grew up in New York so I always had the advantage of going to museums.
I started with family portraits. I started because my father was a photographer in the Bronx, he had studio there for 55 years, he did portraits of people. But I think I just carried it a step further…I’ve done about a hundred [portraits] of people in their environment. Families with their pets in their environments. But then seeing so many pets out on the street here in New York in the village I started to do some pet portraits… I’ve been to Barcelona to paint three cats. I’ve been to California. Switzerland.
Is it repetitive doing animals over and over again?
No, no it’s not repetitive. Not for me, maybe for you it is. If you do a still-life with fruits and you move the apple or the banana or the pear it’s a different painting. You could look at ten Cezanne’s and they’re ten different still-lifes even though they have the same fruit in them. It’s what the artist does with the objects in the painting to make it exciting for the artist and hopefully for the looker. But especially for the artist. We’re painting because it interests us, it excites us. So if I do that dog Basil with the shoes, I could do another dog with a shoe and it wouldn’t look anything like that painting. Because all the elements change: different dog, different chair, different rug, different shoe, different everything. The elements change
Can you draw the personality of the dog?
Of course! It’s why I’m in business [laughs]. Because none of them have the same personality. It’s the same as portrait paintings.
What’s your process?
See what the colors are in the home because it should be color coordinated to a degree. If you don’t like purple you don’t want to put purple in the portrait. If your house is black and gray you might tone it in that direction. See if the person likes bright colors or dull colors. Lots of patterns or not. And then you just find out a nice composition or element to put the pet in or on or next to. And then you personalize the portrait with things that mean something to the owner or the pet’s toys
How long does it take you to do a portrait?
It varies tremendously. It could take a week, it could take a month.
Do you spend time with the animals?
Yeah, I spend time with the pets. I go up there and, you know, spend two hours with them in the house. If it’s done outside we go outside. [I] play with them, watch them, see how they sit, see how they run, what they do. Then I talk about it with the people. We talk about what’s typical, how the pet should be remembered. It should be remembered in a typical way. Then I take a lot of pictures. And then I work here [the studio] from all those photos. I put together the painting from all the photos, which are information. You know, the paws, the tail, the head. Whatever.
The cats are reclusive, but the dogs are all goofy. They’re always coming up to lick the lens. Dogs are fun.
So are pet portraits harder than human portraits?
No, I don’t think they’re harder. Not for me they’re harder. No, no, it’s much harder to get a person to sit because no one has time anymore.
Is there a pet portraitist community?
I don’t know any, because I don’t have the Internet.
Are you connected to the larger art scene?
No, not at all. I mean I go to museums, I look around, but I’m too busy painting. If you’re overly connected to the scene it means you’re not painting too much. You’re sitting in the Cedar Bar drinking. I don’t think [the scene] exists much for artists now. Because you don’t have studios for fifty dollars a month where artists are all in one spot and they really know each other and know what they’re doing. Now everybody knows what everybody’s doing in every country and every museum because of media. You know instantly what everybody’s doing.
But is that a bad thing?
No, I don’t think it’s a bad thing. But some people might jump on the bandwagon before they’re ready. Artists might be picking up other people’s styles, other artists’ styles, either because it’s saleable or because it’s been shown somewhere. And perhaps you don’t really develop your own style, which takes about fifteen years, generally.
In the work you do, how much of these portraits are about the pet and how much are about the owner?
It’s both. I mean just the fact that you’re ordering a portrait of your pet says something about you as a person. To me it says you love your pet. It’s simply a thing of love.