Animals have always made great artistic subjects. From majestic classical portraits of hounds out on a hunt to children’s books about sweet-natured rabbits in jackets, they have a lot to offer anyone looking for inspiration. British illustrator and artist Faye Moorhouse is no exception. However, unlike some of her contemporaries, she isn’t tempted to slip into familiar cute and cuddly depictions. Inspired by her artistic heroes Jean-Michel Basquiat, Henry Darger, and Jockum Nordström, Faye moves between painting dogs, cats, naked people, bears, and beasts.
Her aim is to create work that is both dark and funny. She’s less interested in prim, perfect pups than scruffy, wonky, creatures who are just as likely to nip at your ankles as snuggle in your lap. The results are paintings and illustrations that are sometimes cute, sometimes strange, but seem to more fully represent what life with animals is really like. Of course, this is never presented as a criticism of our pet’s temperaments, but rather as a reminder that to love animals is to love all parts of them—the wild, unpredictable, grumpy and rude, as well as the sweet and loving.
Off the Leash: Obvious question first—why do you paint animals?
Faye Moorhouse: I think I love painting animals because they have so much character. I guess humans can have lots of character too, but I’m just drawn to painting animals for some reason.
Dogs seem to be a particular favourite. What makes dogs such unique or tempting subjects?
I’ve always enjoyed painting dogs, but since our dog Bear joined us, I’m even more obsessed. I find them endlessly fascinating; I just never get bored of drawing, learning or talking about dogs.
Same, not surprisingly. Tell us about your animal muses.
My own pets, Bear (a dog) and Birken (a cat), inspire a lot of my work, particularly their relationship with one another. I recently made a trilogy of self-published picture-book-style zines called Birken Cat Goes to Hawaii, Birken Cat Goes to Iceland, and Birken Cat Goes to Space, telling the stories of Bear and Birken’s imagined adventures.
What traits make for a good animal model?
For personal projects, I mainly draw from my imagination because I like the inaccuracies it adds to the final pieces, but all of my pet portrait commissions are created from photos sent to me by their owners. My favourite dogs to draw are scruffy dogs, dogs with wonky teeth, or dogs wearing jumpers.
I call my portraits “wonky pet portraits”, and I encourage people to familiarise themselves with the ugliness of my work before they order portraits from me. This mostly works well, but sometimes I’ll get people asking, “can you make them look happier?”, “can you make her look younger?”, etc. Really, the way I paint animals isn’t a conscious decision. It’s like handwriting—that’s just how they turn out when I put the paintbrush to the paper.
Before we go, can you tell us a little more about Bear? We are a dog magazine, after all…
Yes! A lot of people think he’s got beagle in him, but we had him DNA tested—though who knows how accurate those tests are?—and he’s part Jack Russell and then part Lhasa apso cross Yorkshire terrier. He’s a challenging dog, who is sometimes difficult to live with, but he’s also amazing and loving, and I’ve never loved another living thing quite as much as I love him. He’s taught me a lot!