Thanks to Peter Atkinson, dogs and cats now adorn Van Goghs, Raphaels and other treasures on canvas. Here’s how Atkinson improves old masterpieces with today’s pets.
Every pet owner thinks his or her little darling is a work of art, so much so that a glossy shot of Spot or Kitty could easily share wall space with pop art treasures and old masters in the toniest home or apartment. With this in mind, Peter Atkinson of the Dallas-based Artisans Workshop has fused the two, putting the likeness of everyone’s best friend into printed copies of canvases by Gainsborough, Raphael, Van Gogh and other legendary painters through the ages.
Mr. Atkinson began working with the process over eight years ago, creating heat transfer copies of Mexican religious icons called “retablos” for a Dallas art dealer. “We were making T-shirts when the heat transfer thing first came in,” he recalls. “I went to (an art dealer) to see if he needed T-shirts and he had something better — printed metal.” Those first printed santos were so good, one was nearly confiscated in New York when customs officials thought it was a real antique. This led to a line of tumbled marble coasters picked up by Neiman Marcus and Gumps, with designs in a Renaissance style. When a local charity requested Mr. Atkinson try printing a combination of original photos and old paintings on leather, the idea for the portraits was born. “We used contemporary people at first and morphed them onto the (original) painting,” he recalls. “But it was difficult to get the right angle and lighting. At some point in time my sales rep saw one of these portraits and thought it would be a nice thing to do for Neiman Marcus. They just happened to be doing a pet catalog for Christmas and the buyer said, ‘Why can’t we do something like this for pets?'”
The line began with two Raphael portraits of a man and his wife from the Renaissance. Wrapped up in the success of the tiles, Mr. Atkinson forgot all about the pet idea until the catalog shipped — and the Workshop received 350 orders in one week. “It went crazy from there — we spent two weeks wading through the orders,” he says. Overall, nearly 1,000 pets were immortalized before Mr. Atkinson decided to strike out on his own and deal with the customer directly.
Today the line (which retails for $150 per portrait) adds four different painting styles every six months “from the Renaissance to the Romantics all the way to the Statue of Liberty. What we have been doing a lot recently is customers will want to use a favorite painting or put three pets in the same painting. If a portrait doesn’t work, we’ll take the painting of Van Gogh’s bedroom and put the dog in that.”
Customers are asked to send in a clear, well-lit photo. “A lot of people worry about how the animal is posed, but in the computer we can alter it slightly. The best thing to do is snap off a bunch of photos so that way you capture the personality of the animal,” says Mr. Atkinson. “It looks funny with a dog’s head stuck on these things, anyway. If (the picture) is not posed right it’s not going to affect it so much.”
The photo is scanned into the computer and the final fusion of painting and pet is printed directly onto an 11×14 canvas, then glazed for an authentic aged and “cracked” look.
Mr. Atkinson recommends the Tudors for larger dogs, while Chihuahuas and Mini Pinschers work better blended with portraits of Napoleon’s Josephine. “Smaller dogs don’t work with the Renaissance and 18th century styles because the bodies are too big. You have to keep in mind how the neck meets the body. Of all the portraits in the world it boils down to a few that have the right criteria.”
Which is why Henry the 8th and Queen Elizabeth are added to the list for Christmas, but you’ll never find the Mona Lisa. “When you take the head off the Mona Lisa, you can no longer tell it’s the Mona Lisa,” says Mr. Atkinson.
Regardless of what painting is chosen, the final result is whimsical yet sentimental, and clients can’t get enough. One California woman has 12 different styles, and celebs such as Vanessa Williams and Christopher Darden are also fans. “The customers I talk to, the main thing they enjoy is the humor of it,” says Mr. Atkinson. “We’ve had Christmas hampers sent to us, we get lots of thank-you letters — especially when its a deceased pet. It’s a good way to memorialize your pet and do it with a sense of humor.”