For some people the childhood ambition does come to fruition and here Louise Jarvis explains how her love of art and animals were only ever going to lead to one career.
It was very straight forward for me, there was no Eureka moment as a teenager or rat race escape plan, I knew from the age of about four years old that I wanted to be an artist. I received a VHS video from my mum one Christmas around this age, Tony Hart’s ‘How to draw animals in pastel’, and that was pretty much it – I was hooked.
Every birthday or Christmas that followed included letters to Santa, pleas for art materials, videos and books on animals or art. There was a brief period during my teenage years, while choosing subjects to study, where I quite fancied becoming a vet but the fact I cried at every TV show about animals made me rethink my decision. I clearly had too much empathy for the subjects, which on the upside has been an absolute blessing in my career as an artist.
The nervous early years
After leaving high school I studied for a couple of years in Glasgow, building up a portfolio of my work before gaining a place on the General Course at Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art in Dundee (DJCAD). I left there with a BA in Illustration and Printmaking. I got a few commissions through advertising in local vets and started showing dogs, which meant the word spread very quickly about my pet portraits. I officially launched Louise Jarvis Art in 2010 after my first paid pastel portrait commission of a Great Dane called George. I remember feeling so nervous hand-delivering it to the client. I had to stop the car halfway through the journey as I felt so sick with nerves. I needn’t have worried as the client was delighted and we all stood together in her living room, George included, tears streaming down our faces. Mine from the relief and theirs from knowing George would be with them forever in portrait form. Upon leaving their house I looked to the sky and I saw a shooting star and wished that my art business would take off. George very sadly died soon after his portrait was completed and I know even to this day that portrait is cherished. I was even told it would be the first thing they would grab if the house was on fire.
Moving to a different dimension
In 2016, eight years, three self-published canine art books, three UK and international awards and more than 1,500 completed commissioned portraits later, I returned to art school to study for a Masters where the newest string to my artist’s bow would develop – sculpture. It was half way through this MFA that I gave in to demands by tutors to hang up my 2D hat and venture into the world of 3D. I can tell you I fought every step of the way, having thought that eight years as a full time professional 2D animal portrait artist had served me well. It was not an easy ride and I had to push myself with newfound vigour and enthusiasm. I was in my studio and home studio into the small hours building four life-size warhorses. At the same time I picked up my first bag of clay and created a ceramic Raku-fired warhorse. The day it fired I sent photos into an international art competition in NYC and won third place in their sculpture category, so I took it as a sign I was on the right track once again. I now offer private sculpture commissions in both bronze and ceramics.
A life with animals
My late uncle trained gundogs and worked them on estates in the Scottish Borders. I loved the focus, loyalty and dedication of these labs and spaniels, and the bond between him and them was something to behold. My other aunt and uncle also had sheepdogs and a flock of sheep, so working dogs in one form or another were frequent sights throughout my childhood. I grew up in Ayrshire with my mum and brother and our dogs, and I always had loads of pets and surrounded myself with animals, including riding horses. My happiest times were spent drawing or creating animals. I could draw a horse before I could write my own name and, now that I have four sons myself, I especially enjoy watching the youngest one following in my footsteps. He is always drawing and building models out of any old junk or cardboard boxes.
Steady flow of work
I attribute some of the success of my business to the fact I got involved with showing dogs. Through that and the wide reach of social media my business flourished. I never really had much in terms of a stereotypical ‘struggling artist’ career in the industry. From day one work arrived in my inbox in one form or another. I have always worked hard to evolve and grow my business. The focus was to give something to everyone in the beginning, so all budgets were catered for. It also kept me from getting bored in one medium or being branded as a one-trick pony.
The niche was always animals however and I was loyal to my followers, never deviating away from my passion – dogs. I love how characterful, expressive and different every dog is, even within the same breed. Knowing that I am providing a lasting memory of a loved pet gives me a real sense of purpose. I know my art is a comfort to my customers.
From show ring to shooting field
I now live in Perthshire, having grown up on the west coast. I moved to the east when I gained entry into DJCAD in Dundee and I never left. I had a family and put down roots here. The countryside and estates are beautiful here, with shooting sports, game estates, and many opportunities for me and my art in the surrounding area. It wasn’t until four years ago I personally went out clay pigeon shooting and got to know a lot of folk who either worked on estates, trialled dogs or were involved in this side of things. Dog wise I was always on the showing side but not the trialling side. Through my work I can say that I have met some wonderful people in trialling and working gundogs and I am now the proud owner of a beautiful black labrador pup out of FTCh Seth of Leadburn. I have high hopes for him and I am currently training him to trial and work.
I feel so honoured to be going back to the working side of dog training, it feels so natural to me to be out in nature, wrapped up and seeing the dogs do what they were bred for. Although dog showing is still a huge part of my business I am so excited about what the future brings on the field side both for my business and personally.
Sculpting a legend
When Gundog Journal Field Editor Ben Randall contacted me to do a sculpture of his beloved spaniel, Fatty (back to back cocker championship winner FTCh Heolybwich Fatty), I was overjoyed, although also a little terrified as she is such a successful dog. I was humbled that he saw something in my work that led to him contacting me to create a bronze of this famous dog.
During the whole sculpting process, I communicated with Ben constantly. I had to get a real sense of what she meant to Ben, studying photos and videos of her online and hearing all about her from Ben I felt I knew her, even without ever having met her in real life. I also drew further inspiration from social media followers. These people know Fatty in a way that I didn’t so they were my sounding board along the way.
Once my initial work was approved by Ben and his family I set off to the foundry in Edinburgh. With Fatty wedged into a box to keep her secure (bearing in mind this is a wet clay sculpture) it was a tricky journey. Transporting such a momentous clay sculpture in a L200 pick-up truck was horrifically stressful. I never realised how many bumps there were in the road until I tried to avoid them all. I used Powderhall Bronze and from the moment I arrived the team were wonderful.
She became quite a celebrity in the foundry with everyone referring to her by name throughout the whole process. She was cast using the lost wax method of casting meaning every detail from my original sculpture was captured in the moulding. I had to return to Powderhall twice after I dropped her off, the first time to check her wax replica and approve her for the next stage, the second mould and pour of the molten bronze. The lost wax method of casting is very extensive, but the results speak for themselves. The third visit was the day she was going to have her patina done, the final colouring. Seeing her colour emerging beneath the blowtorch flames was incredible and gave me a real sense of achievement. I said when I created my first clay horse that one day I wanted to create bronzes of people’s beloved pets. I was standing there knowing that moment would stay with me for the rest of my life. All those late nights and hard work were paying off. Some private commissions really stay with you long after they go to their new homes and I know Fatty will be one of them. I thank Ben and his family for entrusting me with their special girl and I hope she brings them a lifetime of pleasure and comfort.
In love with a Dane
Gundogs will always be close to my heart but my other love is Great Danes - where my business started with the first portrait of George, mentioned previously. As a young child I always dreamt of owning a Great Dane and when I turned 32 I took on an ex-show dog, Jacob. Sadly he was only with me for a year before he passed away due to cancer. They say you have one dog in your life that gets under your skin and into your heart in a way no other can, and Jake was this dog. He was the kindest, most gentle big spotty fellow. I took him to school to see the children at pick-up time, 30-40 children would gather with him towering over them, and he loved it. It broke my heart to lose him and I only recently gathered the strength to make a sculpture of him. His sculpture gives me such comfort as it sits in my studio and every day it feels like he is with me as I work. He used to lie in my studio with me when he was alive and keep me company. I miss him more than words. I know the pain that losing a beloved pet brings and I spend many hours at shows talking to people about the grief.
Empathy and passion
I think the fact I do what I do because I have a passion for dogs and other animals rather than focusing on the money side of the business always meant I had my head and heart in the right place. Anyone who becomes an artist to be a millionaire will soon become tired of the long hours you work, some days 12-14 hours into the early hours, which can take a big toll on family life. It takes a massive amount of self-discipline and it can be a very lonely job locked away from the world in a studio. I have had to make huge sacrifices over the years for my art, giving up on holidays and days off in the early years and working 80-hour weeks at the busiest times. But if you ask me 10 years on “Was it worth it?” I would say undoubtedly yes it was.
It’s all I ever wanted to do, and I have the freedom and life I have always dreamt of. I believe I was blessed with this gift to help others through the happiest and saddest moments by giving them a piece of art they can enjoy for many years to come, even after a beloved animal has passed away. It gives me a huge sense of purpose and humbles me. My work is now in private collections in 21 countries across the world and I have a huge social media family of followers. I am truly blessed every day to be able to do the job which, as a four-year-old sitting on my bedroom floor drawing horses and dogs, was the only thing I ever really wanted to do.
The language of art
I think art touches everyone differently. With animals we can connect in a manner of ways and, like live animals, my sculptures strike up conversations between the onlooker and the subject. I find that when exhibiting at shows I often find people talking, touching and interacting with my sculptures. I have had people cry and share stories when we discuss individual sculptures and how they touch them in different ways. Art opens a space for communication, a place to share, to connect and to grieve, to be happy and to rejoice life and loss.
There is no language barrier within sculpture, it doesn’t need an explanation, it just needs us to stop and observe. The youngest of children can read the faces of animals and as an artist my passion is in the details. The tiny marks that make that dog individual to the client, the character and expression of the eyes are the single most important thing to me. That’s what I pride myself on.