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Making a Scene: Illustrator creates vibrant pet portraits

McCal Johnson works on her pet portrait of Disco, a one-eyed Husky. David Samson / The Forum

FARGO – McCal Johnson is a dog person.

But don’t worry, cat people. She’s a fan of felines, too.

The Fargo-based visual and conceptual artist illustrates both furry friends (and others) in vibrant watercolor portraits she calls PetSketches.

Johnson, 25, started portraying pets after she drew more than 50 pups to benefit local dog rescue 4 Luv of Dog.

“I had a lot of fun with it and enjoyed seeing other people’s pets and their personalities. I became enamored with drawing/painting these furry faces and decided to keep it as a constant on the side of my usual artwork,” she says.

Known for her figurative and surreal oil, ink and watercolor art, Johnson’s pet sketches show her ability to capture the fun, loving spirits of animals.

Do you have pets? Are you a cat person or a dog person?

While I like cats, I have always been a dog person. It has something to do with the caring humanity that some of them seem to possess. I had a Jack Russell terrier (Jackie) for 17 years until she recently passed this June.

I kick myself for not taking many photos of her. I did have one the day before she died, but it was so sad. I drew it but don’t like to remember her that way. I plan to draw her again when I come across a happier photo of her.

How many pet portraits have you created?

I haven’t been counting as much as I should be, but I would say somewhere around 50 to 80.

How would you describe the style of your pet portraits?

Vibrant colors and swift strokes with a hint of detail. I like to keep them fun and friendly.

What medium do you use to create the portraits? How long does one typically take?

Fine-art watercolor pencils and watercolor paint on cold-press watercolor paper (a textured paper that holds in water and pigment).

Time generally depends on the quality of the photo and type of fur, usually between one-and-a-half to two-and-a-half hours.

What’s the most unique pet you’ve illustrated?

Recently I did one of a channel catfish – didn’t see that request coming.

How do people react when they see your pet portraits?

That is one of my favorite parts about creating PetSketches, to see the excited and giddy faces of their owners when they first see them.

I try to get the pet’s personality and added colors just right to create excitement and surprise.

What’s the best part of drawing pet portraits? What’s most challenging?

The best part is when I open my email and find photos of someone’s pet(s).

The challenging part is when an owner of a camera-shy pet requests a portrait. I want badly to portray a pet’s personality while in their normal/comfortable/happy state of being.

Do people typically want them as keepsakes? Gifts?

I would say it’s about half and half. They are so fun as gifts because they are usually unexpected. I enjoy getting feedback from the receiver after they are gifted.

What’s next for PetSketches?

I have been contemplating adding a royal element to the PetSketches – an option for people’s pets to be drawn as king and queens. I may try that out today. That might be funny.

How can people order a custom pet portrait?

Order through my Etsy shop,

There’s also a link on my website,

Anna G. Larson

Anna G. Larson is a features reporter with The Forum who writes a weekly column featuring stylish people in Fargo-Moorhead. Larson graduated from North Dakota State University with a degree in journalism and joined The Forum in July 2012. She's a Fargo native who enjoys travel, food, baking, fashion, animals, coffee and all things Midwestern. Follow her on Instagram and Twitter: @msannagrace 

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