‘It’s all through their eyesDec 21, 2020 08:56AM ● By Tricia Hoadley
By Richard L. Gaw
Before she had to temporarily close her Fredericks Corner studio in Centreville due Covid-19 this spring, the cozy space that the portrait artist LouLou Clayton occupied was festooned with framed evidence depicting the work that has transformed her artistic journey since she began Custom Pet Portraits & More five years ago.
From floor to ceiling, it’s all dogs. Working from photographs sent to her from clients from as near as Delaware and as far away as Europe, the Terriers, Beagles, Boxers, Poodles and Shepherds are all dignified and stunning, graceful and adorable, and they peer longingly out at the world with the collective and soulful look of wanting to burst out of their permanent confinement and sniff about in order to satisfy their innate curiosity.
And that’s it – the gift that has enabled LouLou Clayton to crack the code that has led to a continual stream of commissions and acrylic portraits that hang in hundreds of homes -- to give the great illusion that the dog in the painting is, in fact, real.
“It’s all through their eyes,” she said. “Then it’s about color, and then it starts to take shape from there. Eventually, it gets to the point where I am asking the face I am creating, ‘Do you want a treat?’
“Often, I will leave the painting on the easel overnight, get to it the next day, and establish a sense of what I still need to work on. I always want to be working toward the moment when I get to say, ‘There it is. That’s it.’ I love that moment because it’s the moment when their eyes have begun to talk to me.”
There is not an artist alive whose creativity does not – in large gulps of influence or in brief snapshots – properly trace itself back to his or her youth. For a writer, it could be library visits to see the big picture books. For a sculptor, it may have been the accidental merging of mud and water discovered in a sandbox. For a photographer, perhaps it was the disposable camera and a first assignment given to them on a car ride to a wedding.
By the time she had turned ten years old, LouLou Clayton had already become the recipient of gifts, opportunities and moments. When she was a kindergartner in Westchester County, New York, she received a Christmas present one year of a painting easel, and an artist’s costume, that turned out was highly flammable, and came with a
beret, a goatee and a cigarette holder. With a quick change, the little girl could transform into a miniature Salvador Dali.
She began to draw individual family Christmas cards. Her mother would pay her a quarter for each card she made. Unknowingly, she would become the first artistic inspiration of her daughter’s life.
Then there was the man from the advertising agency she met when she was seven years old, who sat outside of her apartment building one day in Eastchester. The man struck up a conversation with the seven-year-old girl, found out she loved to paint, and took out a black magic marker and drew a rabbit smoking a corn cob pipe, and gave it to her as a gift.
“I still have the drawing,” she said. “That moment was huge for me, because I was thrilled at the way he just took a marker and drew. For me to see that, everything opened up. I began using pen and ink and began copying illustrations from nursery rhyme books. My mother would have them framed and give them as gifts.
“I remember drawing a few of my Barbie dolls that had beehive haircuts, and I did a watercolor of them,” Clayton said. “At the time, I was only about seven years old, so I don’t think I had any inclination that I had the gift of being artistic. I just liked it, and I got a lot of support for it.”
After spending a part of her childhood in upstate New York, she moved with her father – Dick Clayton, a broadcasting pioneer in Philadelphia radio for more than two decades -- to Chester County when she was a teenager. After stepping away from her creative life while a student at Unionville High School, she managed an art gallery in Kennett Square after high school. There, she saw the biggest names in the Brandywine Valley art world come by – sculptor Andre Harvey and artists Peter Sculthorpe and Woodrow Blagg, among others.
Following her graduation from college, Clayton, now married with children, sought to satisfy her creative recklessness. Watercolor classes were doing absolutely nothing for her, but on the advice of an artist friend, she took a graphic design class at the University of Delaware, “and that’s when all of my gifts as an artist and all of my interests came together,” she said. “I loved art. I loved marketing. I loved design. It pulled my brain together. That was the beginning, and it led to some incredible opportunities.”
She became a cartoonist for the Kennett Paper.
She illustrated greeting cards for local companies.
She designed logos for clients, established graphic identities for businesses and created promotional brochures.
She painted murals at hospitals and medical centers, in schools and in private homes.
She developed set designs for a local children’s theater.
She taught art at a school in Brussels, Belgium.
With little trepidation LouLou Clayton had emerged as an artist simply by walking through the many portals that had become available to her. It was a creative canvas of many contours and derivations and detours and sudden turns, so when she first entered into pet portraiture in 2015, she had already built the thick skin that comes with experience.
“In a word, my first pet portraits were ‘horrific,’ but I had resigned myself to allow a year and a half to feel my way through it,” she said. “I realized that I wanted to paint kids and
pets. These are two components of being alive that both provide unconditional love. I felt, ‘This just makes sense.’”
In five years, she has completed several hundred portraits, and it has become her full-time job. In any given month, depending on the size of the portrait – Clayton can complete between six to ten commissions – ranging in size from 6” x 6” to 30” x 40” canvases. It’s a three-step process from start to finish: 1) after an initial phone call or email contact, the client determines the dimension of the portrait he or she wants; 2) he or she sends several clear photographs of the pet to Clayton; and 3) Clayton creates the painting and ships it directly to the client.
“I don’t necessarily need to speak or meet directly with the client,” she said. “I don’t know half the people I paint for. Sometimes, someone will introduce themselves to me and thank me for creating a portrait of their Beagle. I will thank them, and have very little memory of having done it. I have to keep a journal of the client and the dog. Otherwise, I wouldn’t have a record of want I’ve done.
“I love the connection of all of it,” she said. “People trust me enough to share a part of their family who loves them. These are living things that my clients have had a very long conversation. To be able to be trusted enough to portray this member of the family is a huge honor.”
For Clayton – who now works from her home studio in nearby Chadds Ford while her Centreville studio waits out the pandemic – dog portraiture gives her an opportunity to be with people who love animals, as well as the payoff of being able to ship a portrait of their best friend. Sometimes, when the recipient first unveils Clayton’s portrait, it’s emotional territory to wade through; in some cases, the commission is sent to Clayton after the death of the pet.
“When someone received a portrait of his or her dog after the pet has passed on, the painting arrives in two phases at first,” she said. “When it’s first seen, often it hits the nerve of the moment and becomes very painful to look at. But later, you can look at it again and again and say, ‘Yes, there’s my dog.’”
Accurately defined, the artistic journey of LouLou Clayton has been a tabula rasa generously painted on, designed, spread out and examined. It is a canvas of tangent lines that connects it all together, mostly for the person who is intent on understanding how the artist got to where she is now.
“Inside, I feel as if I am still that 11-year-old who was being paid a quarter for every Christmas card I drew, only now instead of putting my work on a refrigerator with a magnet, they are framing my work and placing it on the wall of their home,” she said. “It’s the same amount of work. It’s the same amount of focus. It’s just a different kind of art now.”
To learn more about LouLou Clayton’s Custom Pet Portraits & More, visit www.loulouclayton.com, email at [email protected], or visit her on Facebook, where new portraits are posted every week. Portraits of other pets can also be done.
To contact Staff Writer Richard L. Gaw, email [email protected]