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The Pooch Portraitist

Alumna Lynn Culp, proprietor of Colormutts Studio in Denver, makes any mutt worthy of the Westminster dog show.

Lynn Culp self portrait
Alumna Lynn Culp, pictured in this self-portrait, wants to “bring out that personality where you wanna give the dog a hug.”

The Boston terrier’s crooked nose. The border collie’s dead-on gaze. The bloodhound’s woebegone face. And the dogs’ smile, always the goofy dog smile. When painter Lynn Culp drops one of her enormously popular dog portraits onto a canvas, it generally says one thing above all else: I am dog; love me.

“I have found that the stupider the dog looks, the better it comes out in the painting—that lovable, silly look they give you,” says Culp MGSA’83 from her Colormutts Studio in the dog-friendly city of Denver, Colorado. “And it doesn’t come out looking stupid. It makes a great portrait. And that’s what I go for: to bring out that personality where you wanna give the dog a hug.”

Since she started doing dog portraits about six years ago, Culp has painted more than 400 breeds, from pugs to wheatens to golden retrievers. She has found in all of them something endearingly quirky. She likes asymmetry best—crooked eyes, or stripes that shoot off the side of a face, or lopsided fur. Painting with acrylics, Culp uses a bold mix of colors, painted onto a red background—which has the effect of dramatizing the most pronounced features of the dog. Every dog looks different, but the paintings call forth the essence of all dogs. And pet owners love them, snapping up the portraits off Ebay or her website, whether they own the particular breed or not.

It all started a few years ago when Culp attended, for reasons she cannot remember, a Halloween dog costume show. There, she snapped photos of dogs walking and lying about, and was intrigued by their shapes and movements. “I had no idea there were so many breeds, different colors, and different styles of fur,” she says. “I love that you can paint a dog with no harsh lines and it still has some solidity to it. With cats, for instance, they don’t have an obvious bone structure. It’s like painting a bowl of flesh.”

Rutgers was one of the first colleges to hold courses in graphic arts, says Culp, who was a member of the first graduating class of the Mason Gross School of the Arts in New Brunswick. At the time, there were just 30 students taking classes in painting and drawing and art history, with no upperclassmen for inspiration.

In addition to course instruction, Culp honed her craft through a job in advertising, mocking up storyboards and mechanicals with wax and rubber cement and pen renderings. The work, she says, gave her a grounding in basics that she would not have had in today’s world of computer-generated art. Still, if she had it to do over again, Culp might have chosen not to work while in college. “You’re paying all this money to go to college, so you should give it your all,” she says. “You’ll get more out of it by focusing rather than working 30 hours a week.”

Inspired in 2006 by a web-based painting-a-day movement, Culp began experimenting with dog art on small frames, doing 360 portraits her first year. Her style emerged as much by accident as by design, with the electric red background becoming a signature look. It took her about a year to master the use of acrylics, which dry fast and have to be applied and worked in small patches. Culp likes the challenge of finding the perfect blend of color quickly and layering in the details.

The tightly focused, color-drenched portraits that Culp does today come on square canvases with the paint wrapping the edges, so that pictures are ready to hang and do not need frames. The 8" x 8" canvases are the most popular, but Culp has painted dogs on canvases as large as 20" x 20". Virtually any size in between is available. Culp also paints cats—or any pet, for that matter: horses, rabbits, ferrets.

But the dogs are her first love: “Some breeds are more interesting than others,” says Culp. “Weimaraners look great. Great Danes look really good. Border collies, too. But I can paint any dog.”•

                                                                                                                                                    — Wendy Plump