Pet Portraiture

17 May 2023

Susanne Carter’s work showcases our furry friends

By Liesel Schmidt

While Susanne Carter is, by her own admission, new to the designation of “professional artist,” the ease with which she approaches a blank canvas and the comfort she feels in unleashing color onto that blank canvas is something innate and deeply ingrained.

Until late 2022, Carter checked the box of mainstream employment, working full-time in an internal medicine office that was part of Roper St. Francis Hospital. To satisfy her need for creativity, she did an occasional dog portrait on commission—usually for those whose beloved dogs had crossed over the rainbow bridge.

Finding success with this particular subject, she expanded her focus and also began doing Charleston-themed paintings to sell from a friend’s booth at the Charleston City Market.

Carter’s creative side has been evident since childhood, though she only considered her art a hobby until the last six months. In those six months, she has built her portfolio and strengthened the numbers in her clientele, making her name more synonymous with pet portraiture in the Charleston area.

Realistic as these portraits are, Carter bucks the idea that her paintings must be completely true to the reference photos she is given.

“My style is realistic in a painterly way,” she says. “When I’m painting, I try hard to not completely copy a photo that clients give me, because I believe that if they wanted that, they could just frame the photo. They’re looking for something lifelike and beautiful, but not so literal. What I do kind of embodies the personality of the animal more than a photo does.”

She adds, “There is also the challenge of the photos themselves. The biggest challenge with pet portraits is the quality of the photos that I get. Most people are not professional photographers—and that’s not usually what they’re thinking of when they’re taking a picture of their pet. My charge, as a painter, is to see deeper than the quality of the photo and take that picture that’s been given to me and make a beautiful painting from it—one that looks like my client’s pet.”

As she works to accomplish this, Carter’s process when she receives a pet photo is first to study it. Next, she does a few sketches. Once she lands on how best to tackle the painting, she primes her canvas and then does a lay-in before approaching any aspect with colors.

“I learned all of these steps to the process from Joyce Hall,” Carter says of her painting teacher for the past seven years. “She is an amazing teacher and a wonderful artist.”

Exactly why Carter has spent so many hours in her studio painting people’s pets is simple, and personal.

“I really love my dogs,” she said. “I know that there are a lot of other people out there who feel the same. Most dog and cat owners think their pets are family, like their children. Unfortunately, animals don’t live as long as we would hope, and I am giving people something they can keep forever to look at and remember their beloved pet.”

Someone who was “intimidated” by working with oil paint until she was given instruction in how to use it to its greatest capacity, Carter’s medium of choice is now oil on canvas. And while she may fill the majority of her canvases with the furry faces of well-loved pets, she also enjoys painting the landscapes of the Lowcountry.

“I’m very lucky to be living in Charleston, where everywhere you look is a beautiful landscape painting just waiting to come alive on canvas,” she says. “I also like painting food. In fact, I just recently did some eggs.”

The Spartanburg, South Carolina, native now lives in James Island, where she paints from the home she shares with her husband.

“I’m still finding my footing,” she says. “But I’m incredibly fortunate to have a husband who can provide for us while I pursue my dream—and is willing to do so. He is very supportive, and I know I am very lucky to have him.”

As creatively fulfilling as Carter finds her work, there is something else that she gets from it, as well—a full heart.

“I love it when I finish a painting and have the honor of giving it to the client myself,” she says. “I get so excited, and it’s almost like Christmas morning to me.”

She also is able to mail paintings to clients who live out of the area, sending portraits as far away as Europe.

Carter’s paintings can be found at the Charleston City Market and Patrick Veterinary Clinic in Charleston as well as The Patina Market and The View salon on James Island. Her work is also posted online on her Facebook page, Pet Portrait Memories by Susanne Carter. Reach her directly at susannehcarter@gmail.com.

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