Artist of the Month: Catherine Smith

Catherine Smith, an artist in Providence, strives to capture the perceived personality of an animal, with a healthy dose of whimsy.

by Bob Bahr

Lord Dominus
2006, acrylic, 18 x 14.
All artwork this article
collection the artist.
Lady Gladrigs
2006, acrylic,
24 x 12.

Few subjects are less cooperative and impatient than wild animals. For this reason, depicting wildlife almost necessitates the use of reference photography. Plus, a painstakingly rendered pose and setting is often pursued by wildlife artists because realism and naturalistic accuracy are prized. But what if the goal is to capture the perceived personality of an animal? Catherine Smith, an artist in Providence, strives to do just that, with a healthy dose of whimsy.

“I want people to smile when they see the paintings,” says Smith. “It makes me feel so good to see somebody giggle.”

Thus the genesis of her Animal Portraiture series. The artist, a recent graduate of the Rhode Island School of Design, in Providence, imagined the series as a play off Renaissance portraits. “I wanted to bring that feel of importance that the early Renaissance portraitists brought to their work,” says Smith. “And I wanted to explore each animal’s personality. Each animal has its own quirky disposition, as anybody with a house cat will tell you. For example, the monkey portrait was inspired by this tiny cotton-top tamarin at my local zoo. He kind of looked like a shrunken little old man. He had this wonderful expression, as if he were all knowing and lord over everything (even though the other monkeys were ignoring him). I loved the idea of something so small thinking it was so big and important.”

Sir Izward
2006, acrylic, 16 x 12.
2006, acrylic, 10 x 8.

The colors in the animal portraits are saturated, and the poses seem anthropomorphic. Smith achieves these effects by using her imagination, drawing on multiple reference photos, manipulating them in Photoshop, and expertly modifying light source and color.

Smith works in acrylic on Ampersand gessobord. She first draws the portrait in paint—usually watered-down burnt sienna or burnt umber. She blocks in the main darks early on. Next, she lays down the dominant colors to see how they will interact in the composition. Once she is satisfied with the accurate underpainting, she begins to glaze over areas using an acrylic extender made by Golden. “I do a lot of glazing—especially in the background,” says Smith.

The artist says choosing the right background color is often the hardest part of these animal portraits. “I choose the color of the background based on how it will best “pop” the animal,” she explains. “I have to like the way it looks. I love the mahogany red next to the blue feathers in the ostrich painting.”

For more information on Smith, visit her website at

Bob Bahr is the managing editor of American Artist.

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