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VIDEO: Vancouver Island painter makes classic oil paintings to celebrate pets

Artist Zann Hemphill offers tips to take the best possible photo of your animal friend

Zann Hemphill’s pet portraits are the result of her collaborative process and love of animals.

In her studio, located north of Nanaimo, some of her special projects contain the ashes of pets being memorialized.

Owning her own studio allows her and the client to take as much time as they need to treat the special projects with care, Hemphill said.

“It’s really emotional doing it because you know this is someone’s pet,” she said. “And they care so much… you have to be more respectful with the materials. It is really nice to be able to care. You can’t do anything more than that. It’s kind of liberating.”

She’s had the Paws by Zann studio for approximately five years, but has created art about animals all her life. Hemphill drew animals anywhere she could as a child, including her homework, and did not consider many other muses.

Hemphill has two pets of her own, a rambunctious cat named Tiberius teaching her how to be a cat person, and a dog named Peaches, a huge ball of love who encourages her to meet new people.

Hemphill said her process is more personal and slower than some studios that need to finish portraits quickly to stay in business. She was able to develop her own business model while having fun with the artistic process because she owns her own studio.

“I wanted to do something that was totally from scratch,” she said. “And if you’re going to do that then people want to be a part of it. They want the flexibility that comes with having someone make something for them.”

First, Hemphill’s clients provide the photos. Her biggest tip for getting the best photo? Get down to your cat or dog’s eye level and then move way back.

The outline of the pet also needs to be clear, so avoid backgrounds and patterned lighting that is too similar to your pet’s fur, Hemphill said, adding it always helps to have some fun, so do a little dance if you want to picture your dog while excited.

For the second step in her process, Hemphill discusses the composition draft with her client. She creates the drafts in photoshop, with the jagged lines and arrows she draws with her mouse allowing for quick changes.

For example, if a client says their dog’s big fluffy tail is hidden in a primary reference photo, Hemphill will add it with the help of an additional picture. A back-and-forth discussion follows until the blob she doodled is the right shape and size. When the draft is just right, she finally puts paint to canvas.

It can be complicated to find the right reference photos for Hemphill’s memorial portraits. Sometimes, people come to her with cute snapshots but do not have any portrait-style photos of their pet, which makes the work more difficult. Other times a reference photo is almost perfect, but Hemphill needs to crop it differently or set it to a contrasting background.

For more information about Hemphill’s work, visit

About the Author: Morgana Adby, Local Journalism Initiative

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