An interview with Jane Disney: professional pet portrait artist

By day, Jane Disney works as a reward coordinator at Audley Group, but by night she’s a professional pastel artist, specialising in pet portraiture. For almost fifteen years, Jane has been selling her work at exhibitions, country shows, craft fayres and from her website, Dapplegrey Art.

Hi Jane, can you describe your journey into art and how you discovered a love for drawing with pencil pastels?

I have been into arts and crafts ever since I can remember, my dad was very encouraging and became my biggest mentor in my art journey.

I loved art throughout my childhood. It was when I was studying for my O-levels that I began experimenting with various media, I used pastels for the first time and rather liked them.

I started to experiment with soft pastels, oil pastels and then moved onto pencil pastels and I absolutely fell in love with them. They were everything I wanted; they were lovely and silky to use, they blended well and they had the softness of pastels but you could sharpen them to a fine point and get the detail in pictures.

I have dabbled with other things- acrylic paints, Kandahar inks, pencils, charcoal etc. but I always go back to pencil pastels. I love to work on a black background with light coloured pastels because I think that gives such a good effect.

Do you mostly draw from photographs, live sittings, or a bit of both?

I don’t do live sittings simply because - have you ever tried to get a dog to sit still for seven hours?! You can’t get a person to sit still for seven hours! So I don’t do live sittings; I work from photos. If the animal is around, I like to try and go and meet them and get an idea of their character, their size and notice any distinguishing features.

Unfortunately, by the nature of what I do, most of the animals that I draw are no longer with us. 

Why is it that you favour drawing horses over dogs, cats and other animals and subjects?

I have always loved horses ever since I was a little girl; I was the typical pony loving child which naturally manifested itself into drawing them as well as riding them. Everything about horses has always fascinated me, they are a contradictory animal; big, strong and powerful and yet fragile. They have got such presence and yet are timid and easy to spook... and they are just beautiful.

When you look at a horse, you see its lines, its structure and you just think, that is stunning. They are also a challenge because unlike a dog or a cat that can be very fluffy, hiding a multitude of sins, horses have that very fine glossy coat that hides nothing which is why a lot of artists say that horses are the hardest animals to draw.

My work in the past has been described as stylised and I like that description, it makes me feel like I put a tiny little bit of individuality into my work. I like giving pictures a bit of a tweak such as making eyes bigger and sparkier. 

How long can a pet portrait take?

It would depend on the size. If it was a small, simple picture of a cat it would take me 5-6 hours, but if it was a big complex picture with two or three figures, it could take me 25-30 hours.

It really does vary enormously and because I work at Audley during the day, most of my drawing time is in the evenings and at weekends.

What is the process involved in creating a pet portrait?

I need to be quite fussy about the standard of photos that I use, as even if some look great, they won’t transfer onto a piece of artwork. I request that any photos supplied to me for use are clear, sharp, have an uncluttered background, and captured in daylight as it provides true colours, and of course positioning of the subject.

Once I have received a good photograph and the size of picture has been agreed with the client, I go away and begin creating some rough sketches before tracing the final sketch onto picture paper. I can use the pastels and fill in the detail, structure, and colour and bring the portrait to life; this is the bit I really enjoy.

Is there a picture you have created that you didn’t want to give back or sell but you had to? Is there something that comes to mind that you were extremely proud of but had to let go?

There is a picture of a white Arab horse on my website that I have a bit of a soft spot for as it was the first piece that I put on my stall back in 2006 to sell. There is also a story that comes to mind of my picture of Pegasus; a lady came up to my stall and was looking around, and then I noticed her see the picture and she homed in on it instantly.

She turned around to me and said, “I’ll have that one” which surprised me, and I asked her while I was wrapping up the item why this piece had drawn her attention so strongly and she said:

“I lost my father earlier in the year and I have been looking for something to remember him by. He saw action at Arnhem with the Airborne division and his regimental badge was a Pegasus. I saw that picture and I just saw my dad.”

I had to take a moment afterwards to compose myself.

People come to an artist’s stall or gallery and they will see something they like and buy it. It’s not something they need; they buy that picture purely and simply because they like it and in that moment you have made an emotional connection with that person. Money cannot buy that.

You began exhibiting in 2006, what made you take that next step in your art? Had you already been taking commissions or was exhibiting an opportunity to launch that offering?

I had been doing commissions for a long time, drawing animals for friends and family and I had been thinking for a long time about trying to sell some of my work.

I set up my first stall with about 10 pictures, and people didn’t just walk past, they stopped and bought my pictures! I loved doing it.

There was even a little girl I met many years ago who I have seen a few times since, that showed me some of her drawings that I kept, and when I saw her again three years ago she was about to go off to university to study illustration, which I had inspired her to pursue.

My art is my hobby and I enjoy it, but it has given me so much more than I ever imagined; it’s given me some amazing experiences and I’ve met friends.

Before exhibiting, what inspired friends and family to approach you to draw their pet(s)?

All my friends and family knew that I drew, and a friend approached me one day and asked if I would draw a picture of her dog for her mum as a Christmas present. My friend was happy with the result and further commissions stemmed from there.

It hasn’t always just been animals, I worked for a leisure centre who asked me to paint a couple of murals for them and design their letterhead. If anyone had any art and craft jobs it was often me that was asked to do them. It was informal and a way of extending what I did and gave me a reason to do something different.

What inspired the name Dapplegrey Art?

I wanted my art to have its own identity and my vision at the time was just to draw horses. The name Dapplegrey as a word looks and sounds good and it rolls off the tongue nicely. Dapplegrey coloured horses are also beautiful. 

After a year or so, I came to realise that Dapplegrey Art wasn’t a viable business if I focused only on horses, so I diversified. I went into doing pet portraits and doing pictures for the stall such as the fantasy pictures. People were also starting to know me for Dapplegrey Art so I kept the name and I am really pleased I did.

Many thanks Jane for taking the time to speak to us.

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This competition isn’t exclusively running on Audley Stories, the winner will be chosen at random across all platforms; Facebook, Audley Stories and email. We have the right to withdraw this competition at any time. A winner will be announced and chosen on the 26th July.