Sutin’s portraits capture the physical appearance of the animal, but also allude to each pet’s singular quirks. “Most of the paintings are made after long back-and-forth email threads involving hundreds of photos and video clips,” he explains. Beyond images, though, he asks for details like the animal’s interests, favorite places, or the history of their name, as well as the client’s interests. “These people have so much love for animals that it’s never hard to figure out what to do,” Sutin says. “It’s always been a collaborative process, but I would say I’m usually just taking orders.”
Often, the finished portraits are realistic—cats lounging in the woods, curled atop opened books, or reclining on the naked backs of their owners in bed. But for a portrait of “Bobby” from 2014, we see the feline subject with his eyes closed, dreaming of a sparse, bare Western desert. And Sutin’s clients are occasionally seeking visions far more transgressive than what the community on Etsy, a hotbed of pet-portraiture, might be used to.
“My next painting is going to be for a couple who asked that their fish be painted in an ‘extreme sexual situation,’” he says. “It will be of a woman in a big white hat and gloves urinating proudly on a fish which stares up into his urine-filled sky with gratitude and love.”
Sutin’s technique privileges the setting nearly as much as the animal subjects, which means that simple commissions can become more time-consuming than he originally anticipated (this loving focus on background detail is something he shares with New York pet-portraiture legend Mimi Vang Olsen
). “Sometimes the environments people place their pets in are overwhelmingly beautiful and detailed,” he says, “and I can’t help but feel that I will die this way: I’ll die painting cats. I’ve lost myself in the texture of a bright blue wooden floor of a client in Mexico City. I’ve slaved over the foliage surrounding a couple’s pond in New Zealand. I’ve felt the disdainful gaze of a cat named for the fictional French noblewoman Raoule de Vénérande as I take undue liberties with her fur.”