Austin's Rembrandt of Dog Portraits

The Austin artist is an Old Master when it comes to custom pooch portraits

Austin's Rembrandt of Dog Portraits

Leonardo had his Mona Lisa. John Singer Sargent had his Madame X. Grant Wood had his American Gothic couple. And Greg Geisler has his El Sam.

Unlike those older masterworks of portraiture, Geisler's has no mystery in its subject's expression; it leaves the viewer with no questions. Indeed, that's what makes it so special, so compelling. We know precisely El Sam's state of mind. The large ears are relaxed, flopping ever so slightly. The mouth is open just enough to reveal the wide pink tongue pushed against the prominent lower canines, and its corners are pulled back in an obvious smile. Everything in its appearance says "friend," and the big eyes – those eyes, so bright and alive – are trained right on you, the viewer, with that look of unconditional affection seen only in dogs.

Oh, yes, El Sam is a dog, and just one of many that Geisler has painted in the past two decades. This Austin artist has made a specialty of pooch portraits, and scrolling through his extensive portfolio, it's apparent that he's become an Old Master of them. Geisler captures not only the features in fine detail – the color and texture of the fur, the stray wire whiskers, the play of light on the dark nose – but also the personality – in the tilt of the head, the set of the mouth, the angle of the ears, and the eyes, the eyes that always look like those of a living being.

Some of Geisler's evocation of personality comes from his fidelity to the source. He makes sure to have a photo of the pet that he's painting. "The better the photo, the better the outcome," Geisler says. "Animals can look generic, but if the client has a photo, that pose and expression resonates and is familiar to them. I pay close attention to the eyes and the expression. I love animals, dogs in particular, and I try to represent their soul."

The rest of his success can be attributed to Geisler's years of training and experience as an artist. He's something of a jack-of-all-trades in the field: commercial illustration, poster design, logo design, website design, woodworking. He makes birdhouses, custom keepsake boxes, and human portraits, too. His dog portraits are frequently made on reclaimed wood with a woodburning tool, colored pencils, and stains. He'd gotten into woodburning a few decades ago – "I liked the idea of making lines without paint, burning into reclaimed wood to make more of an object than a drawing" – but it grew into a passion about 16 years ago.

That's about the same time he did his first dog portrait: a woodburned image of a friend's Boston terrier. "I still have it, and it is crude compared to my later portraits," Geisler says. But it prompted his wife to suggest that other people would love to have custom portraits of their pets, so he launched his own Etsy shop, Wounded Wood.

Now, pet portraits are a major part of his work. He's done cats, birds, the odd llama, but mostly it's been dogs. They may be wearing derbies or suits, but most often the dogs are just themselves, looking like we love them to look, as we know them. The work has become meaningful to Geisler: "Of all the art I have ever done, doing pet portraits has been the most satisfying because of how moved people are when they receive them. Most of them are memorial portraits, and the experience of seeing the customer in tears is the best thing that I could possibly hope for. All of my other artistic endeavors pale in comparison."

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