People of the pack: artist Jay McClellan turns pet photos into art
Jay would love to meet every pet he paints before starting a project.
It’s normal for our camera rolls to be filled with pictures of our pets (and if you’re super obsessed, you might’ve upgraded your phone storage to take more). But for some people, having digital photographs isn’t enough. That’s where Jay McClellan can help.
Jay is the owner and founder of the Philadelphia-based Jay McClellan Studio, and his specialty is transforming pet photographs into vibrant, colorful, one-of-a-kind paintings. He continually accepts individual commissions, but his work can be purchased on a wider scale, too.
Pop into an Anthropologie store to find Jay's art on dishes from the retailer's homeware collection. And Anthropologie's sister brand, Urban Outfitters, displays Jay's work across their office walls.
A love for pets inspired Jay’s charitable ventures, too. In 2020, he partnered with the White Dog Cafe in Glen Mills, Pennsylvania, to raise donations for Fetch’s shelter partner Brandywine Valley SPCA and Alpha Bravo Canine. Ultimately, the event garnered over $18,000 for the two nonprofits.
Some might say it’s in Jay’s genes to be an artist, as his grandma and dad were both painters — but it wasn’t always his main job. Before committing to painting pet portraits full-time, he worked in advertising for 10 years.
Now, aside from his work in the studio, he teaches drawing to interior design and architecture students in Pennsylvania — amidst all Jay does, he took some time to teach us about his life, inspirations and ideal creative process.
Was it scary to jump from advertising to entirely focusing on your art?
No. My mother got sick and died of pancreatic cancer and that's when I just made a decision that I didn't want to do advertising anymore. I went back to school in Memphis and got a degree in drawing.
From there, I wanted to go to grad school to teach college, so I got accepted into New York, Philly and San Francisco schools. But I chose Philadelphia because of the cost and because The Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts is the oldest art school in America. I wanted more traditional training, more about the skill and less about conception.
Have you always painted portraits of pets?
No, I paint all kinds of stuff. But when my mother was dying, I got these two rescue puppies, Tip and Honey, and I was in my early 20s. So I put a lot of my emotional energy into them because I didn't know where to direct it. So I was very attached to them and did paintings of them.
When I got to Memphis, I wanted to get a painting degree, but I really liked the drawing teacher. So I switched to a drawing degree because it’s really the foundation of all art. I was making works of art there, and a friend brought me this antique wallpaper sample book from the 1940s.
So I would take those cuts, do drawings of my dogs and then collage the pattern behind them — that kind of led me to begin paintings.
One of the first things I did when I got to Philadelphia for school was get a job working at the local art store. So I would get a discount on my supplies. And it was the first time I was able to stretch really big paintings. So I did a painting of Tip and Honey. From there, it just took off. That's all I did in grad school was paint dogs.
How did people begin seeing your paintings?
In grad school, I’d have shows at the galleries in Philadelphia, and people would say, “I love that painting. I’d like a smaller one with my dog in it with your background.” So I just kind of kept going and going, and over the years, I’ve built a business doing that.
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Can you tell me about your creative process?
If you're local or close to me, I like to go meet the dog, get my hands on the dog, find out the dog's personality and then also find out the parent’s personality. Then I like to see the space where the painting is going and get a feel for all that, then try to combine those personalities together into the painting.
It doesn’t always happen, obviously because of COVID-19. But over the years, I've learned how to also just talk to people because I do paintings for people who aren’t in Philadelphia. And they have their favorite photos of their dog on their phone, so they’re able to send me those.
I hand-draw all of them, and then I color the dogs and then the background of the pattern. Then I'll email them to the people I'm working with, and they'll say, “I like this drawing or let's move forward with the painting.” And that's how we move forward to the painting.
How do you find inspiration when starting a new project?
I had Tip and Honey, who passed away, and then I had Lucky, who passed away two Christmas Eves ago, and so I have those familiar relationships that I draw inspiration from. I have a dog now, Ava, she’s a Bluetick Coonhound, and she’s my girl. So our relationship kind of comes out in the paintings.
Just last week, we got a kitten. My 5-year-old daughter wanted a cat, which is interesting because I’m allergic to cats.
What has been the most rewarding part about your career so far?
It’s kind of cliche, but I think the best thing for me is when people see their dog in the painting and then connect to that painting because my paintings aren’t really a financial investment. They’re an emotional and sentimental investment. So I think that every time people see their dog, and they’re emotionally attached to them and see them in the painting — that’s the best feeling.
I also started a nonprofit called Benevolent Hound during the COVID-19 pandemic. We pair artists with other nonprofits to raise money and awareness for the nonprofit, while raising awareness and compensation for the artists.
What sort of projects has Benevolent Hound been a part of?
We did a project last year where we built blank dog houses. I gave each one to different interior designers or artists. Then I paired each one with a nonprofit like Philadelphia Children's Hospital, Brandywine Valley SPCA, Philadelphia Animal Welfare Society (PAWS) or Alpha Bravo Canine. Then we auctioned them off, and that money from the house they were connected to went to that nonprofit.
Does Ava come to the studio with you?
Ava’s with me all the time. She's a sweetheart. I've had studios outside of my house before where she'd come to, but she comes in here and sleeps in this leather chair. She also likes to go outside and mess around with stuff outside, and now we have this cat. She's just trying to figure out what's going on. Like, what's wrong with this cat? How is the cat moving around so much?
If she’s not with you in the studio, what’s your dream day with Ava?
We like to go out in the woods, hike around and be outside, and she loves that. Ava’s an off-leash dog. She stays by my side and listens to me.
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Photo by Jay McClellan Studio