The brush strokes of Christine Varley
Photos by Rob Tysall, Tysall’s Photography
Ann Evans chats to Pet Portrait Artist, Christine Varley.
Animal portrait artist, Christine Varley’s business is coming along in leaps and bounds. Although she has been painting pet portraits for 30 years, it’s these last few years that has expanded far beyond her wildest dreams – and she couldn’t be happier.
Christine is originally from the Cotswolds and whilst studying for her graphic design BA Hons degree at Coventry University, she painted pictures of the pretty Cotswold villages and sold them to local galleries. She soon found that her love of art combined with her love of dogs was something she could combine, and she began working as a Pet and Animal Portrait Artist in 1987. She is now recognised as one of the leading artists in her field.
Working in water colour or pencil, Christine has developed a skill and a reputation for capturing the true character and personality of the animals she paints. For her, she says it’s all in the eyes – and her paintings reflect that little touch of magic that she brings to each one.
She’s the mum of two teenage boys, George and Isaac, while husband Rob is a musician. She says, “I’ve always wanted to earn my living through my art and my love of animals. Right from the start I intended doing this as a business, but I always thought to move it forward and cope with all the changes I’d have to go through and all the new things I’d have to learn, I thought my head wouldn’t be able to handle it! In fact, my head is doing pretty good.”
Her skill, and as she puts it – that little bit of magic that takes over, capturing the personality of the animals in question, has seen her popularity grow steadily. It’s not just dogs, but horses and cats, as well as farm animals and wildlife.
Christine works from photographs, sometimes taken by herself, going out to meet the pet and do a photo shoot or clients will send their photographs to her. In the early days of her career, she created cards from her paintings, and would find work at craft shows. At the end of which she would fold up her paste table and tuck everything back into the back of an estate car.
Chatting to Christine at her home in Moira, Derbyshire, where she and her husband have now built a new studio for her in the garden, she says that quite recently, her products were taken away in an articulated lorry. Laughing she adds, “How did I go from folding up a paste board and packing my stuff into the back of the car – to having someone send an articulated lorry to pick up their order?”
Actually, Christine can pinpoint that turning point. It was at a trade show in Harrogate during the recession. She explains, “Both of our careers had been hit by the recession – no money, car problems. I didn’t even think we’d be able to get up to Harrogate for this trade show. But it was the best thing I’ve ever done. I spread out all my prints of the hundreds of dogs, cats and other animals in front of me, and I suddenly had a Eureka moment! Look at all this stuff, I thought. It’s all good. I need to be doing something more with it!
“So, I scaled up everything. When everything seemed bad and no one was spending, I heard that people were still buying diamonds – so, I put my prices up! It wasn’t easy but sometimes it’s a case of feasting or famine.
“I know I’m lucky, my husband is very supportive, practically as well as emotionally, and he is doggedly determined to make something work. For example, a printer that we’d bought to print mugs on – he spent zillions of hours learning how to do that! I’ve had to learn computer skills, but pleased that my eldest son, George, has designed and created my websites, including my licensing website.
Now her pet portraits are on cushions, canvases, tote bags, mugs, coasters and all kinds of products. Scaling up her business and creating her company, WaggyDogz, has been a big learning curve, where she’s had to negotiate with other businesses and work out fair prices. There’s been years of experimenting, trying to see what works and what doesn’t. She now has hundreds of stockists for her products. Her ethos, however, is to have her products manufactured as locally as possible by small local businesses, despite competing with people who are buying their goods in from China.
“I’ve had to break down lots of walls of resistance,” adds Christine. “But those resistances were inside of me. For example, coping with handing over my images to someone and hoping that I didn’t get ripped off. I had to overcome this barrier of resistance. But actually, working in collaboration has proved mutually beneficial. It’s a lot of fun, and I want to enjoy my working day.”
As she works, whether it’s painting new portraits, sending out customers’ orders or working on her computer, her beloved dogs, Molly and Charlie are never far from her side. Charlie, in fact, inadvertently became her Waggy Dogz catalogue cover image. “This came about by chance,” Christine adds. “I’d set out some cushions to photograph and Charlie jumped up onto the sofa and settled down on them. So, I wrote the slogan, “Charlie says WaggyDogz cushions are so comfortable.”
As a massive animal lover Christine supports animal charities through give-aways and raffles. Plus, she gives all her seconds, and products that are slightly faulty to a nearby charity – Lucky Pets of Leicestershire. “I like to give back,” she says.
Having had a stall at Crufts for the last 20 years, she gets new customers all the while. Sometimes gets asked if she will paint humans to which she replies, “Only if they have fluffy ears and a big nose!”
Discover more about Christine Varley’s work: https://www.waggydogz.co.uk/