Sean Callahan made a smart career move when he let his art go to the dogs. The successful watercolorist began painting portraits of his two yellow Labradors about five years ago after focusing first on still lifes and then on Irish landscapes. "Dreaming of Rabbits," which now hangs in Callahan's sunny studio above a corner store in downtown Vergennes, was his first canine composition. It shows Addison, a Lab named for the artist's town of residence, snoozing on a settee.
Addison died a while ago, but Callahan had found his métier. In addition to numerous works featuring Addison - "he was my Kate Moss," the artist explains - the studio contains close-ups of Wyeth, Callahan's surviving Lab. Andrew Wyeth, Callahan's favorite artist, inspired that moniker.
"People really connected" with the dog portraits after seeing several of them at a show of his two years ago at the Brandon Artists Guild, Callahan says. Subsequent exhibits in other venues have revealed the size of the market for this genre. Callahan now gets commissions from dog owners as far afield as San Francisco who've seen his work while visiting Vermont, or his website - www.callahanwater colors.com - he says.
His fame will soon be spread even further. An example of Callahan's work is included in the January catalogue from Orvis, the Manchester-based outdoor clothing company.
Counting the supplemental income from teaching a watercolor class one day a week, Callahan already earns enough to make a living as an artist. He charges between $650 and $2000 for an original dog portrait, depending on its dimensions. He also sells prints for $100 apiece.
"I do feel blessed to be able to do this because I love it," the bearded, bespectacled painter says. "I'm never bored, and not many people get to say that."
If Callahan is satisfied with the niche he now occupies, it was nonetheless "a very unexpected place to be." When he was younger, the 42-year-old New Jersey native says, "I never thought this is what I'd wind up doing."
He had always wanted to be an artist, however. Callahan won a gold medal for excellence in drawing from the Catholic prep school he attended in Philadelphia. At Flagler College in St. Augustine, Fla., he majored in business - not a surprising choice for someone from a family of 10, all of whom pursued business careers. And that was the path Callahan took for six years after college, when he worked for a Connecticut liquor company.
Moving to Vermont 14 years ago proved pivotal. Callahan studied with Middlebury artist Kate Gridley, and began finding inspiration in the lakes, mountains and farm animals of Addison County. He also twice earned spots in a two-week artists' residency program in Ireland. Those sojourns in his ancestral homeland were also formative for the artist.
Now that he's achieved both aesthetic satisfaction and financial success, Callahan has no intention of diversifying his oeuvre. "I want to be the best I can be at this medium," he says. "You need to find something within a medium and really study it and not deviate from it. For me, that's been dogs. I can keep painting dogs the rest of my life and still learn from them."
He's not interested in painting people - "not my thing" - or in experimenting with abstraction. "I keep myself on a pretty tight leash," he says. Callahan is also content to remain a watercolorist. Oil and acrylic are the opposite of watercolor in how they're applied to a surface, he suggests, adding, "My brain just doesn't work that way."
Watercolor also offers the advantage of mobility. "I can paint anywhere - in an airport or in a hospital while my dad was going through surgery. It's also not toxic and doesn't mess up your clothes," Callahan observes.
His technique - lots of paint and little water - is "how I get vibrant colors," he explains.
Because even the best-trained dog doesn't have the patience to sit for a portrait, Callahan works from photos, which he either takes himself or receives electronically from patrons. He then emails the dogs' owners copies of his preparatory drawings as well as images of the work in progress. On only one occasion has he been asked to redo a portrait. A woman whose name he can't recall (though he says he always remembers the names of the dogs) complained he had made her Sadie's eyes look menacing.
In busman's-holiday fashion, Callahan returns to painting his own pooch when he gets a break from commissioned portraits. He sometimes had Addison pose cutesily - wearing a red-and-white-striped stocking cap in "The Helper," for example, or holding a ring of dangling mackerels, purchased from Shaw's, in "Fishnapper."
But his subjects are usually portrayed in a dignified manner. "I try to capture an animal's character, personality and expression," Callahan says. "I want it to be seen that I'm painting a particular dog."