Saturday, March 23, 2013

Art & Sled Dogs: "Born to Run" Book Review and In-Depth Interview with Author/Pet Portrait Artist Jewel Mathieson

"Woo, Chloe, I'm going to be in Jewel's next book!"

Today’s blog post features a book review on the beautifully illustrated Born to Run and an interview with the talented animal portrait artist and now author, Jewel Mathieson of New Zealand who creates very detailed works of art using the medium of colored pencils. Her works have been featured in books and publications worldwide, and in 2010, she was the recipient of the “Runner Up” Award in the Arts Council Nelson Impressions Art Awards.

Born to Run is filled with beautiful pet portraits by Jewel of real-life dogs. She says she has been “passionate about art for as long as I can remember, with many of my childhood hours spent sketching, drawing and painting. Although I found inspiration in a variety of subjects, I predominantly drew wild animals, and old antiquated architecture but nothing fascinated me more than wolves. When I was seven, this passion extended to Spitz breed dogs when our family adopted a Finnish Spitz puppy who we shared sixteen and a half wonderful years with.” Then in 2010, she turned that passion into her own full-time pet portrait business in New Zealand. Her current work is primarily sled dogs and Spitz breeds.

Wolf checks out the white sled dogs in the book.

Jewel with her furpal, Nika.
Jewel says, “After becoming great friends with the secretary of the Southland Sled Dog Association, I was invited to travel down to Invercargill in 2010 to meet her and her four Siberian Huskies, and also to experience sled dog racing first hand. This amazing and life changing experience opened the door to a whole new direction and influence for my art. I am now associated with several clubs around New Zealand, Australia and America.”

Jewel says what inspires her the most is “the unique personality and character that animals show through their body language and facial expressions. I have spent many hours learning to recognize these subtleties and love capturing these precious moments in my drawings. I want the owners to look at my portraits and really recognize 'their' pet looking back at them.

“Standing in the darkness I could see my breath illuminated in the freezing night air by the flickering headlamps around me. The electrifying sound of howls, yaps and the occasional woo woo sent a shiver up my spine. The sled dog teams were lined up and waiting in anticipation for their turn to run. The immense excitement in the air was infectious.” 
~Jewel Mathieson, Born to Run.

FIVESIBESMOM. You do amazing work in the colored pencil medium…yet I read that you are self-taught. Amazing! No professional training? How did you learn to draw such wonderful likenesses?

JEWEL MATHIESON. Yes I am completely self-taught! I did take art when I was in high school but unfortunately that was during a time when the art world was completely in love with abstract art and realism was frowned upon. So all I have learnt has been from experimentation and lots of practice!

Bandit says, "This one looks a little like me, Mom!"
Although I have tried many different mediums over the years I have fallen in love with colored pencils. They can be quite a difficult medium to master but offer so much versatility in the styles and looks, which can be achieved. They can be heavy and rich like an oil painting or soft and dreamy like a pastel. My favorite characteristic is their ability to be sharpened to a needle point. I always work with my pencils super sharp and quite literally draw in every hair on my bigger pieces. It requires a lot of patience but the effect is well worth it. They are, however, not as forgiving as other mediums so each piece has to be thoughtfully planned and carefully executed. For example you can’t really layer light colors on top of darks like you can with other mediums such as oil paint. The portrait I recently finished of the Akita with his nose covered in snow required me to initially draw in all of the flecks of snow (after I had finished his eyes, that’s always first), and then very carefully draw in the rest of the portrait behind it!

Jewel at work with  Nika.
I dearly love realism and when I draw a picture I don’t just copy a photo, I do all I can to make a portrait even better than the photo. That’s the beauty of art; you can add things in, leave things out, clean things up or make a coat look thicker and fuller. I always try to challenge myself with the pieces I choose to draw. I often pick photos that would be technically difficult to draw but the challenge helps me learn how to tackle different subjects, textures or elements that I am less familiar with. Being able to create a good likeness comes with having a great passion and understanding of my subjects and being able to recognize the subtleties and tiny details that make a dog unique and individual. When the owner sees my portrait I really want them to see “their” dog looking back at them.

FSM. When did you first become interested in art?

JM. I have been interested in art for as long as I can remember. I spent countless childhood hours drawing and painting. Although I tried many mediums, graphite pencils was my favorite as a child until I discovered colored pencils. I first had my artwork on public display when I was just 15, in a small gift and home-ware shop in Nelson. My materials were always very limited but I did the best with what I could afford at the time. At the age of 17 I moved to Christchurch (the big city!) and managed the Art & Craft department within a large retail chain store. This gave me the perfect opportunity to learn about quality art materials, and also to stock up!

FSM. I read you first started out sketching wolves…how and where did you do this and what attracted you to drawing this species?

JM. I can’t remember a time when I didn’t love wolves! Everything about them fascinated me, and still does. They are so beautiful, so intelligent and had such complex and intricate relationships within their own species but also the interactions and relationships they had with humans. I constantly borrowed books about them from the library, which were not only an excellent source of information but were also where my earliest reference material came from. I also hunted for calendars, nature magazines or anything I could get my hands on really. And I absolutely loved watching documentaries on them. We don’t have wolves in New Zealand so this was the only way I could study them. I dream of being able to meet and interact with some in real life one day.
Cover models Suggen & Aleka

FSM. How did you know you wanted to be a professional artist?

JM. I had always dreamed of being a professional artist but was always told that I couldn’t because “it’s not a real job”. I had actually planned on leaving high school and then going to university to study fine art but with the state of the art world at the at the time and their obsession with abstract art, I changed my mind and decided against it. This left me with the realization that I had no idea what else I could do with my life. Nothing else excited me and drove me like art did. In the back of my mind I never gave up on my dream and I made a lot of choices along the way, particularly with my jobs, that still supported my goal. I worked with art supplies and books, took a commission only job with a professional landscape painter just for the experience which taught me heaps about the art world, and even worked in an office supplies store. Each job taught me skills that I could transfer to my own art career. The biggest turning point for me was taking a night course on small business management and realizing that I could actually turn my hobby and dream into a reality. Two months after starting my course I was officially in business.

FSM. You do so many beautiful Siberian Husky, Malamute, and sled dog portraits, in addition to other breeds and animals. How did you become so interested in the northern breeds and what attracts to you to drawing these dogs?

JM. My mother had always loved northern breeds, especially Samoyeds. When I was 7 my family adopted Tiia, a Finnish Spitz puppy who we were lucky enough to share 16 ½ wonderful years with. She was my first real introduction to northern breeds, and looked so much like a tiny wolf pup when we brought her home. She really forged my love of northern breeds and was a big inspiration for me. I think the close relationship they have with wolves and the intelligent, independent natures they both share really appealed to me, as well as their stunning good looks!

Jewel with Vada from Chugiak Kennels of Nelson
One of my early pet portraits was of a beautiful Alaskan Malamute I had met and photographed called Mia. Her portrait attracted me a lot of commissions from people who had seen it, even before it was finished, and also after I listed it for sale on an online auction site. One of the many people who contacted me through the site was a lovely lady called Aleeya, who is now one of my closest friends. At the time she owned three Siberian Huskies, which unbeknownst to her I was already drawing as a surprise gift at the request of another friend of hers who had also found me through the auction site! Aleeya was the secretary of the Southland Sled Dog Association, and after dozens of emails talking about Huskies and Sled Dog sports she invited Wayne and I down to Invercargill to stay with her, meet her and her Huskies and experience sled dog racing first hand. I was hooked! Seeing the immense joy and excitement the dogs had for racing was overwhelming and very inspiring! During my time at the racing Aleeya introduced me to lots of people and their gorgeous dogs, mostly northern breeds. I came away from there with lots of new friends, several commissions, and the idea firmly in my mind that I wanted to re-create that excitement I had experienced so strongly from the dogs and share it with the world. Two years later I returned to Invercargill with my exhibition Born To Run, which I held on-site at the sled dog racing, right next to the finish line.

Networking through Aleeya, as well as people I have met from other clubs, has allowed me to meet some wonderful people over the past few years, and has led me to specialize in northern breeds and sled dog portraits, although I still enjoy drawing all dog breeds, as well as other animals. Facebook certainly makes networking a lot easier and makes the world feel so much smaller! I absolutely love meeting new people and their gorgeous dogs. 

FSM. Do you have any dogs/pets of your own?

JM. Yes, we have a gorgeous wee Chocolate Labrador/Mastiff/Staffy mix called Nika. We adopted her from a shelter when she was around eight weeks old after her and her three sisters were abandoned when they were around five weeks old. She is such a special girl, my constant companion, and has the biggest personality! She’s always super happy, a little cheeky and far too intelligent for her own good! Everyone who meets her falls in love with her.

FSM. You do much work for non-profit shelters – i.e. donating portraits for fundraising, etc. How and why did you become involved in this type of volunteer work?

JM. Adopting our girl Nika from a shelter was definitely quite eye opening, seeing how many more animals get a second chance at life because of the work they do. Along with the main shelters like the SPCA, there are a lot of smaller, lesser known rescues around which are often run by one single very dedicated person. I also hold breed specific rescues in very high regard and believe they are a very valuable asset in our societies. After meeting lots of people through my art who belong to various clubs I discovered that almost all of the clubs I deal with have a rescue element, or support a rescue relevant to their dogs. I was able to see how dedicated the clubs are to supporting other owners and helping to train, rescue and re-home the breeds that they know so well. The people involved in these breed specific rescues know the dogs inside out and are often better educated and equipped at dealing with their specific needs and making accurate assessments. None of these groups or rescues receives funding and the money often comes out of their own pockets, so I try to do what I can to support various clubs and rescues across New Zealand and more recently in Australia and America too. I have a huge respect to all of the people who dedicate their time and often their own money to helping animals. It is admirable and very inspiring.

FSM. How difficult/easy is it to “get to know” the animal you are drawing via photographs so that you can bring out their individual personality?

JM. It really is all about the eyes. I always start and finish the eyes first before anything else as they truly let you see into the soul of an animal. I can spend an entire day just working on the eyes and if they are not perfect from the start then I will not continue with the portrait and I will re-started it. They really are that important. Once the eyes are finished I know exactly how the rest of the portrait will look. The likeness and glimmer of personality you see in the eyes in my opinion will make or break a portrait.

"Bolt" - the first illustration of Jewel's new book in progress, Indomitable Spirit

I also spend a lot of time studying my subjects before I start drawing them. Having several different photos to look at, especially some less formal photos that show a lot of their personality really helps. I always ask owners to tell me a bit about them and their character. As I work on a portrait I cross-reference various photos throughout the process to ensure I can get the markings and fine details as accurate as I can. By the time I have finished a portrait I really feel like I know my subject very well.

In some cases when a portrait is finished and sent, that’s the end of the communication with my client, but in many cases that is just the beginning. I have made some wonderful friends over the years and still receive photos and updates from lots of animals that I drew many years ago. I have become “Aunty Jewel” to dozens of cats and dogs all over the world, many of whom I have never met, but still feel extremely close to. Whenever something happens, good or bad, I am often one of the first people who they contact.

FSM. In order to do a portrait, you need just a photograph(s)?

JM. Yes, although I would love to have the dogs here in person for cuddling purposes! I try to get a few different photos if possible showing different angles and lots of personality. Even though I predominantly work from just one photo it still helps to be able to cross reference details and markings as I work. Having large clear photos to work from makes a world of difference as my style is highly detailed and I do all I can to make it as accurate as possible. The more I can see in the photo the more I can include in a portrait and the better the likeness will be.

FSM. You recently held a Model Search for new faces for your next book, which I am so happy to announce that my Gibson has been selected to be in…what will that one be called and how did you know you wanted to another book?

JM. While working on my first project Born To Run, I met lots of wonderful people and dogs from all over the world and I was also introduced to a few different northern breeds that I didn’t have any experience with. Seeing these dogs doing what they love best, back in the environments that they were bred for was hugely influential and inspiring. There was one photo in particular that really struck me when I saw it and gave me the idea to work on a second book which looked more at the spirit of these hard working and extraordinary dogs. The photo was of a huge Alaskan Malamute Team taken during an expedition in the Arctic. I am thrilled to say that I have been given permission to draw this photo, which inspired me so much and include it in my new book which I will be calling Indomitable Spirit.

Jewel with "nieces & nephews from Ice Sibes of Invercargill     
It’s the spirit of the dogs that speak to me while I look through the photos, of which I had well over 15,000 submitted with permission to use for my book! Dogs have been domesticated for such a long time now and few are worked and relied on in the arctic regions of the world like they used to be, but their modern day descendants have never lost the strength and determination that their ancestors possessed. My book will look at a variety of breeds from all over the globe. Some of the dogs I will be drawing are still leading the lives of working or racing dogs, while others are much loved companions from more urban environments. The one thing they all have in common is their amazing quiet strength and loyalty and the special bonds that they share with their owners.

JM. My wonderful friend, Dawn, from Connecticut, USA, makes the most exquisite glass charm pendants and key rings from my artwork. These are a great optional extra for people getting portraits drawn, and I also have a large selection of my images, which are available to be made into charms. I can also have charms made from your photos. They can be ordered directly through me by sending me an email.

FSM. When will your new book be out and how will it and Born to Run be available for folks who would love to add it to their own library?

JM. When I initially developed the concept for Indomitable Spirit I planned on drawing 35 portraits for it, but after a lengthy discussion on my Facebook page, I have increased that number to 55. This is making it a bit hard to predict a publish date, but I am aiming for early to mid 2014. I will be posting updates and many of the finished portraits on my Facebook page as I go so anyone interested in following my journey is welcome to join my page Pet Portraits by Jewel Mathieson

In addition to the 27 full color portraits, Jewel’s first book Born to Run also has photos from the exhibition and racing and gives a great insight into how it all came to be. Born To Run can be purchased HERE

FSM. What’s next for Jewel?

JM. Once Indomitable Spirit has been published, I’m hoping to spend the rest of 2014 focusing on my commissions. I’m sure there will be another big project in the works soon after that though. I already have lots of ideas but don’t want to decide on anything yet while I’m still focused on my current project. I will wait and see what inspires me next and where my journey will lead me.

If you’d like to have a portrait done by Jewel, she says that while “some people know exactly what they want and how they want it, but many people have no idea. I’m here to help with all aspects of planning and am always happy to look at people’s photos and to advise them what I think would work best. There is no obligation at all; I love meeting people and especially love seeing photos of their dogs.”

Contact Jewel via Email: Jewel(at) or visit her website HERE.

"Woo! Us FiveSibes give Born to Run a 4-Paws Up Rating! 
We love it!" says Harley.

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  1. Wow, I am just blown away by the intricate drawings by Jewel!! Those are just beyond amazing!!! I'm sooo super jealous that you are getting Gibson done! I can't wait to see it!!! Great interview too! No professional training either - wow...what a gift!!! Thanks so much for sharing this with us! If Jewel ever wants to have a male Chihuahua mix model, Max is ready!:)!!! Love love love it!!!

  2. Those are some beautiful drawings....fantastic!!!!


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  4. Just discovered this interview! I related to in a few ways. I love wolves, my family used to have Samoyeds, and I use my creative talents in the pet world. Thanks for the in-depth interview with Jewel, which provided a look into the journey she's taken as an artist. Jewel and her book sound great!