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We Chat With Pet Portrait Artist Thomas Dalsgaard Clausen

The architecture student wanted to improve his sketching, so he started drawing dogs and cats -- now he's getting paid to draw people's pets!

Barbarella Buchner  |  Nov 9th 2015


Pet portraits and the artists who draw them are all over the Internet these days. But rarely will you find someone capturing the essence of the animals as wonderfully as Danish artist Thomas Dalsgaard Clausen. We caught up with this remarkable man for a chat about his artwork.

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Thomas Dalsgaard Clausen at work, sketching.

Dogster: Thomas, please tell us a little about who you are and what you do.

Thomas Dalsgaard Clausen: I’m an architecture student living in Denmark, where I’m currently finishing the last semester of my studies. In architecture, it is really important to draw and quickly be able to capture and explain a concept on paper, but I have never been very satisfied with my skills. This is the main reason why I set out to improve my sketching, and I committed to do at least one sketch every day. This has helped me improve my abilities tremendously during the last year.

It started out being mostly about architecture, but I quickly realized that I have a passion for drawing and painting portraits of animals and people. What began as a commitment and a challenge to get better soon turned into an obsession. I couldn’t imagine not drawing now!

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Dog portrait in watercolor by Thomas Dalsgaard Clausen.

I have attended a few workshops and minor courses about basic drawing, form, and sketching in architecture school, but only a few. I’m mostly self-trained, and what I have learned, I gained either from observation or from the experience of trying again and again until I get it right.

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The artist’s sketch books.

On September 9, 2014, I created my first sketch and set up a blog and decided that I would post a new drawing every day for two years. It has now been more than a year that I have been drawing daily, and I have come up with more than 700 sketches so far!

About six months ago, I started drawing upon request. People reach me through social media sites like Facebook and Twitter, and I have been picking out and drawing a request randomly every day since. Folks soon started asking me for the originals, and this is when I began doing custom pet portrait drawings, mostly in pen and watercolor. I’m really excited about this last part!

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Portrait of dog drawn in pen by Thomas Dalsgaard Clausen.

So you specialize in animal portraits — why animals? Do you paint other subjects or sceneries, too?

I do a lot of different things like street perspectives, things around my apartment, buildings and landscape scenes, but I also try to do things that are out of my “comfort zone” to challenge myself.  However, I have found that what I really love to do is draw living things. There is something very special about living creatures that appeals to me much more than cold geometry.

Sometimes when I draw a portrait, I notice a very distinct “shift” — one moment the lines on paper just look like scribbles, and then suddenly it is as if a face breaks through and peeks out from the drawing. I really love it when that happens! Dogs and cats are among my favorite subjects because they express so much emotion through their eyes and facial expressions. It can be quite a challenge to render this in a drawing because it is often subtle and complex things that make their personality shine through.

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One of the artist’s cat portraits in watercolor.

Do you have pets? If so, are they a source of inspiration for you?

I often get asked this question, but in fact, no — I have no pets. But when I was a kid, we had lots of different animals. I remember one of our chickens got so friendly with me that she followed me around the garden everywhere I went!

The reason I don’t have pets today though is because my wife and I are at our respective jobs and studies and our house is empty all day, and also because we like to travel as often as we can, so we don’t think that our way of life is suitable for pets right now. But when I go and visit my mom’s place, I’m usually surrounded by dogs and cats, and she also has chickens and goldfish, and there is the occasional wild stag and birds of prey if you’re lucky enough to catch a glimpse of them. I have already drawn a few of my mother’s dogs.

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A watercolor portrait of Alfa, one of Thomas Dalsgaard Clausen’s mother’s dogs.

Who are your favorite painters and inspirations?

I absolutely love Rembrandt’s art, in particular his portraits where he plays very creatively with light and dark, but I am especially enamored with his sketches! Here is a sketchy edging of a dog by him.

What really appeals to me are those “quick and dirty” sketches where an experienced artist swiftly scribbles something down on paper like there was nothing to it. I often enjoy the sketches and studies by the great masters even more than their finished pieces because they simply capture something magical and alive. This is why I focus a lot on quick sketches alongside my proper paintings and drawings.

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Quick sketch of a dog by Thomas Dalsgaard Clausen.

What’s your favorite piece of work you have created?

It’s so hard to choose a favorite! Every time I finish a piece, I sort of move on and forget about the one I just created. After doing more than 700 sketches and finished portraits, it’s close to impossible, but let me try.

This is a portrait I did of a Labrador Retriever called Liberty.  He is a therapy dog who is getting older, and his owner asked me to do a painting to remember him by.

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Liberty in watercolor by Thomas Dalsgaard Clausen.

When it comes to my free quick sketches, I feel pretty good about this one that I did back in April of this year.

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Quick sketch of a dog by Thomas Dalsgaard Clausen.

What are you working on right now?

I try to do at least one of my free sketches per day. I have a lot of drawing requests waiting, and it can sometimes be a little hard to admit to myself that I can’t draw all of them, and most of them end up deleted if I haven’t pulled them out of the list at random after two weeks.

In terms of commissioned pet portraits, I’m currently in the middle of doing a double portrait of two cats, and after that I will be working on a portrait of a very stately looking Bulldog named Henry. I’m looking forward to that one!

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Dog portrait by Thomas Dalsgaard Clausen.

Do you have any tips or inspiring words for budding artists?

I think that the good old “you can do anything if you set your mind to it” is one of the main things that I have realized over the last year of sketching. It sounds like a cliché, but a year ago I would not have imagined myself doing commissions and selling my art today. The routine and consistency of doing something every day and then sharing it with the world has really helped me a great deal.

It is also a fact that most artists would rather spend all their time creating, and many end up neglecting their online presence. So far, practically all of my clients have found me through Twitter or Facebook, so that really speaks for itself. Other than that, the Internet is a great way to get comments, criticism, and motivation from other artists.

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Thomas sketching

You have a daily drawing competition where people can get a free sketch done of their pets. Tell us a bit more about this.

When I first began drawing every day, it took a lot of time to seek out good reference photos to draw from, but after having done a few animal pictures, I started being approached by dog and cat bloggers who asked me very nicely to draw their pets. I accepted, and I did a lot of these, and often enough I got my sketches featured on the pet owners’ blogs.

This quickly became popular, and my list of pets to sketch grew longer and longer. This is when I realized that it would be way more convenient for me to lean back and have people send me photos of their pets, rather than spending a lot of time searching for photos and asking for the photographer’s permission. It’s great fun to draw people’s pets, and I get to make a lot of pet owners happy. Many have printed and framed the sketch I did for them, and some have asked me to make them a proper painting for them later.

Thanks, Thomas! To see more of his work, visit his website, like him on Facebook, and follow him on Twitter and Instagram. You can enter his daily drawing for a free sketch through any of his social media pages.

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About the Author: Barbarella Buchner — Ailurophile. Geeky Goth Girl. Ex-Musician Singer/Songwriter. Photographer. Web Designer. Fibromyalgia + RA Sufferer. And totally mad. She originally hails from Hannover (Germany), then moved to London, and since 2004 has lived on the tropical island of Lanzarote, together with her tabby twins Lugosi & Spider, and ginger queen Ruby Akasha. Apart from being an avid hobby — and sometimes even paid. — photographer, she works as a freelance web and graphic designer and occasional Catster / Dogster contributor.