Suzanne Schirra has been drawn to art since she was a child using crayons. “My work has always been about vivid, bold color. In painting dogs,” she says, “I aim to capture their expressions precisely, then add intensity through my use of color.”
In fact it is her use of bright colors, combined with the realism in her work, that make Schirra’s acrylic-on-canvas paintings unique. While many artists paint animals using bright colors, they usually paint caricatures, or in the abstract. Schirra is one of the few artists who create photorealistic portraits that look exactly like the animal she’s portraying except in bright, electric colors.
She admits that she could have chosen any subject matter using the style in which she paints. However, Schirra felt strongly that an artist who paints any and everything is seldom very accomplished at any of them. The painter who chooses one field, studies it carefully and concentrates on it has a greater chance of success. Because she loves dogs so much, they are her chosen subjects.
As Schirra says, “Dogs don’t live beige lives. They live big, bold, vibrant lives.” She uses color to reflect that, and she concentrates particularly on their facial expressions. Most of her work depicts just the head and shoulders of her subjects, as she feels that the face is where the soul of the dog is expressed.
Combining her love of color with her love of dogs creates paintings that positively jump off the canvas. For each painting she works from one photograph. You won’t find many grays or browns in her paintings. Instead Schirra uses rich blues and purples to convey the darkest areas, and then adds complementary colors in orange, reds and yellows, sometimes combined with white, to flesh out each canine.
Each painting takes from 10 days to one month to complete, and the majority of her work is commissioned by individual owners. She paints in many layers, going from dark to light to create depth. She does this over and over again until the dog has come to life, and then uses very small brushes to bring out all the detail and texture of the dog’s coat, as well as its wet nose and sometimes lolling tongue. She then highlights the outline with another vivid color, which makes the image pop.
While she brings to her work a solid background, with degrees in art history and graphic arts, Schirra has continued to learn throughout her career. In addition to studying skeletal and muscular form, and movement in the human, which she capably applies to dogs, she has studied breed standards, as well as different coat types, eye and ear shapes, and noses in dogs. And each new breed that she paints is a lesson in itself, as she learns something new with each commission.
The Vail, Colo., resident isn’t the only famous person in her family. Suzanne’s late father, Wally Schirra, was one of the original seven astronauts selected for Project Mercury, the first U.S. effort to put humans in space, and the only one to fly in all of America’s first three space programs, Mercury, Gemini and Apollo. But his daughter found her life’s calling with her feet planted firmly on the ground.
Schirra’s work is currently showing at Vail Village Arts in Vail and at the Vickers Collection in both Aspen and Beaver Creek. She is also showing in California and Hawaii and, soon, in New York. To see more of her work, or to commission a painting of your own, visit her website at www.suzanneschirra.com.