*This article originally appeared in the March 2013 issue of The Austin Post*
It’s a sunny February afternoon at The Canine Center for Training and Behavior on Old Bee Caves Road. A tall man named Bryce Dishongh staffs a booth offering $20 portraits of people’s pups. He photographs the face of friendly cattle dog mix with his iPad, and 20 minutes later the dog’s black and white drawing is rendered for her happy human.
In school, Dishongh was always the kid drawing mini-masterpieces in his notebook.
As a 30-year-old technical writer, he still draws in meetings and on the whiteboard in the work breakroom where he has developed a reputation as the guy who creates interesting images while making his coffee.
“I usually draw something on the breakroom whiteboard that’s funny and specific to what’s gone on in the company, so coworkers are able to identify with it,” he says. “It’s fun because it’s like a conversation where I draw or write something, and then someone else will come in and do an addition to it and so we have this volleying back and forth of different creative things in the break room. Our CEO encourages that kind of socializing even though it’s really non-traditional.”
Three years ago, Dishongh decided to take art more seriously, and looked into monetizing it on the side of his day job. He eventually settled on a style and subject he enjoyed most, which led to the creation of Coat and Tails in September 2012. The style is Victorian and the subject is pets – mostly dogs. Customers send him a picture or he meets the pet in person, and Dishongh creates a portrait of Fido or Fluffy wearing a ruff, monocle, top hat, cigar or other highbrow adornment.
“I draw dogs in human clothing mainly because I love the aesthetic of children’s book illustrations in which animals are clothed, but I also feel that pets are caught in this weird limbo between human and non-human worlds,” he says. “As a result, we don’t often know how to view them, especially when non-pet people enter our lives and wonder why we sometimes prioritize pets over them. Drawing dogs and other domesticated animals in clothes reflects this weird position and in so doing embraces it.”
In December, Dishongh adopted his first dog, a pointer mix named Bess from Blue Dog Rescue, but does not consider himself a “dog person” yet. This makes navigating the sensibilities of dog aficionados’ subculture and catering to their art preferences tricky. He naturally gravitates toward a style he describes as “weird, eerie and macabre”, but isn’t sure if that would appeal to most pet lovers.
His current artistic process goes through three stages: Discussing the concept with friends, sketching it and then putting that rendering on Coat & Tails’ Facebook page for fan feedback.
His process for a custom pet portrait involves discussing the pet’s personality and determining the most appropriate clothing/accessories, creating a sketch, and finally sitting down and making the image.
“One of the things I love about Coat and Tails is that I get to make a custom image for a person rather than creating something I’ve imagined for the masses – It can be very special for a family,” Dishongh says. He acknowledges that doing custom work “isn’t as financially lucrative as making generic prints or other products”, so he also creates pet-related prints and tee shirts that are thematically aligned with the spirit of Coat and Tails. He’s currently working on a line of prints and tee shirts such as Squirrel Sausage, Raccoon Steak and Toilet Water, which are modeled after the style of ads and trade cards of the late 1800s.
Dishongh’s booth at The Canine Center was one of many events at which he has sketched people’s pets. He’s a fixture at Austin Flea and also drew at October’s Pittie Pride Parade in Republic Square Park.
“Booths are both fun and draining,” he says of the events, at which he often sketches for six hours. “They are the best marketing I can do because I meet so many people, one of whom was an interior designer that recommends my portraits to her clients.”
He supports local dog rescues by donating 25 percent of the proceeds from his live drawings to non-profits. He also donates 10 percent of the sales from his shop to selected rescue groups. Dishongh recently created an illustration for the proposed finished product for the Friends of Austin Animal Center’s Shade Project to keep the animals at Austin Animal Center cooler in the summer.
As awareness of Dishongh’s artistic skill has spread, he’s now in the position to turn down proposed projects, instead choosing to focus on Coat and Tails. He believes it’s important for artists to stick to a style that defines them.
“I like so many different kinds of art, but as an artist you need a branded style and have to be clear about what you do in order to be identifiable,” he says. “I’m very focused now on only doing pet portraits in a Victorian style because customers are going to come to you not because you can draw so many different things, but because you can do one thing better than anyone else.”
In his perfect world, Dishongh would draw from home all day, so he could spend more time with Bess. He would also collaborate with a small team of like-minded artists. Until then, based on how busy his clients keep him, Dishongh seems to have his market cornered.