When Odysseus docked on the shores of Ithaca after 20 years away from home, cloaked in rags and timeworn from decades of captivity and war, not one person recognized the once venerable king. Not even his faithful wife, Penelope, who steadfastly refused every suitor that came slithering up to her door while Odysseus was missing in action.
But Argos, the king’s beloved dog, never forgot his friend.
Sickened by old age and infested with fleas, Argos met the disguised king with a knowing tail wag, then closed his eyes one last time.
Meet Tyler Smith and his dog Rufus
Even though Tyler Smith never ruled over a tiny Grecian island, the recently relocated welding engineer knows his dog Rufus would recognize him anywhere, too.
“I’ve had a couple of dogs over the years but Rufus was definitely one of his own—he was special,” says Smith, with a wistful look on his face. The tiny white Mal-shi passed in late 2017 after suffering through a type of tongue cancer common in dogs.
“Over time it became very painful for him to eat or drink,” says Smith, whose family eventually decided to put the 12-year-old Rufus down last year.
Rufus came to live with the Smiths when Tyler was in middle school, brought home as a companion to aging family dog, Snuffy. “I honestly think he added a few years to Snuffy’s life,” remembers Smith. “He was really cute. When he was a little three-pound fluff ball, we would call him Rufus Einstein because he had messy white hair.”
Commissioning a painting of Rufus
Though Rufus lived a full, happy life, the family was understandably upset by their pet’s death. Soon after Rufus passed, Smith considered having a painting commissioned to memorialize his fluffy friend. “Me and [PatronArt founder Shao Xun Loke] got to talking about custom artwork, and I said ‘Yeah, I guess if I were to do that, I’d want Rufus portrayed as a magnificent giant beast.’ He wasn’t of course, but in his mind he was.”
Smith created an account at PatronArt and started working with the automated system by adding pictures and giving a description of his ideas. “I said I wanted Rufus portrayed as a giant beast, sort of like The Neverending Story’s Falcor, with me riding on top of him, carrying a weapon.”
“My friends and I play a lot of D&D,” Smith continues, “and one of my favorite characters is a monk. So I basically took a description or found an image on Google of one of the styles of monk you can be in that game.”
Smith browsed PatronArt’s vetted artists until he came up with a list of painters he thought would be able to capture Rufus’ unique personality. Working with the curators to figure out availability and cost, Smith knew for certain that pet painter Elizabeth Buttler would be the perfect artist for his idea.
Working with PatronArt
“[PatronArt curator] Ralph acted like a liaison between me and Elizabeth,” says Smith. “He handled a lot of the logistics, like shipping and handling and billing.” That gave Smith more time to focus on communicating his ideas to Buttler.
“[Elizabeth] just made a couple of sketches until we got something I really liked, and it turned out great. She used mostly pictures of Rufus, and a few of me in high school. I did pole vaulting a lot, so I had a couple shots of me holding a pole, trying to look majestic. It was really just silly stuff I did in high school.”
At first, Buttler used the pole-vaulting photos to paint a staff into Smith’s hand. After some feedback, Smith decided a sword would look better.
“[Smith] was a lot of fun to work with,” adds Buttler. “Very enthusiastic. He supplied great reference photos to work with, many of which happened to have just the right pose or angle. Rufus looked like a Bichon Frise-type dog, so I found photos of that breed of dog running for additional reference. For the background sky, I used my own reference photos from a hike that I do several times a week—I live in the Berkshires in western Massachusetts where there are lots of beautiful views and great clouds.”
Buttler created pencil sketches in Photoshop to help plan her painting. Any changes or adjustments Smith requested were also done digitally. When both artist and patron were happy with the rendering, Buttler translated the sketch to canvas with a charcoal pencil and then layered acrylic paint on top.
"Rufus the Luck Dragon"
“It ended up looking very close to what I pictured in my head,” says Smith. “Both Ralph and Elizabeth … were able to take what I said to heart and mold an image that was 99.9 percent of what I saw in my head. My family really liked how Rufus turned out, too.”
Smith and his family still miss their pet, but Buttler’s finished painting, “Rufus the Luck Dragon,”—now hanging in Smith’s living room—helps them remember the friendly Mal-shi. “The painting really captured who Rufus was,” Smith says. “A little puppy, full of life, hanging out with his best buddy.”
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Laurence “Sketch” Cheatham is a self-taught portrait artist who fuses contemporary art with classic by painting his daughter into beloved masterpieces.