Fishs Eddy’s Artist-in-Residence Ben Lenovitz Can’t Stop Painting Pets
In spite of being super allergic to them.
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There is a famous line in The Picture of Dorian Gray: “It is not he [the sitter] who is revealed by the painter; it is rather the painter who, on the coloured canvas, reveals himself.” If this statement is true, then what Ben Lenovitz is often showing us is his love — and longing — for pets. The artist has made a name for himself by crafting colorful, occasionally humorous, custom one-of-a-kind portraits of pets — despite being allergic to both cats and dogs.
The New York City-based artist can be found during weekly pop-ups in his studio at Fishs Eddy offering on-the-spot pet portraits. His canvas of choice is cardboard, on which he often utilizes the contrast of bright blues to make the portraits pop. Lenovitz recently spoke with The Wildest, dishing on how his unique style developed, his journey as an artist, and the rewarding challenge of focusing art on something you can’t regularly touch.
Let’s start at the beginning — how did you begin making pet portraits?
I would always draw obsessively. Drawing in a notebook became my favorite medium because of the materials and the nature of a simple pen and paper that can make a continuous line — unlike painting, where you have to reapply your brush with paint. For me, pen was immediate mark-making. And the notebook was private, so I could take risks and just draw for myself. It wasn’t serious; it was FUN!
When did you start focusing on pets?
After college, I was in a trade show with the blocks. I had a few customers, but it was never really successful — except for one customer who stuck with me. It was a small antique shop in Osaka, Japan. And while the blocks didn’t do too much for them, they flew me out to Osaka for a fair to draw NYC icons on the spot. Imagine this: a 12-story mall, no windows in Osaka, exhibiting a “NY fair!” I was sandwiched between Sabarro’s Pizzeria and the Chelsea Market Souvenir booth. I drew tons of Statue of Liberties and Empire State Buildings on cardboard, and that made me an “Authentic NYC Artist.” I could draw anything, as long as I was from NY. As the week went on in the mall, people began to ask me to draw their enu and nako. That’s cat and dog in Japanese.
I had never painted a dog or cat before. I immediately loved painting their funny faces and their eyes. Right away, I preferred a photo with the pet’s tongue out. And that’s when I had the realization that: “WOW! This is way more fun than painting the Statue of Liberty nonstop!” And then I thought…maybe this is a career too! When I came home, I began to do pet portraits at Fishs Eddy, and that was that. Five years and thousands of pet portraits later, so many different animals – donkeys, turtles, bulls, spiders, and even a crab — the rest was history.
Given that you’re allergic to cats and dogs, why focus so much of your art on them?
I’ve always loved animals. I grew up with tons of reptiles — mainly because I’m very allergic to dogs. I’m so allergic that their saliva in the air gives me a rash. So, I wasn’t around dogs. I never even paid attention to them on the streets. Dogs were just not on my radar. As folks started to ask me to do more and more portraits of their pets (mostly dogs and cats) I began to look at dogs in real life — the patterns on their fur, their snouts, and their adorable eyes.
As I started painting them, I really fell in love with them, and I’m heartbroken that I can’t have one of my own. I would love to have one of those creepy Mexican Hairless dogs but I’m even allergic to them! I pet dogs every once in a while now because I just can’t stop myself, but as soon as I do, I have to run home and shower.
Is it difficult often working that close to an animal you’re allergic to? Ever have a reaction while working?
Yeah, after events I have to shower. Sometimes if it’s a big event like PetCon I’ll take allergy medications beforehand.
You often do pet portraits on the spot in NYC. How does that process differ in comparison to when you’re commissioned to do portraits online?
I love doing portraits on the spot. Everyone has thousands of photos of their pets on their phones. I paint best from iPhone photos because pets don’t stay still in real life. The best part about this job is painting next to the pet owner. We talk about their pets and I hear funny or sad stories as I paint. It helps me add character. Their stories elevate the painting somehow.
How did your portrait style develop?
My portrait style developed over the last five years to a more consistent product. I learned a couple of tricks to painting different pets. I know what photos work best for a portrait. I used to do full-body pets, but lately, I find giant heads to be funnier and more revealing of the pet’s personality. Also, I paint on cardboard, so it feels less intimidating than painting on canvas. If I screw up, I can just grab another piece and start again. I start with a paintbrush to do the hair and general shape, then switch to acrylic markers to make the more specific details — the eyes, the nose, etc. It’s surgical.
What artists inspired by early on, and who are you inspired by now?
I am inspired by kids’ art. So many times I try to make “art” and I overcomplicate the work, but kids’ art is so simple. Simplicity makes the best work. I try to trust the process and not overpaint.
Blue is your signature color, generally being featured as the background of most portraits. Did you always gravitate towards this palette?
I picked that blue because it’s the opposite color of the cardboard, and so it has a vibrating effect next to the color of the cardboard. I try to leave cracks of cardboard in between the blue background so the vibrating effect is stronger.
You’re the in-house artist for Fishs Eddy; how did that partnership come about?
It’s actually my parents’ store. They started it 30 years ago when they were 25, selling flea market dishes from upstate NY. The last thing they wanted was me hanging around the store all day, but after I had started building the pet portrait business they let me do an event at the store. It was such a huge success, they gave me a small studio space in the back. The rest is history.
What has that experience working out of Fishs Eddy been like for you?
It’s been great. Other than the fact that my mother always tells me when a portrait isn’t good enough. But I couldn’t have ever grown into the artist I am without them. I 100% credit Fishs Eddy (mom and dad) with my development as an artist.
You’ve featured your work on leashes, mugs, and totes — what’s next for Ben Lenovitz? Any medium you’re specifically keen on tackling?
Over the last year, I’ve been making paintings for fun, not just pets. They are oil and spray painting. The subject is often pet-related but can be anything. I think pets have just become such a huge part of my life that, even when I don’t intend to paint them, they always end up on the canvas somehow! I’m also launching a bunch of new products on my site very soon — I’ve been working on them for about a year now. It’s a lot of paper products: gift wrap, cards, etc. I’m also reimagining my Cat Person and Dog Person patterns, so that’s exciting!
Any upcoming work you’re excited about?
I recently started making these pigeon prints inspired by famous NYC neighborhoods. The pigeon has the attitude of its neighborhood — the Lower East Side, Flatiron, Williamsburg, etc. They took off like crazy over the holidays, an immediate best seller. I’m having a lot of fun with them. I just did cats and dogs of NYC in the same style. And the paintings and spray paintings I’ve made over the last year I am putting on my website for sale. Seeing if I can be a “Fine Artist” instead of just a fine artist!
From mental health tips she learned from her dogs to the shame of running out of poop bags, her illustrations are playful and relatable.
“It’s always a really funny, happy parade that’s going through the house and workplace at all times.”
The artist behind these amazing pet portraits talks special-needs animals and unconventional commissions. P.S. There’s a discount code!
“I think the relationship between a woman and her animal companion can build out a character a lot — they’re more like witches’ familiars than pets.”
Sean Zucker is an editor at The Wildest whose work has also been featured in Points In Case, The Daily Drunk, Posty, and WellWell. He recently adopted a Pit Bull named Banshee whose work has been featured on the kitchen floor and behavioral issues rival his own.