Exagerated line drawings of her pet Boston Terrier, Ladybird, fill Kensington artist Heather Rae Morton’s home studio. She’s been living and working here since moving to San Diego from Philly three years ago. The fifteen pound, black and white muse herself yaps, sniffs, rolls, drools, and races around the artist’s house with bug-eyed fervor. The dog’s spastic energy is clear in the illustrations, which treat the subject with an understandable affection for the dog’s goofy attitude and comical proportions.
Few of Morton’s drawings exceed 4 by 6 inches.
“My drawings are really tiny,” says soft-spoken Morton, making the word as diminutive as possible. “I use a really fine-tipped pen. The smallest I can get. The nib is eight-thousandths of an inch. It clogs really easily and it’s impossible to clean it, so I go through a lot of nibs. I get really close to my drawings and I end up with a sore back and hand cramps. I’ve never worked large. I pretty much started drawing this way when I was in college as a photography major. I would always
have down time waiting for prints to process and dry.”
All the short, five-minute waits were no good for reading, but the intervals between photo developments were perfect to draw and doodle with increasingly smaller pens. Morton cites Edward Gorey and Victorian illustrator Aubrey Beardsley as informing her waifish style, characterized by the most minute pen lines possible, which suits the admittedly shy and introverted artist. She’s a private enough person that the name of her Etsy store is ‘Shyteeth.’
Shyness doesn’t make a modern day Emily Dickinson out of Morton, however, and the artist shows her work around town when the amount of finished drawings in the studio reaches critical mass.
“My last show was just a really small one at Kensington Cafe down the street. I had good luck there and sold a lot of art, but the most surprising thing was the commissions. Since the show, I’ve actually been busy doing pet portraits for people.”
She’s done, among other things, an illustration of blind wiener dog (pencil and gouache on paper) and a pen and gouache portrait of a neighborhood couple as lady and gentleman rabbits, which has some strong Victorian overtones. (Here’s a quick fact: during the VIctorian era, taxidermied critters having tea parties and other anthropomorphic scenes were all the rage during a weird time where taxidermy was a gentleman’s activity!)
Morton’s knack for hipster pet portraiture (we’re not talking cheesy oil paintings of Corgis here) came from drawing her own dog so much.
“She’s a very expressive dog, like a little alien or something. I’ve had her since she was tiny. I was there when she was born,” says Morton, with obvious love for Ladybird. “When I draw other pets, I try to capture their expressions and personalities, but I definitely have to meet the dogs first.”
Ironically, Morton’s stainless steel bond with Ladybird and her penchant for playful drawings came as a response to personal doom and gloom.
“It’s lighthearted work,” she says, “but it’s funny, the way I get into that mood. If I know I’m going to be sitting in here drawing for a while, I put on the saddest music that I have and that’s really what motivates me to make this happy artwork. In Philadelphia, I had a really bad breakup and that’s when I started producing my best work. I was such a gloomy lass. I got Ladybird about eight years ago. I was out of college and having my quarter-life crisis: bartending and late nights and sleeping late and not being productive. She kind of fell into my lap unexpectedly and snapped me out of it. I couldn’t really stay out all night when there was this little adorable thing waiting for me at home! It was good for me.”
For Morton, the pet portraits are something she might not have seen herself doing, but it makes perfect sense. She understands the connections that people can have with their pets, and capturing the nature of those animals with thousands of tiny contours and cross-hatches is no different than what she’s tried to do with Ladybird over the years.
Going forward, Morton wants to try some new formats for her doodly line work.
“My sketchbook is starting to look like a coloring book. Black and white sketches in pen and pencil. I think I might make some coloring books next,” she says. No doubt they will include at least a few pictures of Ladybird.
Her next show will be at Edgeware in Kensington. Look to her blog for details.