A Dog a Day: How Sally Muir Turned Her Love for Canines Into a Bonafide Success

A Dog a Day: How Sally Muir Turned Her Love for Canines Into a Bonafide Success

Sally Muir’s dog-obsessed way of life led to an enduring and celebrated art series. Here, she shares her creative process, favorite tools, and best advice.

A Dog a Day by Sally Muir: Learn Muir's creative process, tools, and best advice.
A Dog a Day, a series by Sally Muir

While taking care of her small children, Sally Muir enrolled part-time at a local school of art and design. She expected to master drawing and painting techniques, but was surprised to find that the biggest lesson she learned was about “defending your decisions” as an artist. Early on, a trusted instructor told her not to try to please the faculty but to simply do what she wanted to do.

While it was good advice, it wasn’t easy. Muir wanted to paint her children “over and over again,” she says. Her work was less conceptual than what her tutors were hoping to see. However, her time in school helped her develop confidence in her art and provided her the opportunity to establish a daily practice. In retrospect, she appreciates the fact that she didn’t study much technique as she has found it rewarding to make discoveries for herself.

A Dog a Day Is Born

Soon after art school, dogs became Muir’s top subject, replacing the portraits of her children as her main occupation. Although she enjoyed depicting her own children, she wasn’t as confident in her portrayals of other people’s children. “Dogs are definitely easier,” she says, “or maybe I’m just better at them.”

A Dog a Day by Sally Muir: Hound
Hound (oil on board, 9 2/5 x 7 2/5)

She soon started receiving more and more requests for dog portraits and, in addition to these commissioned works, she also used the subject in her personal art, working from life, photos, and her imagination. These efforts eventually grew into her “A Dog a Day” project, which she launched on social media in 2013.

Related: 5 Tips for Using Social Media to Market Your Art Business

Muir has now published two books of dog paintings and drawings: A Dog a Day, containing the 365 images originally posted on social media, and the newly published Old Dogs, a follow-up collection of portraits, inspired by her 15-year-old whippet, Lily.

Good Things Come in Series

In the eponymous pastel and chalk drawing, we can see Lily sprawled diagonally across the sheet of paper, her figure as delicate and graceful as a Degas ballerina, only in repose. The drawing is done over a different sketch of Lily in profile, showing the stretch of time the artist and subject have shared while making the piece.

A Dog a Day by Sally Muir: Lily
Lily (pastel on brown paper, 25½ x 31½)

In Naked Dog, the tiny white figure takes up a fraction of the picture plane and looks all the more endearing for its vulnerability.

A Dog a Day by Sally Muir: Naked Dog
Naked Dog (oil on board, 23 3/5 x 23 3/5)

Dino, on the other hand, stretches across the 30-inch sheet of paper, on spindly legs, poised like an edifice.

A Dog a Day by Sally Muir: Dino
Dino (charcoal and pastel on paper, 30×22)

These two pieces also offer another contrast. In some works, Muir opts for a bold, flat background to set off a dog’s form. In others, the subject stands on its own against the blank sheet. Muir often chooses to use pastel in combination with charcoal or with another medium to achieve the effect she’s after. 

A Dog a Day by Sally Muir: Sidney
Sidney (charcoal and pastel on paper, 16 1/2 x 11 2/5)

Other times, pastel alone is all that’s needed to capture the appearance of, say, fuzzy, disheveled fur. In other works, Muir may keep the paper but pick up a brush and oil paint in which the dog’s facial expression becomes the central attraction.

A Dog a Day by Sally Muir: Charity
Charity (oil on paper, 14 1/5 x9 2/5)

Each subject has its own stature and pose, bringing a unique mood to each piece. Endlessly fascinated by dogs and the people who love them, the artist is never looking to create perfection in her portraits but rather to capture—quite often with some humor—the essence of the dog, its personality, and the experience of being in a dog’s presence.

The diversity and range of artwork in the prodigious dog series demonstrates Muir’s joy in playing with her media and facing her subject anew each time.

Inspired by Muir? Put your best paw forward in our Best In Show — Pets Art Competition for a chance to win cash prizes, an artist’s spotlight, and more!

Inside Muir’s Creative Process

Muir tends to create her paintings freely, without a plan, by trusting her media and her intuition. To be able to do this consistently, she finds working in series helpful. “I like trying out different things—doing an ink one day, a potato print another day, or a wire pencil,” she says. After one piece is done, the next one begins as another “blank slate.”

A Dog a Day by Sally Muir: behind Muir's creative process

“I can only do things really quickly,” Muir says. “I think you can completely ruin things by overworking them.”

She feels her best art happens when she’s present in the moment—not thinking back or planning ahead. Paradoxically perhaps, this desire to work quickly and directly has led the artist to multiple year-long projects with daily works centered around a theme. Such ongoing projects allow Muir to experiment with her art and materials without being overly worried about the end result. “If one piece isn’t a success, there’s always going to be another one the next day,” she says.

Related: Bold, Breakthrough Discoveries Come From Small Daily Paintings

Muir continually tries out new tools, techniques, and media in her work. She has developed a recipe, for instance, for making her own charcoal. She wraps a few willow twigs in five layers of aluminum foil and puts them in the embers of a fire as it’s dying down at the end of an evening. “It smells delicious,” she says. “Unlike the store-bought kind, this charcoal also has a bit of bark left, which makes it quite scratchy.” It creates an effect that the artist enjoys, as she likes a bit of unpredictability in her art materials.

Another trick she uses is to burn a twig to charcoal on one end. She then ties the other end to a much longer stick, which creates a tool that allows for a more gestural mode of drawing. Muir uses these long charcoal sticks to draw on very large surfaces, such as the paper used for her towering piece, Grace.

A Dog a Day by Sally Muir: Grace
Grace, charcoal on paper, 65×444/5

At nearly 5½-feet tall, it’s a larger-than-life depiction of an alert, poised greyhound. The artist puts her whole body into making a piece this large, drawing with more sweeping and less controlled movements.

Muir also makes her own quill pens. “We’ve got countryside at the end of our road,” she says, so it’s not unusual to come across large bird feathers. She sharpens the ends of the quills and uses them to draw with ink. “These homemade quills are prone to doing their own thing,” she says, but she enjoys imparting this improvisational quality to the drawing.

Recently, Muir found a new way to paint with pastel. “I’ve just discovered that you can wet pastels, which turns the sticks into a gouache-like material. It’s amazing,” she says. “And then, if you draw back into them while wet, the pastel becomes a completely different texture.” Often it’s the unique quality of the material that inspires a painting and determines the way it will take shape.

A Dog a Day by Sally Muir: Muir's favorite tools
Sally Muir’s desk, full of her favorite tools, including Rembrandt pastels, Unison pastels, and Kuretake Gansai Tambi Japanese watercolors.

Tip: Learn By Doing

Based on her experience as an independent creator, Muir has some advice for aspiring artists: “I’d say, just do your art all the time. As much as you can, try to do it every day. Just keep at it.” The artist is a proponent of quantity and advises artists to worry less about quality. That will naturally follow. It’s an attitude that grows out of her experience with a knitwear brand she started early in her career. “Maybe it’s from having had a business, where we just started it and learned as we went along,” she says. “We didn’t have a business plan. It’s much more about learning as you do it.”

With this in mind, Muir shows up each day, open to more auspicious encounters in art-making and to spending more time with dogs.

Share your artwork of your favorite animal friends in our Best In Show — Pets Art Competition! It doesn’t matter if you’re a dog person or a cat person—or even if you prefer feathers or scales. Your pet portraits could earn you cash prizes and an artist’s spotlight. Hurry, the final deadline is soon!

More Pets Inspiration

Learn the ins and outs of completing a pet portrait from Carrie Stuart Parks. Get the full video.


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