Pet portrait artist Stephen Gallagher is not a man who deals in half measures.
Walking into Gallagher’s 4101 studio and seeing the array of oil paintings lining its floors and walls, you might think that Stephen had been learning his craft for years. Yet while Gallagher, born and raised in Ireland until he was 21, has painted his whole life, he only recently decided to paint full time. He is a fresh face in the world of oil painting, having learned just last year from New Zealand artist Mehrdad Tahan. “Since then I’ve fallen in love with oil paints,” Stephen said. “Once I learned the basics I was hooked.”
Gallagher usually paints commissions for besotted pet owners, but is currently collaborating with six animal shelters to promote adoption. The shelters (Animal Welfare League of Queensland, Staffy and Amstaff Rescue, Fresh Start, German Shepherd Dogs In Need Australia, Safe Haven Animal Rescue Inc and Best Friend Rescue) email Stephen the animals’ photos and stories. In turn, Stephen advertises the dogs through portrait updates hosted on his social media sites. “Right now these animals have no home,” Stephen said. “They’re lost. They’re sad and confused. These portraits are to honour these forgotten creatures, to capture their souls on canvas and hopefully to find them a home. There’s this eternal link between man and dog,” Stephen said. “You can’t have one without the other.” Gallangher’s inspiration comes in part from his own dog, Ozzie, who was the model for his first dog portrait. Sadly, Ozzie recently passed away. “The last time I saw him was three years ago, back home in Ireland,” Stephen said.
In Gallagher’s opinion, oils capture the essence of pets’ souls. “You can actually see the difference between oil paintings and, say, acrylic or watercolours,” Stephen said. “You can almost feel the texture and the richness coming through from oil paint.” Stephen explained that oil paint takes about a week to dry, which is the medium’s advantage. “You can come back to it and rub bits out and constantly keep moving paint around,” he said. “It gives the finished work a more living quality.” The artist uses the alla prima technique (Italian for ‘first attempt’), which involves painting wet layers upon wet layers. “It develops organically,” Stephen said. “It’s almost like sculpting with paint.”
Gallagher’s switch to full-time painting was a daunting move at first. He studied Architecture and moved to Australia and then New Zealand to work as a draughtsman, returning to West End earlier this year. “There was always an itch that I couldn’t scratch,” Stephen said. “I didn’t want to live with any regrets. Now I’m doing what I love and that’s what matters.” West End has proved the perfect place to hone his craft. “I’ve always liked West End,” Stephen said. “The vibe, the chilled atmosphere: they encourage creatives out here. You can perfect your craft, you can know that you did your best.”
Words by Taylah Danaë Baggs | Images by Sarah Neilsen