Is it worth spending hundreds for a custom portrait of your pet?
We tested Paint Your Life's service, which hires real artists, to find out.
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Editor's Note: April 15, 2021
We are in the process of testing Paint Your Life's handmade portraits using photos of people. Expect our review of a human portrait later in 2021.
The painting above is of my pup, Gus, short for Argus. He is adorable, and I’m not at all biased. At about four years old, he’s also a healthy and (mostly) obedient Good Dog. But although we’ve had conversations where I tell him he is required to live forever, I know this is ultimately not a trick he will master.
I’m also not alone in wishing my beloved pet might become immortal. Luckily, there are plenty of ways to memorialize a beloved furry family member. One popular option: Getting a custom portrait painted of your pet. So when the folks at Paint Your Life approached us at Reviewed to critique their artistic services, I was happy to volunteer Gus as the subject to be revered (even more so than he already is, of course).
What is Paint Your Life?
A California-based service, Paint Your Life employs portrait artists to paint or draw custom art from photos, making it easy to connect those who want a painting created with people who can make that happen. The completely online ordering process guides you through selecting a reference photo, the finished art size, the medium (oil, acrylic, water color, charcoal, or pencil), and the framing, with plenty of visual examples and transparent pricing of what you can expect. Possible subjects aren’t only limited to pets—Paint Your Life offers portraiture services for humans, too, as well as renderings of a favorite landscape or family home.
The site claims a turnaround time is as fast as 15 days from order to artwork at your door, based mainly on how many revisions you request to the work—one of Paint Your Life’s points of pride is that there are several check-ins along the way to ensure that your artwork comes out exactly as you envision it. You may request “unlimited revisions” (included in the cost) based on the images emailed your way, up until you sign off on the final art. Even then, the company promises a "100% money-back guarantee" if you're not satisfied once the painting arrives.
What does a Paint Your Life portrait cost?
This is not some CGI-based operation. These pieces are created by brush-wielding artists, who are “paid above-average wages” for their efforts, as well as for their patience, should a client desire multiple changes to the work. I have to assume the service itself makes a profit as well, bringing the cost of the smallest option, an 8-inch-by-10-inch portrait of a single subject, to just under $200 before you add a frame for $49.
For Gus’s masterpiece, I opted for what the site identified as “popular”: an oil painting measuring 20 inches by 24 inches. That cost $389, plus $79 for the frame. Apart from once hiring a Central Park artist to sketch a photo as a wedding gift for $100, I have no real context as to what custom art should cost, nor can I really put a price on a tribute to a beloved family member. But it does make you wonder: What do you get for that $468?
What’s it like to order from Paint Your Life?
The ordering process hand-holds you through every decision, from choosing the medium and finished size, as well as what makes a good reference photo for the artist to use. Each step has written explanations and visual examples. For several of the options, you may elect to let the service make decisions for you, which is what I did whenever asked.
First, I let the site assign my artist. I could’ve scroll through galleries of example art to see whose style I liked best, but it seems to me that most Paint Your Life artists employ a fairly realistic perspective, and any nuances among them would be beyond my amateur eye. Second, I couldn’t decide which photo of several favorites I wanted painted, so I opted to let the artist pick that, as well as whether the background would be painted in detail or rendered a solid color.
The order form also has a spot to include any notes you’d like to share with the artist. I noted that I would like them to “edit out any clutter” if they elected to retain the background, and that I didn’t want his harness included in the painting, if they chose this one photo of Gus poised on a stool, belly-up to a local dog-friendly bar.
Within just one day, I received an email indicating that my photo had been “edited” for my approval, with a note explaining that this was not my painting, but just a cleaned-up version of the reference photo the artist would use. It was an iteration of the bar photo … with the background removed—I mean, a dog in a bar was kinda the point!—and the undesired harness still very much in place. Disappointed, I replied that I didn’t care for this image and requested they try again with one of a couple of new photos.
Success! The new “edited” photo, delivered about two days later, looked remarkably similar to the photo I’d uploaded of Gus sitting solo on a sidewalk, which I’d chosen expressly because it had no significant background or a harness to gum up the works. I “accepted” and the painting commenced.
At each step in the process, Paint Your Life kept me posted, with clear expectations for the timing of the delivery of my artwork, as long as I held up my end of the bargain to watch for emails that requested my approval. I was sent an email with an image of my painting in process just a day after OK'ing the reference photo. And within seven days of placing my order, I was sent a photo of the finished artwork to approve. The painting then had to finish drying (it’s oil paint) and be framed, which took a few more days. It was shipped via FedEx 16 days after I placed my order.
Is a Paint Your Life painting any good?
Full disclosure: We tested the Paint Your Life service before COVID happened. I had the portrait shipped to the Reviewed offices in Cambridge, Mass., so it could be photographed by our pro photographers. But I do not live in Cambridge—I live in the U.S. Virgin Islands. I’d planned a trip to visit in April, during which I (and Gus) would’ve visited the painting and fully inspected the artwork. To date, I have not gotten on a plane to go anywhere. And so, I must rely on Reviewed staffers who have been to the office in the past six months for their reactions to the portrait.
Luckily, one of those such people is staff photographer Betsey Goldwasser, who most certainly has a better artistic eye than I. And she is impressed:
“I think it’s a really nice painting overall! It is made up of well-painted brush strokes with proper angle, depth, and coloring. There aren’t any major blobs of paint or glaring mistakes. They warmed up the colors a bit [from the reference photo] to make his coloring pop more, but I’m biased to prefer a slightly warmer photo/picture anyway. I think it’s a good representation of Gus with a little bit of artistic liberty with making the concrete background less ugly (no offense to the concrete background). It has nice details in the fur, too!”
Her only quibbles are just that—minor. She noticed a hair stuck in the paint—possibly a dog hair?—but said it didn’t detract and maybe even adds to the authenticity. After I mentioned that his fluffy toes appear to have been “trimmed” by the artist, she suggested it was “a little airbrushed, but I also feel that’s the sort of thing [over-long, Grinch-like foot hair] that an artist wouldn’t pick up on as special or important to a dog owner … they might see something as a flaw that is actually not.”
Another thing that I can’t exactly tell from the photos of the painting, which several coworkers noted: It’s large. One compared it to a shrine, while another suggested my dog “might be a despot-in-training.” Yet, curiously, it’s not the exact measurements I ordered. I chose 20 inches by 24 inches, but the canvas measures 17.5 inches by 25.5 inches (the frame adds the expected three inches total to each dimension). This is not a, er, huge deal, but had I already owned a frame for it or had a very specific spot I wanted to hang it, the difference might matter.
What’s more, Paint Your Life has an option for custom size paintings, of any dimensions between 8 inches by 10 inches and 48 inches by 72 inches. Even more curiously, when I priced out the dimensions I received, it would’ve cost $6 less than the dimensions I ordered. After the initial publication of this review, a rep from Paint Your Life reached out to me regarding the sizing snafu, explaining that any such changes should have been run by me, and that the company has since "adjusted our internal processes to ensure that any changes in size are communicated to the customer."
Is ordering a portrait from Paint Your Life worth it?
All nitpicks aside, everyone who’s seen the portrait thinks it’s well done. Notes senior scientist Julia MacDougall, who’s watched over by painted Gus in the Reviewed labs as she goes about testing products: “It's a really great portrait, honestly. It grabs my attention every time I see it, even though it's hung well above my normal line of sight.”
Betsey adds, “I’d say if you really feel like your dog is a part of your family, which most dog owners feel, I can see getting this portrait to go alongside your human portraits or photographs.”
As for me, my only real complaint is that I yet haven’t reveled in the glory of my now-immortalized pup, whose visage shall grace Reviewed offices for years to come. (I’m not personally permitted to keep the painting, as we writers have a no-profit policy regarding anything we review.) Would I have spent my own nearly $500 to have such artwork done for myself? Honestly, it’s hard for me to say.
It seems extravagant to me to have any massive artwork (even, say, a $20 printed photo poster) on prominent display, and I’m not one to print out four-by-six snapshots to frame. Based on the reactions to the size of this specific portrait, I think I’d go smaller. (After all, Gus himself is only about 24 inches long.) Not to mention, Gus is still very much alive and well, and I refuse to think about what I might choose to do after he’s passed on. But could I see recommending the service to someone who wants such a keepsake, whether of a pet or a family member? I can’t see why not.
Prices were accurate at the time this article was published but may change over time.