Pencils and paws: Ruth Freudenthal brings pet portraits to life
By Connor Loyd
Photos by Rachel Howard
“As far as I can remember I was always drawing,” recalls Ruth Freudenthal, a young artist who, at 14-years-old, creates more detailed and impressive portraits than most adults.
Ruth’s mother, Sharon Freudenthal, remembers this, too. Very early on, she noticed signs that her daughter, the third born of her seven children, had an innate gift for visual memory.
“Before she could even speak well, I noticed a really strong visual ability,” Sharon explains, thinking back to a time long before Ruth was able to read when she identified a business card on the fridge as belonging to “Momma’s doctor” based solely on her memory of the way his sign looked.
As she grew up, Ruth would often draw for hours a day. During the COVID-19 pandemic, her family was preparing to sell a house they had outgrown, and while her parents worked on fixing up the house, Ruth would spend the long hours drawing in her notebook. At the time, her main subject of choice was horses. She would go outside and study the nearby horses before coming back in and putting pencil to paper.
When the family first began discussions about getting a dog, Ruth started checking out library books about man’s best friend, learning more about them and, by extent, how to better draw them. “She was on a husky roll for a long time, she thought those were just beautiful,” Sharon says.
As Ruth would draw these dogs, particularly huskies, her mom would post them on Facebook. Without knowing it at the time, these drawings are what would lead to her first commissioned artwork.
Ruth’s aunt, impressed by her niece’s artwork, reached out and asked if she could draw her pet, Pepper. Ruth set to work on the piece throughout the month of December, and although it took quite a long time to finish it, she eventually completed the portrait on January 1, 2022, making it her first paid commission.
After Ruth had finished Pepper’s portrait, word began to spread, initially just among friends of the family. One friend would reach out, then another; with each passing commission, Ruth would get better and better. Sharon would continue to post the finished artwork on Facebook, which would in turn lead to more people reaching out and placing orders for pet portraits of their own.
That year, Ruth completed a total of 41 paid commissions; now in 2023, she’s currently working on number 86. “And that’s basically just from word of mouth,” Sharon says.
At any given time, Ruth keeps a list of upcoming art commissions to be working through. At the moment, the list’s schedule runs through the end of July to the first of August, meaning that would be the wait time before she could begin work if a new order was placed now.
The amount of time it takes to complete one of these commissions depends on the size and complexity of the portrait being created. For instance, a large portrait featuring multiple subjects will take longer to complete than a smaller one featuring a single animal.
Another important factor to consider is, of course, school. Entering the eighth grade this fall, half of Ruth’s time is devoted to her studies, with the afternoon hours more often reserved for working on art projects.
When Ruth is ready to begin work on a new portrait, Sharon is always sure to send a text to the client to confirm they are still interested and will pay once the artwork is completed.
Once the process starts, Ruth will use reference pictures the clients provide to plan out the portrait, putting elements together and making it all look right. This is a time-consuming process which can take hours to do well. Fortunately, the quality of the photos doesn’t matter; even blurry or low-quality pics will work. Since she’s spent so much time intensely studying the ways dogs look, both from books and from her own family’s dog, Millie, Ruth can extrapolate great detail from fairly basic photos.
After this composition stage, Ruth will then meticulously pick out each color that she is going to use. She keeps a binder that lists every color she uses on each project, labeled so that she can go back and find the color she’s looking for if she wants.
These small details are important, since one of Ruth’s commissions roughly has 50 to 70 colors in it.
“It’s not as simple as ‘It’s a brown dog.’ No, there are millions of shades of brown, and to make it look realistic is very scientific,” Sharon explains. Ruth adds that there is also outside shading to consider, such as bits of blue bouncing off the sky and through the window.
Typically, Ruth will start with the eyes and the nose, a difficult part of the subject to get right which can ruin everything else if not done correctly. After she finishes that section, she’ll move on to another part of the animal. The main body is usually the last part she completes since there isn’t as much personality to it as other areas.
Materials-wise, Ruth likes to use thick Bristol paper and her favorite brand of colored pencils, Prismacolor. Although they can be pretty expensive, the high quality that they provide is well worth it for her. It offers a totally different feel, and even has its own unique smell to it. She also utilizes artist’s tape to keep the paper on her clipboard. Early on, Ruth would often simply lay on the floor as she worked, but now has a desk which she uses instead.
After the portrait is completed, they send it off to the client who ordered it. In the past couple years, they’ve mailed art all over the United States, from Florida, Pennsylvania and Texas.
Despite the detail and precision involved in her process, Ruth has never actually had an art lesson. Instead, she slowly got better and honed her skills over the countless hours she spent as a child simply drawing what she saw around her.
“There’s really no recipe for it,” Sharon admits, “other than to say, from what I have observed, any child that spends hours a day across their entire lifespan doing the same thing will become extremely good at it.
However, what allows you to stay focused and driven to improve those skills involves something less tangible, an innate passion or natural aptitude inherent in the person’s neurology that is harder to explain,” she continued.
In Ruth’s case, this inherent gift for memorization and visual learning translates itself into many areas of her life, such as her schoolwork. She’s very mathematically inclined because of its visual and logical nature, whereas language arts subjects come much less easily because of her dyslexia. In fact, it’s not uncommon for children with dyslexia to be very artistic or visually minded, Sharon said.
In addition to continuing her pet portrait commissions, Ruth and her mother also have some other potential plans in the works for the near future. For instance, this winter, they’re planning to make and sell Christmas ornaments featuring people’s pets painted on them. These festive decorations would be cheaper than full blown commissions.
Last year, Ruth made some ornaments just for her family members, each of which featured wildlife creatures interacting with holiday objects in various ways; a bobcat taking a Santa hat, a fox sneaking away with a present in its mouth and a racoon stealing a snowman’s nose.
Right now, they’re considering using these ornament drawings as inspiration and turning them into Christmas cards, prints of which could be sold at a much higher number and significantly cheaper than an original commission would cost.
Other potential ideas that could be on the horizon include a children’s book designed to help promote animal rescue and an art series depicting various wildlife.
Those wishing to order a portrait for themselves can contact Sharon Freudenthal on her and her daughter’s Facebook page, “Ruth’s Art.” Although it’s far from the only page on the site which bears that name, it can be easily identified by its banner, which features a collage of nine dogs, and the series of detailed dog portraits posted on the timeline underneath.
Sharon handles all social media communication for Ruth’s Art. She can be contacted at 256-230-7570.