Mary Ellen Owings of Columbus and Al Poochino pose with Owings' scratchboard portrait of Al Thursday at the home of her grandparents, Jon and Dorothy Fortman. Scratchboard art begins on a black coated surface; artists use special tools to scratch through the coating to create the image. Al, 7, was given his name at the shelter he was adopted from. He lives with the Fortmans near downtown Columbus. Owings is the daughter of John and Becky Owings. Photo by: Jennifer Mosbrucker/Dispatch Staff
Mary Ellen Owings uses metal-tipped tools to create scratchboard portraits, like this one of the David Earwood family's late pet, Dixie. "She has a knack for being able to show three dimensions," said Becky Owings of her daughter's work.
Photo by: Jennifer Mosbrucker/Dispatch Staff
After Mary Ellen Owings donated a pet portrait commission to a church youth group silent auction, word has spread about her scratchboard likenesses of animals.
Photo by: Courtesy photos
July 13, 2019 10:10:29 PM
Al Poochino met his visitors at the front door, a big, furry, tail-wagging greeter ready for his close-up with The Dispatch photographer. The seven-year-old mixed breed canine is one of about 50 dogs -- and a few cats -- who have so far been immortalized in scratchboard portraits by Mary Ellen Owings of Columbus. It wasn't something the 19-year-old Tulane University sophomore necessarily set out to do, but word-of-mouth is keeping her busy.
Scratchboard art begins as a completely black "canvas" -- scratchboard paper or foil covered with wax or gesso and coated over with black ink. Artists then use special tools to "scratch" through the coating to reveal lighter lines beneath that, through skilled hands, can become a puppy's inquisitive nose, a cat's silky whisker.
"It's kind of like backwards drawing," Owings said. "You're starting with the shadows and adding the highlights."
The young artist, at home in Columbus for the summer, also works with watercolor and colored pencils, but scratchboard has become a medium of choice for most of the pet portraits she's commissioned to do.
"I feel like with scratchboard I have the most control over what it looks like and the most ability to capture a dog's personality," said Owings.
Her current college major is pre-med, "which seems like the exact opposite of this," she laughed. But even while pursuing science-heavy subjects, she's still drawn to the visual arts that caught her eye at an early age. The Mississippi School for Mathematics and Science graduate credits art teachers who have inspired her along the way, including Bill Moss, Jacquelyn Junkins, Sarah Oswalt and Angie Jones.
An affinity for dogs was evident in the first scratchboard piece Owings ever did, back in 2014, ninth grade.
"I was in Sarah Oswalt's visual art class at Columbus High, and she had a bunch of different animals to pick from (for us to draw). I ended up picking the random dog," she remarked.
Owings held that 2014 portrait up a few days ago next to one she completed a week ago. Evolutions in technique in the five years between them were evident.
"I don't do an outline now," she began. "I start now with a nose, an ear, an eye ... " She likes working the "tiny details," the ones that capture the individual animal.
"Like those little dots in the eyes that look like they're shining, I spend a lot of time with those," the teen explained. "In the eye is where you can see the personality."
"I don't see how she gets that," praised Diane Earwood, who lives in West Point. She recently commissioned portraits of two much-loved late family pets -- Dixie, a small cocker spaniel/Pekingese mix, and Rebel, a larger lab/shepherd mix. Owings finished both pictures very recently, working from photographs Earwood provided.
"It looks just like them," Earwood said, touched by the expression Owings was able to put into both dogs' likenesses -- Rebel's rather somber look, and Dixie's underbite that made her always seem to be smiling.
Hearing "It looks just like them" or "It captures their expression" are, to Owings, the highest compliments -- especially when a portrait is in remembrance of a cherished pet.
"And something about the black and white is so dramatic," she added.
When Emily Rennie of Calhoun City received a portrait by Owings of her late, beloved dog Max, she was overwhelmed.
" ... She captured his likeness and spirit and soul so well," Rennie said. "It literally took my breath away and caused tears to fall fast and furious. The likeness is extraordinary, and while I know it was a portrait and not Max himself, I couldn't stop touching it."
Owings' aunt, Cindy Sanders of Columbus, succintly summed up: "I think she does such a good job at capturing their essence."
Putting as much of that essence as possible into every portrait is Owings' aim, seeking it in the "tiny details, a fold of skin, the droop of an ear, the light in an eye.
"Nothing makes me happier with my work than to hear a pet owner say that I captured their dog's personality or their signature facial expression perfectly," said Owings. "What gives me the most joy from my work is being able to help people remember pets they have lost, or to add a piece of their current pet to their home. I am so grateful to continue doing what I love and making people happy while I'm at it."
Editor's note: View more of Mary Ellen Owing's art at https://etsy.me/2XYnvj7. Email reaches her at [email protected]
Jan Swoope is the Lifestyles Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.