Artist Kimberly Santini doesn’t always follow her plans. But that’s because something better almost always comes along. Instead of getting hung up on pursuing a specific path, Santini does what she needs to feed her soul.
For most of her art career, that has meant painting animals, and pet portraits are her signature. Perhaps it’s the way she manipulates color, revealing greens and pinks in a cat that’s actually black and white. But more likely, it’s the way she makes her subjects look so alive, immortalizing them in acrylics.
“I love animals, I love spending time with them, and I feel like they are little souls,” she said. “Perhaps I see them differently than many other people. I love watching them, studying their body language, getting to know their particular nuances and how they might sit or move or look at you.” She puts these nuances in her paintings, and the results are portraits with as much character as the animals they’re based on.
How it All Began
Although Santini always knew she wanted to be an artist, she joined what she called the “real world” with the intention of returning to art later in life. She went to school for a Master of Fine Arts at California State University and worked a desk job. Then when she got pregnant with her first child, she packed up her studio to make room for a nursery and left it that way for six years.
She planned to get back to art when her kids were all in school — but, like in times before, her life didn’t follow the plan she laid out. She took out her paints while her children napped and started working at her kitchen table. “Within six months I had gallery representation and a wait list for commissions,” she said.
She spent those six months building relationships that helped get her business off the ground. She messaged artists who she admired and got advice on how to set up and maintain a website. “I modeled business practices off of what I saw other successful people doing,” she said.
She also walked into a local gallery to ask for a critique, and at the end of their meeting the owner asked her to leave her pieces at the gallery. Soon enough, there was a demand for her paintings coming from the gallery, her website and eBay.
The Daily Painting Challenge
Then, in 2006, she started her blog Painting a Dog a Day and “the project took on a life of its own,” she said. Her collectors were enthusiastic about the portraits and eventually the daily project turned into commissions as well.
She didn’t plan or apply to be a Kentucky Derby artist, but when they called her in 2015 to offer her the job, she couldn’t resist accepting it. “It was a job that wasn’t even on my radar,” Santini said. “I just could not even imagine that my work was at that level yet.” But as a lifelong horse lover and fan of horse racing (going to the Derby was on her bucket list, she said) she was honored to be a part of the event. Her art was featured on tickets and merchandise at that year’s race.
Now, in between her daily painting, Santini teaches art journaling classes and manages all the sales that come from her website. It’s a lot to handle for one person — she noted that she spends more time responding to emails than painting — but she said it’s important for her to diversify in order to “keep studio doors open.”
Santini also stressed that she tries not to be too hard on herself on days when she just doesn’t feel like painting. “It’s important to not beat myself up because energy ebbs and flows for reasons,” she said. “You can’t sustain a high-energy creation mode forever.” Recently, rather than force herself to speed through a painting every day, she’s had a dozen or so paintings rotating on her easel: While one dries, she works on another so she can go at her own pace and still update her blog every day.
Painting a Dog a Day has since become Paintings with Soul as Santini expands her collection to include horses, cats and still life paintings. The new name accurately reflects what she does: paint pictures that make her viewers feel connected, while pushing herself for personal growth as an artist.
By feeding her own soul first, Santini creates opportunities for her viewers to feed their souls as well — whether that’s by viewing her collection at a gallery (she’s represented by four) or online, commissioning portraits of pets or even booking an art journaling workshop with her. “When I deliver a painting to a customer and there’s tears in their eyes, I — you can’t possibly feel prouder or like what you’re creating is more important than when your collector has an emotional reaction to it,” she said.
Much like the way she studies an animal before painting it, Santini likes to watch people look at her paintings. “I love watching their body language as they’re getting close to the painting and if they smile, then that makes me feel great. Because I know they get it,” she said. “Just like when you look into the eyes of a friend, you respond with a smile.” In many cases, looking at one of Santini’s paintings truly is like looking into the eyes of a friend — a furry, four-legged friend.