Christina Tornambe is a painter of animals, a pet portraitist, a capturer of the peaceful side of the natural world. When I entered her home to interview her and check out her studio, I expected to be mobbed by twenty dogs, five cats, maybe a stray aardvark or a rhinoceros. I was confused.
“My landlord doesn’t allow pets so I’m moving soon…oh, I do have a horse, and fish. And I’m probably going to get a dog.” Her horse lives outside of town, a suburban horse. Now it makes sense.
Born in Buffalo, New York, Christina moved to the South when she was fourteen-years-old and has stayed ever since. She attended high school in Duluth, Georgia. She moved to Athens because of the Vet School. “The highlight of my life was moving to Athens.”
Before securing a job she loved in Athens, she tried to live here and work in a different state. For three years, Christina tried to live in Athens and commute to Clemson every day. The hour-and-a-half commute eventually wore her down and she got a job here in The Classic City.
“I’m a Veterinary Technician by profession.” Vet Tech by trade, animal painter by the grace of God. “I worked at the division of UGA that oversees the use of animals on campus for seventeen years, especially concerned about service dogs. There are more on campus animals than the uninitiated would think. I also used to work to work in Animal Compliance at UGA where we verified that the animals on campus are treated humanely. Now I work in Fire Safety at UGA.
Finding her calling as a pet portrait maker came about unexpectedly. “I began my college career studying art, but switched to business.” Her heart has always been with animals and art, but for a while, life forced her away from her dream and toward the realities of everyday life. She got married, had children, a family. “ The next thing I knew 1980 turned into 1990.”
One Christmas, Christina was searching for ideas for presents, and her answer was painting pet portraits. She didn’t expect it to become her life’s mission. It just happened. As you can imagine, “It’s hard to get pets to sit for portraits,” she says. Christina mainly works from photographs.
Some people request certain poses, but for the most part, “They let me come up with my own plan. What’s important to me is to get the eyes just right. I want the pet owner to be able to recognize their pets in the painting.”
Working mainly with acrylics, but sometimes watercolors, capturing the essence of a pet is the driving force behind her work. “I want them to look like the pets. Unless someone specifically asks for a certain background, I use my imagination. You create whether you want it to be a sunrise or a sunset.”
She likes painting daily transitions, which could be either a sunrise or a sunset, depending on what the viewer wants to see. It’s not always easy to know when a painting is done, or if she’s accurately captured the essence of a natural wonder or an animal, long before the client ever sees the finished product. “So, when I think I’m done I run them by a committee…my friends, my daughter.”
When she moves out of her current home, Christina plans on expanding her menagerie of pets. Her 30-year-old horse, Dutchess, lives a happy life in the country with her girlfriend, Julie. I didn’t hear a single complaint from her fish, but Christina is one of those people who needs to be surrounded by animals. She has dedicated her life to them. “This is the first time in my life that I’ve been without pets.”
Often people who commission Christina’s work want all of their pets put together in a specific pose. “Sometimes it’s four dogs lined up on a front porch. I’ve painted up to four dogs on one canvas.”
My favorite example of Christina’s work is the acrylic painting of the dog barking up against the tree. I love the dog’s head tilt and the expression on the one hunting dog baying at a treed raccoon.
“In reality the raccoon was much higher in the tree.” I asked about the dog’s head tilt. Apparently, it’s real, a fact that only a thorough animal lover and researcher like Christina would know. “The harder they throw their head back, the more intimate it is.” They really do assume that pose when they’re excited. Dogs love the chase. That’s why they love chasing tennis balls. It’s what dogs do.
Christina is too humble to brag about herself. But her friend, Lonette Kelley, is willing to take care of that for her. “When we see her paintings it’s way more than what she thinks.”
“I paint to music. Sometimes it’s classic rock. Other times it’s country. It depends on how I feel that day. Classic rock works better for landscapes for me for some reason. And generally like country music for animals.”
A challenge in her artistic life was painting a subject during a live event. Her church asked Christina to paint Jesus. She did so one day in front of her congregation, while the church service was going on around her. It’s not an easy task painting one’s deity, so that project was especially nerve-racking, but Christina enjoyed the challenge of painting during a live event, and would like to do more of that.
Christina claims, “I’ve struggled with finding a style.” But I must respectfully disagree.
She has a style. It’s vivid. It jumps off the canvas. To invent a name for it, how about Explosive Realism or Reality Squared. The viewer can tell what subjects Christina wanted to capture, but it’s not pure realism. It’s a more exciting, more interesting, more magically colorful version of reality.
If you have a beloved pet you’d like to immortalize, you can contact Christina. If you want to check out more of her work, go to her website.