Yakima’s Bill Carnahan finds a niche painting pet portraits

YAKIMA, Wash. — In the more than 50 years since Bill Carnahan created his first two paintings, he has captured thousands of picturesque old barns, landscapes and animals on canvas.

Carnahan didn’t paint his first pet until 1976, when he made a portrait of his son’s black cat. In the past few years, he’s concentrated on pets and charming barns.

His business, Bill Paints Pet Portraits, is tucked into a small studio at one end of a shopping plaza at 2002 Englewood Ave. in Yakima. Look for the white van — if it’s there, he’s there.

“I’ve been here in this studio for 26 years,” said Carnahan, 81, who lives in West Valley with his wife, Sara. “I’ve got a room back there where I taught classes.”

In the cozy front room where he paints, you’ll see photos of many dogs and cats whose owners commissioned Carnahan to paint their portraits. Prices start at $200 for a basic 11-by-14-inch canvas portrait — a pet’s head and a simple background. They top out at $450 for a 16-by-20-inch portrait.

He occasionally donates commissions to nonprofits like Wags to Riches and Love on a Leash, which auction them off at fundraisers.

Carnahan paints pets and old barns from photos. The images must be of high quality so he can enlarge them clearly for the best results. He also likes to have several photos of the same pet so he can accurately capture the texture and nature of his subjects.

“This is a cat I just finished. It’s got thumbs,” he said, referring to a polydactyl cat with extra toes on its front paws.

Though Carnahan asks customers to allow eight weeks for delivery, he can complete most pet portraits in a week.

“I just started on that one; I can probably get that one done in a week,” he said of a photo showing a black dog sitting in snow. “On the average, I would say it’s two to three weeks.”

Carnahan has been an animal lover and artist most of his life, but they didn’t merge into a single pursuit until 2016.

Before he and Sara moved to Yakima about 33 years ago, Carnahan studied animal science at Washington State University, worked behind a meat counter and helped run a meat processing plant. After college he drove a school bus, handled grounds maintenance for a school district and became a transportation director at school districts in Pasco, North Franklin and Raymond, along with Educational Service District 105.

He retired as transportation director at the Selah School District in 1993.

Since completing his first two landscapes in 1966 when he and Sara were honeymooning in Canada, Carnahan estimates he has done more than 3,000 paintings. He has shown his work in many of the larger Western art shows as well as smaller arts-and-craft shows in Washington and Oregon. Carnahan is also featured in two books, notes his website, www.billpaints.com.

“I used to do about 15 shows a year,” he said.

Along with making his own paintings, Carnahan taught others how to paint for years. He’s led classes throughout the state and for Art in the Park classes in Yakima. Helping others learn the craft became even more rewarding after he became certified in and taught the Bob Ross technique for 22 years.

“I’d have anywhere from 15 to 30 people at a time,” he said of the classes he held in the small back rooms of his studio, which these days are filled with supplies and more paintings, including his largest — a 30-by-48-inch vertical portrait of a bear he completed in 1994.

He stopped teaching in 2016 and started concentrating on pet portraits and paintings of old barns. Carnahan says he’s probably done more than 100 pet portraits.

His creations hang salon-style over every wall of his studio, even encroaching on the window.

Using a special easel he created that turns on a base — Carnahan is an accomplished woodworker — he can alternate among eight portraits at a time.

“I designed these easels. When I was teaching the Ross program, I sold a ton of these,” he said.

Keeping him company is his white miniature schnauzer, Lilly, who’s 7. She tucks into one of two pet beds as Carnahan works nearby. The pair also visit Living Care Retirement Community in Yakima every Thursday.

“They just love it. They just love seeing her do the tricks,” said Rebekah Hede, activities assistant. “It’s so sweet to see the residents interacting with Lilly.”

Though he enjoys art as a creative pursuit, it’s much more than that.

“They say people who do art don’t have near as much trouble with pain,” Carnahan said. “I think that’s what keeps me going. I had an accident I wasn’t supposed to survive; I’ve had both hips and a knee replaced. I used to take a ton of medication. Now you know how much I take?”

He formed a circle with fingers and thumb.

Today it’s just Vitamin C. That, and art, keep him healthy and happy.

“I really enjoy it because I have never had anybody not like a painting I’ve done,” he said.

Which sounds like Ross, the artist who made all those happy trees and skies and clouds on PBS’ “The Joy of Painting.”

Was Ross really like that in real life?

“He’s just the nicest person you’d ever want to meet,” Carnahan said. “That’s just the kind of guy he was.”