As a boy growing up in White Plains, N.Y., John T. Donaldson was a nature lover and budding artist. Roaming the woods near the family home and hiking in the Adirondacks, he developed an eye for detail and an appreciation for beauty and subtle distinction that would come in handy when he decided that art and illustration would be his life's calling.
He also was a dog lover, with an Irish setter as his boyhood companion. He recalled going on a pheasant hunt with a neighbor and being awed by the innate skills of a springer spaniel.
It wasn't until many years later that the three compelling strands in his life -- love of nature, love of dogs and a talent for illustration -- serendipitously came together to make Donaldson the preeminent painter of sporting dogs in the United States.
When the Falls Church artist died June 5 at age 86, he left hundreds of sporting dog portraits owned by dog lovers around the world. The works capture not only the realistic detail of subject and setting but also the grace, personality and athletic prowess of the individual animal, whether it's a blue tick hound or a Brittany spaniel, a Jack Russell terrier or a Labrador retriever.
"You can't ignore them; you can't walk past them and not notice them," an admirer of the portraits wrote to Donaldson's daughter Petie Bonbrest after his death.
Bonbrest and her two sisters grew up in the Brookmont area of Bethesda, a wooded wonderland near the Potomac River. They remember their father as a stay-at-home freelancer, a perfectionist who worked long hours on his illustrations and who, when he wasn't working, loved giving his daughters the opportunity to revere nature and enjoy it the way he did.
With their father as guide, the girls explored the Potomac, fished the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal, camped along the Shenandoah River and hiked the Appalachian Trail. They also went along with him to field trials, where he would put his pointers through their paces in quail-hunting competitions.
"He gave us our eyes," Bonbrest said last week as she sat in the living room of her Falls Church home. "He opened us up to things most people don't see."
That included his lifelong love of snakes, daughter Sally Tomlin recalled. Donaldson's first job as a boy was collecting rattlesnakes and selling the venom to the Bronx Zoo. He gave his girls a black snake as a pet and was determined that they would grow up appreciating the beauty of the slithery creatures and would respect, not fear, them.
He enjoyed telling stories and loved jokes and foolishness, particularly when his girls were involved. Tomlin recalled how her father once took the time to carve a tiny footprint out of an art eraser and then, for his daughters' wonder and delight, made trails with it all over the family bathroom.
Donaldson knew early in life that he wanted to be an artist. As a high school student, he attended the Art Students League in New York, where he studied anatomy under George Bridgman, whose books on life drawing are still used today. He studied art and illustration at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, and in the years before World War II, he drew comic strips for Dell Publishing and worked as an illustrator for General Motors and Remington Arms.
After serving in the Army Air Corps during World War II, he moved to Washington and went to work as an illustrator for the Naval Gun Factory and for several design studios before launching his career as a freelance commercial artist. He took commissions where he could find them, whether it was Leatherneck, a Marine Corps magazine, or Montgomery County schools. "I'm a draftsman with good taste," he liked to say.
In 1970, friend John Baker persuaded Donaldson to do an oil portrait of Baker's dog Paladel, a handsome pointer who had just won the National Open Shooting Dog Championship. The painting was so successful that other commissions to paint dogs started coming Donaldson's way. He began painting the annual winners of various field trials and other sporting dog events across the country, and by the mid-1970s, he was painting dogs almost exclusively. He painted a cat -- once.
When Donaldson accepted a commission from a dog owner, he worked from numerous photographs of the animal and of its habitat. A master of canine anatomy, he also took pride in getting the habitat just right. A portrait would take him a couple of months to complete.
In 1999, he told the magazine Canine Images that he was one of those lucky people who got paid to do what they loved.
He continued painting until 2001, when a detached retina and macular degeneration rendered him almost blind. As daughter Kate Donaldson noted, it was a cruel irony that a man who relied so passionately on visual acuity would lose his sight.
He always worked standing, so it was only fitting, Bonbrest said, that her father was standing when he died. He was at the refrigerator, freezer door open, a glass of good scotch in his hand.