Before all the animals — before the bears, Finnigan and Lola; the cows, Coral Bell, Martha, and Mootilda; the sheep, Woolsey; and all the others — Carolyn Blaylock experimented in size and scale.

Today, she experiments in color, creating bright oil paintings in her Winston-Salem studio. But her first job after graduation was dreaming up copy for billboards. Blaylock quickly realized that a canvas of that size was too big, and more important, she just wanted to paint.

She moved on to designing greeting cards, “a great thing to do while being a mom,” she says. She spent 14 years building her business before deciding it still wasn’t the right fit. She licensed her designs to Hallmark and set to work on a happy medium: Oil paintings — much smaller than a billboard but, at a few feet across, larger than a greeting card — turned out to be just right.

Finding a passion

To orient herself to full-time painting, Blaylock spent her evenings studying the masters after putting her children to bed. She painted outside in Reynolda Gardens and learned to share her art, to interact with people who came up to her to ask questions while she worked.

It was sharing her art — through teaching classes — that helped her discover her passion for painting animals. Blaylock mainly focused on landscapes and flowers until about eight years ago, when on a whim she painted a cow as a demonstration for a large group of students. She was surprised by how much people liked the cow, and by how much she enjoyed painting it. “This is fun!” she thought.

She kept going. She painted chickens and more cows and her golden retrievers, Maggie and Liberty. She painted sheep and horses and two miniature donkeys, commissioned by her veterinarian. She painted the otters at the Denver Zoo for OtterBox, a Colorado company that makes iPhone cases.

The animals allowed her to build her “giving-back program”: She’s given proceeds from her dog portraits to the Forsyth Humane Society and from her cow paintings to Samaritan’s Purse. And last year, she began working with Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center to give back in a new way: Baptist’s cancer center is now home to five floors of Blaylock’s cheerful work, including eight original paintings and 40 giclée prints.

“What I really desire is that my work can reach out from my studio and make people happy,” Blaylock says.

A place to paint

At home in her studio, a downtown loft with a pumpkin-colored door, plenty of natural light, and the scent of bread floating up from Ollie’s Bakery below, Blaylock still paints scenes of nature, each infused with her characteristic lightness and joy. But, she says, “Animals make me the most happy while I paint.” As she brings them to life with her signature loose lines and bright colors, she imagines what their personalities might be like, coming up with humorous, one-line stories to send to galleries and new owners.

“They tie together the humor in human life,” Blaylock says. She rummages through a drawer full of prints in her studio, laughing as she recalls the stories.

Lola the bear, who looks a bit like she’s just applied a fresh coat of lipstick, is excited because her favorite shoe store is having a sale.

Another bear, McDuffie, is the champion of the Highland Games fish diving competition.

A trio of cows, whom Blaylock dubbed The Golden Girls, look like they could be sharing secrets over brunch. Which might be why, when Oprah Winfrey made a recent visit to Village Smith Galleries while in town for Maya Angelou’s birthday, she decided she had to have those cows — and several more — for her Maui home.

Each animal’s story comes out gradually as Blaylock works, but it’s her own reaction to a painting that lets her know if she’s on the right track.

“Even well into your career it’s hard to know when a painting’s finished,” she says. She inspects a bear, still in progress, sitting on an easel in the center of her studio. “Probably about two more hours for him. Right now, he doesn’t sparkle. There’s no personality in his eyes. When I find myself smiling at the animals, then I know I’m almost there.”

See more of Carolyn Blaylock’s art at carolynblaylock.com.

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Saintsing is an assistant editor at Our State magazine and a graduate of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.