Cathie Anderson

Newcastle artist’s work to appear on Suzuki vehicles

Artist Ann Ranlett works on a scratchboard drawing of a chrome radiator cap from a vintage Ford Model A during an event at the Auburn Old Town Gallery.
Artist Ann Ranlett works on a scratchboard drawing of a chrome radiator cap from a vintage Ford Model A during an event at the Auburn Old Town Gallery. Courtesy of Ann Ranlett /

Newcastle artist Ann Ranlett thought the email was a hoax at first: Someone claiming to be a marketing consultant for Suzuki Motors wanted to use one of her images as a decal on the back of one of its compact automobiles.

Fortunately, Ranlett didn’t hit delete before she realized the query was genuine.

“Many of us artists get spam from people going, ‘I like your art. Please tell me more about it,’ ” Ranlett said, “but if they had gone to our websites, they would have found what they were asking. … This one was different. It was very specific. They had done some research.”

Suzuki paid Ranslett for the right to use her “Boston Style” portrait of a Boston terrier as a decal option that buyers can put on the back of its Alto vans and hatchbacks. Small dog breeds are particularly popular in Japan, where living spaces are often compact.

Fran Miller, the marketing consultant who contacted Ranlett, told me that Suzuki believes the decal will appeal to the young Japanese women that the automaker expects to buy Alto vehicles. Suzuki no longer sells automobiles in the United States.

Miller sent her initial email in April, but the deal took months to finalize, Ranlett said. Now that it is, she gets a lift every time she thinks of people all over Japan seeing her artwork.

The artist can’t remember a time when she wasn’t drawing pictures of animals, she said, and her parents, Philip and Dorothy Simpson, encouraged the pursuit. She started as a child and never quit as a teenager at Encina Preparatory High School or as a biology major at Sacramento State.

She works in a medium that is unfamiliar to most of the people who commission her work. It’s known as scratchboard or scraperboard.

“It’s a specially prepared board readily available from art supply places, and it’s got cardboard backing,” Ranlett said. “Then there’s a clay coating, and on top of that, a thin layer of solid black (India) ink. Then we use a knife or any tool that will scratch that black away and reveal the white. That’s how we get the detail, the texture and all that. The white will take color, so if you have a piece that needs color, you can add color to it after it’s scratched.”

For “Boston Style,” Ranlett used a board that didn’t have the India ink on it. Instead, she said, she added it where she wanted.

Her work has received recognition from her peers. Her scratchboard drawing of K-9 officer Ronin, a member of the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department, won an Award of Excellence last year at the fourth annual juried exhibition of the International Society of Scratchboard Artists. Her drawing of a border collie titled “Tell Me More About ‘Sheep’ ” was selected for publication in North Light Books’ “Strokes of Genius 7, Depth, Dimension + Space,” now being sold on

Last year, Ranlett demonstrated her scratchboard technique at the California State Fair, where her piece “Cathy’s Burrito Bouquet,” was selected as one of only six drawings in the annual Fine Art Exhibit that featured 180 works.

Years ago, Ranlett worked at the Sacramento Zoo as volunteer and events coordinator. Then she worked part-time for two environmental consulting firms, but for the last 15 years, she has worked solely on her artwork.

Clients commission her to do pet portraits, and she also produces nature illustrations when she takes or finds a photo that inspires her. Those are her typical subjects, though she’s game to tackle anything except people.

Patty Martin, a dental hygienist who lives on Bethel Island, commissioned Ranlett to do a portrait of her Australian cattle dog Quigley after admiring portraits of her sister’s dogs that the artist had produced.

“With my sister’s dog, she just really had the ability to capture their spirit,” Martin said. “She can really connect with the animals and just what their spirit is like, if they’re calm or concerned.”

Ranlett recently delivered the artwork to Martin at a dog agility competition, she said, and after her friends admired it, at least one commissioned a portrait of her beloved black Labrador retriever.

Amateur bird photographer Heather Sinon got to know Ranlett through Facebook, where both are members of a group called The Great Backyard Bird Count. Ranlett spotted a photo that Sinon had taken of a tiny bird eating from a Mason jar filled with mealworms and asked whether she could use it as a reference for a scratchboard drawing.

Last April, Ranlett sent Sinon a print of the drawing and some notecards with the image on front. Just as she does with her commissioned work, Ranlett showed Sinon the piece at various stages to get her thoughts.

“My favorite part was to see the work come along,” Sinon told me. “I thought the Mason jar itself was spectacular, the way she captured the look of glass and the very detailed metal lid. She even got the lettering on the glass jar. It blew my mind that she could do that, and the bird looked great, too.”

Cathie Anderson: 916-321-1193, @CathieA_SacBee