Digital dreamworld

Julie McGann's dreamy, watercolor-like artwork
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Julie McGann

Julie McGann admittedly lives in a dream world. There, animals have eyelashes and bows. They wear makeup so they have rosy little cheeks. And don’t forget the sparkly nail polish. “I’ve always loved cute things,” she says. “I was the girl who always had a bow in my hair, even in high school. I don’t think I could pull it off now, though. But I still like sparkly things.”

McGann is the owner of Julie McGann Fine Art Portraits, a business based out of her home in Penfield where she takes photos of children and pets and meshes them into dream scenarios. Part digital illustration, part photography, McGann turns ordinary personal photos into sensational imaginary works of art. Whether it be having a tea party with your favorite kitty, flying through the sky on a magical unicorn, or playing helicopter with a bottle of ketchup, she knows how to create a world on screen that most of us can only imagine in our minds. She taps into the imagination of little dreamers by giving them the dream pet they have always wanted.

She starts by talking with the child, the subject of the photo, first. “I say, ‘If you could have anything in the world as your pet, what would it be?’ And then I say, ‘What would you want to do with that pet?’ And then once they tell me those two things, it just comes to me,” says McGann of the magical experience she creates first in her mind, and then on the computer.

She can take almost any photo and meld it into a composite story. “I explain to [the client] exactly how the picture will look because I can just see it in my brain, already done,” she says. “For example, I say, ‘Ok, so she’s going to be walking on a sidewalk, and there’s going to be a pink bow around the giraffe’s neck and she’s going to be holding onto it wearing all of these amazing amounts of accessories that don’t really go together.’ And hopefully they can see it too after I explain it.”

McGann always enjoyed taking pictures—she says she remembers putting her son, who’s now fifteen, in a baby bathtub and posing him with a duck, washcloth, and a shampoo bottle. When her third child was born, her husband, Dave, gave her a high-end digital camera for their anniversary. “I just went nuts learning everything I could learn about the camera,” she says.

Next she became interested in understanding more about studio lights and took an online course to learn more. Studio lights are expensive, so while she was saving up for the equipment, she had some time on her hands. She began using her computer to learn about composites—pasting one image on top of another and making it look like it belongs. 

“That’s how I accidentally made that giraffe picture. I made that one day and everybody blew up about it,” she says. “They’re like, ‘That’s your style because it’s pink and it’s cute.’” Ever since then I’ve decided to make all of my pictures look ‘cute.’ I really love making these cutesy, whimsical ‘water-color-ish’ pictures. So then it just blew up from there.”

A stay-at-home mom to her three children, she started using them in her early works as she honed her skills. For example, the photo of the little girl walking the giraffe is actually a composite of many different pictures, including a photo of her youngest daughter.

“There is a giraffe photo from a zoo, plus I took a picture of a bow, a fence, and a park. And then I added sky. So the photo probably has about ten different pictures altogether,” she says. “I take pictures of real things and then I paste them together on the computer. But then I give it an effect in Photoshop so that it looks like a watercolor.” 

Speaking of Photoshop, McGann taught herself how to use the high-end software program used by professional photographers around the world.

“My first ones were really bad,” she says with a laugh. “So I just kept doing free online tutorials to teach myself. You have to learn how to make shadows so it appears that the object is creating the correct shadow based on where the light is coming from. There are so many little things I learned. I just taught myself. I find Photoshop really relaxing; I could sit there and do it all day. It’s like yoga for the mind.”

She kept practicing and putting together more photos of her daughter. Other people started seeing her work, and then they started asking for their own versions. McGann says she can take the worst cell phone picture “ever” and turn it into something magical. She remembers one time when a family asked her to create a photo after their family dog had passed away.

“I asked them if they could have their dog back for one day and they could do anything, what would they want to do with their dog? The little boy wanted to sword fight with the dog, and the little girl wanted to pull him in a wagon like a king,” McGann says. “But when their mom sent me the picture, she had taken it in her basement with ‘yellowy’ lights and it was dark, but I made it work. I can make anything work. It’s fun for me to make a picture like that.”

McGann says for those thinking of having a portrait done, there’s no need to have a professional camera. Nowadays a cell phone camera will work fine. She just asks that the photo be taken in a well-lit place, but even if the photo comes in dark, she can work with it.

“Even if it’s a bad picture, I can make it work. You have to remind them, though, not to cut off their body parts,” she says with a laugh. “I’m like, ‘ok, but you’re missing feet!’ I guess I could throw shoes on them, but sometimes if they’re missing part of their hand or the top of their head —well, I actually can put the top of the head back on!”

McGann takes all her own stock photos—pictures of bows, tiaras, and mirrors come from around her house. She also borrows pictures from her parents and in-laws, who vacation a lot. For the occasional giraffe or elephant, she’ll go online and purchase a stock photo. 

She says she promotes her business on, a family entertainment website highlighting things to do in and around Rochester, but primarily sees business from social media sites like Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. She’s done portraits for clients as far away as England but sees business mostly from the United States. She has various levels of dream portraits available. Clients can have a custom portrait created from scratch or can purchase a “Dream Gallery” piece, a premade portrait, but with the client’s child placed in the picture. 

She says she doesn’t spend too much time promoting herself. “It just makes me happy just to do it,” she says of her work. “I like people to just enjoy it; I just do it for fun. It’s sort of a hobby that’s turned into a career.”

So how does she know when a piece is just perfect? “I know it’s good when I look at the picture and I laugh. If it makes me laugh, and I also feel like I live in the picture, like I’m actually there, I know it’s good. I want it to tell a story so much that I feel like I’m there. I like my pictures to have a little bit of comedy in them. Or if I show my family, and one of my kids starts laughing because it’s hysterical, then I know it’s good. It’s cute with a touch of humor.” 

To learn more:
Julie McGann Fine Art Portraits


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