I’m rounding out my second Christmas as a pet portrait artist and realized with over 50 portraits now under my belt, it’s time to pull together my best pet portrait painting tips. While I love the creative process and trying new things, when it’s someone’s beloved pet you are painting, it’s much better to work with the confidence of tried and true practices! There are a ton of methods and painting techniques, but below are the lessons I’ve learned to produce an amazing pet portrait that clients love, no matter what method or medium you use.
Choose a high quality reference photo
Of all the pet portrait painting tips I can think of, this is the single most important one. Working from a solid reference photo gives me the confidence that I can represent the true essence of the pet. Following are some of the main attributes of strong pet photos for paintings:
- Pet photo is taken in natural light that shows highlights, shadows and the range of fur colors.
- The pet is posed with both eyes and both ears visible. While some poses are cute and goofy in a photo, they don’t always translate well to a painting.
- Photo resolution must be high enough to provide enough detail for the size of painting you are creating.
- Photo should show the animal in a way they want to be remembered. I work closely to photos and can’t “make up” what isn’t there or change expressions.
Below are a few of the better reference photos I’ve worked with and why:
Above photo of Lucy shows natural light source from the side and close up focus provides lots of highlights and shadows to create fur detail.
Above photo of Scooby shows natural daylight reflecting in both eyes, lighting shows shade variations in black and white fur; perfect pose and facial expression.
Above photo of Kota shows natural outdoor lighting and pose provided the perfect angles for highlights/shadows to create contour and fur details, and beautiful eye colors.
When clients send me photos to paint, I’ve learned to be very selective and only agree to a portrait commission once we’ve worked together to select a great photo. It doesn’t always work if the animal has passed on and no more photos can be taken. The only few paintings I’ve had to redo were due to poor photo choices, so I’ve learned some the hard way! The pet portrait reference photo is SO important, I’ve written a whole blog post on pet photography tips, so check that out for more detail.
Plan the pet portrait color palette
Once I’ve chosen a reference photo, I don’t just start in on the canvas. If I painted in realistic colors, I might be able to skip some of this step, but since I typically paint colorful pet portraits, I have some planning to do. Another very important pet portrait painting tip is to consult with the client on favorite colors, home decor considerations, and colors to avoid. Then I consider the colors of the pet and how I could use any of the client’s preferences or alternative, bright colors to bring the essence of the animal to life in a fun way.
I frequently use digital photo editing apps such as Photoshop, Hyperspektiv, and the native iPhone photo editor to play with contrast, split tones and other filters to mockup how certain color palettes might work. I often end up painting from two or three different mockups, using the original, a high contrast version, and a technicolor version. Taking the time to consult, plan and visualize is key to selecting a solid color palette that will look great with the pet portrait painting.
From left to right, above reference photos of Jack:
1. original photo w/increased contrast (native iPhone app)
2. split tone in Photoshop app
3. Lugosi filter in Hyperspektiv app
4. final pet portrait painting
Choose which features to emphasize
The best art lesson I was ever given about representational art was by my high school drawing teacher. While drawing a still life, a.k.a. giant pile of junk in the middle of the classroom, I was struggling with passion for the subject (can’t imagine why?). He stood at my vantage point and began describing the objects in my view, pointing out the gleam on a shiny piece of metal, the patterns of light and dark woven across the sides of a wicker basket, and the amazing way the ripples flowed in a hanging vinyl raincoat. Somehow he had enthusiasm about random inanimate objects, but what he taught me was to appreciate light and textures and the relationship between things. To this day I am always noticing little random shadows, shiny things and shapes, and in the back of my mind scheming how I would draw or paint that to make it look interesting.
So bringing it back to pet portrait painting tips – pets are WAY more interesting and fun than piles of junk, but the practice holds true. The pets eyes should always be the #1 focus, followed by the nose. I LOVE painting the little wet shine details on a pet’s nose, and the sparkles in their eyes! Those details are what bring the portrait to life, and I typically wait till the end so I don’t gloss over other details. But I also like to study the fur, especially around the ears, eyes, and mouth. Pets have fun little furry quirks spots and of course, WHISKERS! Whiskers aren’t always the most visible in the photos, but I tend to emphasize them in pet paintings because they add so much character. It comes down to studying the face and lighting and finding those details to really bring the vitality into the portrait.
Fall in love with the subject
It’s possible the previous pet portrait painting tips really just fall under this final one, but I’ve learned it’s crucial to treat these portrait subjects as if they were my own. Sometimes I’ll ask the client to tell me about their pet, or I’ll just imagine them playing or snuggled up on the couch, wagging their tales or purring when their owner comes home. If you know me, you know I LOVE animals. I love mine, I love my clients’, I love yours, I love them all. I believe it is of the utmost importance to flex that empathy muscle and make pet portraits personal to truly honor the love and joy these relationships bring us.