In this post, we’ll share 10 unexpected discoveries from the Paws By Zann pet portrait studio. These range from on-easel insights about lighting and brushwork to answering brass-tacks questions about fixing dented canvas.
Zann works in oil paints, creating custom portraits of dogs, cats, and horses. She also creates handmade pet memorials using pets’ ashes.
#1 Painting Pets with a Mitful of Brushes
When I paint, I often have several brushes in my hands at the same time. You have noticed in some of my YouTube videos.
Well, switching brushes keeps colours from getting muddy! This is especially important with oil paints, where you’re often blending directly on canvas.
#2 Finishing Options: Glossy or Matte for Your Pet Painting?
Oil paintings naturally have a varied surface. Thick paint is glossier and covers the texture of the canvas, and while thinner application is more matte and lets the canvas texture show through.
You can also play with gloss by using mineral spirits and linseed oil, as described in this post about oil painting finishes.
#3 How Much Detail can you Fit in a Pet Painting?
Both the dimensions of a pet painting and the weave of he canvas affect how much detail you can fit onto a pet portrait. In the two close-up examples below, you can see the difference in eyes between a portrait on an 8″x 8″ canvas and one on 20″ x 20″.
To learn more about pet portrait sizing, visit the Complete Guide here.
#4 You can get MORE detail by double-priming your canvas
This is a trick my mother taught me, which I will pass on to you.
Even if you work with pre-primed canvas, where there is already a coat (or several) of gesso applied, if you follow this trick you will get an amazingly smooth (read: detail-ready) painting surface.
Instead just brushing your gesso on, scrape the wet primer with your palette knife until the whole surface is smooth. Then when it dries, you’ll be able to fit more details on the newly flattened surface.
#5 Pet Paintings Work Best from Natural Light
When taking reference photos for pet portrait art, it’s best of you can take the photo outside. If that’s not possible, near a window works too—but turn off all the interior lights first!
This is a surprisingly important step in getting accurate colours and shadows and crisp, 3-dimensional subjects.
#6 Natural Light is Important in the Studio, Too
I’ve tried all sorts of artificial lighting, from high CRI (colour-rendering index) bulbs to LED panels to hot tungsten. Nothing lets you see what’s going on on canvas the way natural daylight does.
Interested in how to take photos for pet portraits? Check out my complete lighting guide here.
#7 Water-Mixable Oils Mix with Regular Oils Just Fine
If you’ve ever wanted to try painting with water-mixable oils but didn’t want to invest in a whole set, relax! You can try them out with just one colour and mix them in with your regular oils. I find I can still wash my brushes with dish-soap instead of paint thinner with even a 50-50 mix.
This is in stark contrast to trying to mix water-based paint like acrylic or watercolour or gouache with oils—which I don’t advise. Hello weird unwashable chunks!
#8 Cat Hair Gets in Everything (Dry Paintbrushes Get it Out)
If you paint pets and you have a cat at home, you WILL get cat fur in your art.
So when it happens to you, my top tip is to use a dry paintbrush to scoop it back out. Scoop in the opposite direction you would paint, as if you’re trying to poke the hair with the bristles.
I know, the first instinct is a fingernail. But if you want to leave no mark, a dry bristly paintbrush works better.
#9 The Edges of a Pet Painting are Important
This isn’t exactly a trade secret, but extending the painting around the edges of the canvas gives a piece a modern finish and subtle dimensionality.
Gallery-wrapped artwork looks great without a frame, and goes with any interior style.
#10 Canvas Dents Ridiculously Easy, But Water Can Fix It
If you’ve had the unhappy experience of leaning your beautiful new animal artwork against something, only to discover that “something” left an imprint in your canvas, don’t despair!
First, take a spray bottle, and mist the back of the canvas lightly. Then just wit for it to dry! It will shrink a little, just like new pants in the wash, and if you’re lucky that slight shrinkage will pull the dent flat.
Looking for More Pet Paintings?
You can see more examples of my custom oil paintings of dogs, cats and other pets in the Pet Painting Gallery
To get your own pet painting on canvas, send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org. I’d love to bring your art vision to life.
For art updates, fresh pet portraits, videos and more, sign up for my occasional newsletter (below).
Thanks for reading! See you next time.