In this post I’ll walk you through the different steps I go through when painting realistic pet portraits from photos (portfolio).
With the examples, I’ll show you what to expect at the end of each phase, as well as what brushes and materials I’ve used to complete it.
The reason I wanted to share this process is mostly because of the weird-looking mushy middle phase, where some parts are sketchy and some parts have details and there isn’t really a sense of what’s “done” and what isn’t.
In particular, there’s a point in many pet portraits where the texture is really coming together everywhere but the eyes. I call it the “ugly duckling” phase— it’s a necessary step in the process, but it looks nothing like the final piece.
My fiancé calls it the “possessed” phase and doesn’t like it when I leave them on the breakfast table. He says they’re unsettling.
…No idea why.
What is going on here? Why does this phase happen?
How does it contribute to a well executed pet portrait?
To understand that, it’s best to start at the beginning.
Stage 1: Gridded Sketch
When I’m painting someone’s pet from one or more of their photos, I often grid out out the primary reference photo to make sure I’m getting the anatomy right.
I’ll put a grid on the canvas as well to to ensure that the dog or pet in the sketch maintains the same proportions as the one in the photo. In the first half of this video, you can see how the painting grid and the reference grid line up.
Both grid and initial sketch will be completely covered by the time the piece is finished, so why do I send this stage to my clients?
The purpose of the sketch is to get everything in the right place, and because it’s so quick it’s also the easiest time to make changes. By sending over a quick sketch when I get started I can make sure that they’re really happy with the composition before getting too far into the process.
Stage 2: Background and Shadows
If the portrait background is anything but white, I’ll start filling it in before starting to work on the subject.
In all my paintings, I work from dark to light, and broad to narrow. What that means is that I’m going to start with a big paintbrush and a lot of dark paint. I don’t use black at this point, because I find I lose the richness and colour of my shadows if I jump to black too quickly. Instead, I’ll use Payne’s Grey and Burnt Umber to create either warm or cool shadows, depending on my light source.
I’ll use this same portrait to show how this will evolve into a realistic, detailed pet portrait so you can see how some of the brushwork stays visible as more oils paint is added on top.
I’m being careful to keep my paint thin here, because every layer in an oil painting needs to be thicker than the one below due to how oil paint dries and oxidizes. I’m also using a very large brush, usually 2-4″.
Stage 3: Re-Define Features
It’s time to move to a smaller brush and start putting in facial features like the eyes and nose, and deepen shadows under joints, ears and muzzle.
You can see there really aren’t many details yet, but the shape and expression of the dog are becoming clear.
Stage 4: Fill in Texture
This is where the piece finally starts to look more lifelike. Below you can see some examples of portraits before and after adding texture. I’m using smaller brushes again here, from the size of my pinky to the size of my thumb.
On the left, this poodle portrait still looks flat, cartoonish and dull. On the right, we’re starting to see a hint of curls. A little bit of texture can catch your imagination, and almost makes you start to fill in fur and detail even where there isn’t any.
With this samoyed painting, you could almost say his face is done, until you see the difference that step 5 makes.
Stage 5: Highlights
Stage 5 is magical. All the weird-looking in-between parts are worth it when, with a few final brushstrokes of pure white you can bring something so completely to life. The specular highlight in the eye is one of the most well-known tricks of portraiture, but what about the shine on a whisker?
Or the bright spot on a tongue or wet nose? All these pieces come together to tell the viewer that this lighting is real, this subject is real.
Why do highlights have this effect?
I believe there are two reasons highlights have such a huge impact on a portrait.
Firstly, the way our eyes focus isn’t uniform: we pick out the important bits and the rest fades into the peripheral. With a few bright, sharp highlights, you can make a painting mimic how our eyes would naturally perceive a scene or subject, and it immediately becomes more alive. And secondly, they can complete the full range of values. Your eyes are always trying to adjust to give you the best definition they can, and as a result you’ll still register “darkest black” and “brightest white” in almost any lighting condition. Look around yourself today, and see of you’re ever in a situation where you can’t spot both darkest dark and whitest white.
In art, it’s satisfying to see both of these extreme values, but it’s not realistic to have too much of either of them. That’s why I always save titanium white for the very last few strokes before a painting is finished, and keep everything else a shade darker.
Almost the only difference between these two painting steps is the white highlights, applied with a tiny brush that’s barely more than a cluster of bristles.
Highlights add definition to texture as well, as you can see when we add the the final image to our poodle composite.
So there you have it! Five stages to take a dog portrait from a canvas sketch to a fully rendered oil painting.
For a selection of current work, please visit my dog portrait portfolio or pet portrait portfolio. Or to order your own custom piece, get in touch via [email protected]!