Professional Pet Artist Zann Hemphill Shares Tips on Getting Good Art from Bad Photos

It’s very important to me as a pet portrait artist that everyone who commissions work comes away with a painting they feel is not only beautiful, but captures their pet perfectly.

The purpose of this article is to show how photos can be cut and arranged physically or digitally to become more than the sum of their parts. Starting from the very beginning, you can see what to expect when ordering a portrait. These are steps you should be able to take with any professional pet artist.

To avoid this step, follow my complete guide to taking pet portrait reference photos. But if that’s not possible…read on!

1. Use Mockups and Sketches to Start

One of the advantages of a painted portrait is that the artist can use creative licence to insert, remove, or improve elements captured by your camera.

A great pose with poor lighting can be combined with a well-lit (but otherwise uninteresting) photo to create something amazing! Some pet  portraits even span many periods in the subject’s life.

For example, after I receive photos of a pet, I’ll start sketching out options.

These focus on the layout and composition. Then as a client, you can choose a pose and layout from the sketches, or request changes and refinements until we find something that’s just right.

2. Make a Collage of Reference Material

Once we’ve decided on the winning composition, I’ll sift through the available material and create arrangements to support it.

In the example below, my client wanted to use the sitting position from the photo on the left and her dog’s face from the photo in the middle. And for coloration, the photo on the right from when her lab was younger and more golden.

Of the three, only the centre photo was any higher resolution than you see here.

Using these images (and a couple others of her paws), I created the composite below.

You can see it’s not perfect, with the odd anatomy and mismatched lighting. But it’s enough to make sure I’m capturing both Tag’s unique posture and her features.

I used additional photos to refer to the get an understanding of her facial shape and expressions. For rendering, I used pet artist’s discretion and imagined a single overhead light source nearby.

3. Compose the Pet Portrait Art on Canvas

With my reference material together, the next step for me as a pet portrait artist is to get the sketch onto canvas.

This will be more detailed than the paper version. An update at this stage gives my portrait clients the opportunity to offer feedback on layout before I start blocking in the subject. The background can go in at this stage as well, especially if it’s darker.

4. Block in the 3D Form of the Pet (with Artists' Discretion)

Using a large brush, I’ll define the form of my subject. At this stage, I’m paying attention to light and shadow but ignoring details.

You can see whether the weight and shape of your pet look right. Are they sitting in a familiar position? Is their body language authentic?

5. Add Key Features and Get Feedback

At this stage your pet’s portrait will start looking like “them”.

I like to work from dark to light, filling in the shadows before adding highlights. The effect isn’t nice to look at at first, so I call this the Ugly Duckling stage.

If we need to make any adjustments here, it’s easy to move things around while they’re still loose, before adding too many details. I’ll mark in the deep, defined shadows. These will get softened in the next step.

Many Pet Portrait Artists will lock in their work before now. But I like to keep getting feedback to make sure my paintings come out just right.

6. Add Highlights to Make the Pet Art Come Alive!

Now the eyes will start to sparkle!

In this stage, your pet’s fur gets shine and texture, and I’ll work with fine brushes to bring out all the lively bright highlights that make a portrait engaging. Below you can compare an unfinished eye (left) to a finished one (right).

pet portrait artist finished and unfinished eye

7. Finishing Touches

Now any last tweaks can be taken care of. I’ll spend time polishing the piece until it’s ready for final approval.

At this point the portrait will still take another week to dry completely. It can be delivered or shipped as soon as it’s dry to the touch!

Watch a complete portrait painting video here

More From this Pet Portrait Artist

For painting videos, subscribe to the Paws By Zann YouTube channel, or subscribe to my newsletter (below) to get new art and art videos sent over now and then.

Thanks for reading!

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