7 Steps to Painting Beautiful Pet Portraits from Small, Partial, or Poorly Lit Photos

Portrait from Photo

It’s very important to me that everyone who commissions work comes away with a painting they feel is not only beautiful, but captures their pet’s personality and appearance properly.

This is one of the reasons I offer the opportunity for clients to provide input at every stage of the process: nobody knows their pet better.

One of the advantages of a painted portrait is that the artist can use creative licence to insert, remove, or improve elements captured by the eye or camera. A great pose with poor lighting can be combined with a well-lit but otherwise uninteresting photo to create something amazing. Sometimes the best portraits contain elements from reference photos spanning many periods in the subject’s life.

The purpose of this article is to show you how photos can be cut and arranged physically or digitally to become more than the sum of their parts, starting from the very beginning of the layout process, so you know what to expect if you order a portrait from me.

1. Mockups or Sketches


After I receive photos of your pet, I’ll start sketching out options for the layout and composition of your portrait. You can choose a pose and layout from the sketches, or request changes and refinements until we find something that’s just right.


2. Arranging Reference Material


Once we’ve decided on the winning composition and I know what the final portrait should look like, I’ll sift through the available material and create arrangements or composites to support the piece.

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

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 is enough to make sure I’m capturing both Tag’s unique posture as well as her features.

I used additional photos to refer to the get an understanding of her facial shape and expressions, and rendered her as if there was a single overhead light source nearby.

3. Compose Canvas

With my reference material together, the next step is to get the sketch onto canvas. This gestural drawing will be more detailed than the paper version and you’ll have the opportunity to give some final feedback on layout before I start blocking in the subject. I put in the background at this stage as well if it is darker than the subject.

4. Block in 3D Form

Using a large brush, I’ll define the form of my subject, paying attention to light and shadow but ignoring details. At this stage, you see whether your pet’s weight and shape look right, if they’re sitting in a familiar position, and if their body language is authentic.

5. Add Key Features

At this stage your pet’s portrait should really start looking like “them”, but the colours will still be rough. I work from dark to light, filling in the shadows before adding highlights, so I call this the “Ugly Duckling” stage. In the examples below, you can see before and after: the eyes don’t look “alive” until they get highlights and definition later on.

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.

6. Bring in Highlights and Details

Now the eyes are coming to life! Your pet’s fur will get 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).

7. Add Finishing Touches

Any last tweaks can be taken care of, and I’ll spend some time polishing the piece until it’s ready for final approval.

At this point the portrait will take an additional 1-2 weeks to dry completely, and can be delivered or shipped immediately afterward.

To inquire about getting your own pet portrait started, get in touch via [email protected]

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