Dachshund Painting Feature with Fudge

Fudge’s portrait is a great example of how pet paintings don’t need to be limited by their photo reference.

In this piece, the reference photo did a great job of showing what Fudge looks like. But the lighting was…only so-so. Using the reference material and some painterly lighting tricks produced a piece of art with a lot more visual appeal!

Let’s take a look at what went into the composition.

Dachshund painting custom pet portrait from photo

How to Change the Lighting in a Painting of a Dachshund (or other Portrait)

Sometimes the challenge with painting pet portraits from poorly-lit photos is just getting enough information to capture their features.

changing the lighting in a pet portrait with Zuzu

But if the reference has enough detail and just lacks oomph, I can really play with the lighting on canvas!

Using the principle of dark on light/light on dark to make portraits pop is something I’ve talked about before.

But for Fudge’s portrait I wanted to draw on a lighting style that would give the piece a particularly classic look. The directional natural light used here is inspired by “Rembrandt Lighting”, who often lit his subjects from one strong natural light source that would reflect within the room to create a secondary light source.

Rembrandt lighting works for all sorts of portraits (including pet portraits) for two reasons.

1. Natural Light Looks Good

Our brains are really, really wired to “get” sunlight. In art, painting subjects in natural light makes them register as “real” more quickly.
Even if the reference photo I’m working from for a pet portrait painting wasn’t shot outside, I’m going to try to mimic some of the things sunlight does.
pet portrait painting simple lighting process
Lighting, simplified: bright face on dark background, dark body on light background.

How can I make the lighting in this dachshund painting look more realistic?

Well, here are some things to keep in mind.

Sunlight comes from up. Simply by making the top of my subjects lighter than the bottom, I can suggest the direction of light. One strong light source from up there somewhere feels more natural than multiple sources of light coming in from all over.

Sunlight is “parallel” because it comes from so far away. Shadows will be a perfect cutout of their object, with no distortion. This is different than how light behaves from sources nearby, where the shadow looks huge.

Natural light comes from one place. We all know that bright sunlight makes razor-sharp shadows. But even soft overcast light is bright enough that you can really see where it isn’t. Have you ever wondered why photos taken inside can look “flat” compared to photos taken outside? Part of the reason is that indoor lighting comes from a bunch of dim sources instead of one bright one, so the shadows are weak and conflicting instead of strong and unified.

2. Contrast Between Subject & Background

Having strong contrast between your subject and the background means you can understand what you’re looking at really fast.

In Rembrandt’s work, he would often highlight the subject’s face as the focal point using dark backgrounds and clothing.

Getting the Details in

With the portrait’s composition and lighting set, I can move on to painting the actual fur and texture on our dog subject. And what beautiful fur Fudge has! As a long-haired Dachshund, her coat is long and soft, with lovely colouration.

This video shows how I use highlights to catch the light on wisps of fur around her ears and face.

If you’d like to commission a portrait but you’re not sure about your reference material, I’d be happy to take a look at what you have and offer some suggestions for portrait layouts that can work.

Visit my contact page to get in touch and we can talk.

If perfect reference material just isn’t available, that’s OK!

I can also work with several different photos to make sure the portrait turns out right. It may take longer, but it’s worth it to get a perfect painting of your pet.

Dog Portrait Fudge the Dachshund, painted in oil by zann hemphill
"Fudge" Final Dog Portrait, 24" x 24" Oil on Canvas

For more examples of my work, visit my portfolio of Pet Portraits from Photos.

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Thanks for reading,


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