Pet Art: Simple Guide to 3 Types of Portrait Lighting

Pet Art Lighting in Pet Portraits

The Importance of Lighting in Pet Art

When you buy a pet portrait (or any portrait art) probably the most important thing is that it does a good job of looking like the animal or person in question. Because that’s the whole point, right?

But a close second is how you feel when you look at the piece.

In a word, is it artful?

To answer that question, I’ll show you 3 kinds of lighting that can be used in pet portrait art, and how each changes the feel of the artwork.

  1. Single Source Lighting (aka Spot Lighting)
  2. Natural Daylight
  3. Flat Lighting

We’ll look at examples of each, so you can discover what speaks to you.

Because lighting is so important in making an emotional connection with an art piece, it’s important to understand how it works.

In all my Pet Art, lighting is the starting place.

1. Pet Art with a Single Light Source

Pet Portrait art of a dog and kitten by Zann Hemphill
Spot Lighting from the Upper Right

Firstly, let’s look at Single Source Lighting. Single source lighting, or spot lighting, gives a warm, intimate feel.

An example of single-source lighting would be a candle-lit dinner for two, where the person opposite you is lit only where they near the flame. Or, imagine a cat curled up near a bright fireplace, the light playing over their fur in a bright line at the edge. Or picture a dog waiting below an open window.

Each of these scenes gives off a certain mood—one that’s deeply ingrained in the human psyche. This is because in ancient history, the only time we experienced single source lighting was around a campfire. Later, windows narrowed the huge light source of the sky to a “singular” point, and produced a similar effect.

We had campfires for a very, very long time before we had windows.

As you can see, something of that warmth remains.

Cat portrait painting by Zann
Spot Lighting from the Lower Left

Spot lighting makes a viewing space feel close and intimate, because you’re surrounded by darkness.

So when you use it in pet portrait art, you feel closer to the subject. On the other hand, outdoor lighting or flat lighting feel more open and spacious. So single-source lighting makes sense for close-up portraits.

Another benefit to single source lighting is that it’s really easy to set up!

For example, you don’t need any special equipment to take a picture of your dig or cat this way. Just turn off all the lights except one. Or turn off the lights entirely and take a picture by the window. Because of the window thing, it’s a great choice for cats.

cat portraits painted from photo

There is, however, one downside to single-source or spot lighting: the strong emotional resonance can be too much. As a result, playful portraits tend to do better in a different style.

PS. If you’d like to see a quick 2-minute video of the just eyes of this portrait I have one up on YouTube here.

Single Source Lighting Summary

  • Has simple, deep shadows
  • Feels intimate and warm
  • Is kind of moody
  • Easily achieved indoors with a lamp

Guide to Taking Reference Photos with a Single Light Source

  • Place your light source off to one side of your pet. Don’t put it directly in front or directly behind them.
  • Remove other sources of light. If you’re using a window, turn off the lights and curtain off your other windows.
  • Move close to your dog or cat, let them fill at least half of the picture.
  • And as always, take lots of pictures :)

2. Pet Art in Natural Daylight

Pet Portrait Art Painting Dog on the Beach in oil on canvas

Natural Daylight has a fresh, open feel. So it works wonderfully for portrait art featuring pets!

Our best memories with our furry friends are often outside.

In these examples, the shadows from natural daylight vary in depth. But these shadows always help the artist bring depth into the artwork. This is what makes the pet in the painting feel real.

As you can see in the above and below images, natural daylight can be sharp or soft. In either case, it’s much brighter than single source lighting. This is because there’s so much light around when you’re out under the open sky.

Pet art in oil - lab dog in sunlight realistic
Bright sunlight makes sharp shadows in life. Sharp shadows make bright sunlight in a painting.

Brightness gives natural daylight two more advantages:

Firstly, you won’t have any issues with motion blur. That’s really nice when you’re trying to take a picture of an excitable puppy.

Secondly, you’ll get a lot of detail, even in the shadows.

happy dog painting

When you want to have a neutral background to really focus in on your pet, natural lighting works best.

As you can see from the gently-lit example above, there’s enough contrast in the shadows that you get depth—without relying on perspective in the background.

The biggest disadvantage is that when it’s too bright, we squint.

And so will your pets. A squinty portrait is not usually what we’re going for in pet art, so be careful when taking your photos that the sun isn’t directly behind you.

Daylight Summary

  • Feels bright, open, playful, and joyful
  • Captures a lot of detail
  • Outside is often where our pets are happiest, and it shows in photos
  • Can take photos from further away and they still look great
  • Best for putting on a neutral background

Guide to taking reference photos in Natural Daylight

  • If you’re taking a photo of your dog, tie them to something. This will make it so, SO much easier to get a photo of them looking at you.
  • To avoid squinting, make sure the sun isn’t directly behind you, even if it’s cloudy.
  • Photos in sharp sunlight will make paintings in sharp sunlight. If you want a softer look, opt for a cloudy day.
  • If the sun is directly behind your pet, you’ll get a dramatic backlit effect but might have a hard time getting any detail in their features.

3. Pet Art with Flat Lighting

As we look through flat lighting examples, you’ll see there isn’t much by way of shadows. So the subject appears kind of, well…flat.

However, flatness can also be a stylistic statement.

How does that work? Well, by removing depth, the viewer will focus more on texture and colour. Fewer shadows mean you can see a more complete rendering of a pet portrait subject. Because there are no variations in lighting, colours are more true to how they are on average instead of how they look in a specific scenario.

In the example below, the focus is really on Zach and his amazing fur!

Pet Art painting of a Bernedoodle by animal artist Zann Hemphill
Look Ma, no shadows!

In my work, I see photos with flat lighting that occur in one of three ways.

1. Outside, but in shadow

2. Indoors with lots of lights on.

3. Flash photos

Of the three, outdoor flat lighting ALWAYS looks best.
This is because the lighting still “makes sense” to our brains.

And flash photos always look the worst.
This is because the light is coming from exactly the same spot as the camera or viewer. Some part of us knows that’s impossible, so it looks wrong. Furthermore, because there are no shadows at all, facial features can appear squished into one another. It’s unsettling.

If you have to take photos indoors, use a single source of light, or a maximum of two (and make sure neither are a camera flash)

Pet Art Poodle Dog Painting in Oil Portrait

Good examples of flat lighting happen when you’re outside, but in shadow (like in a forest, or in the shade of your house, for example). Or when you’re shooting on a very overcast day. In these cases, the lighting might not be very exciting, but it still makes sense. It’s even. It’s consistent in colour.

On the other hand, bad examples of indoor lighting happen when there are lots of lights on. Then things stop making sense. Multiple colours of lightbulb and maybe some daylight from a window, which now looks blue, means we can’t tell what colour anything is. To our brains and eyes, this is all nonsense.

It’s really hard to take a good photo with a bunch of lights on.

Therefore, it’s really hard to make a good painting from a photo with too many light sources.

My cat Tiberius, with the lights on and the window open

This photo isn’t very well lit for a portrait because it leaves us with too many questions. For example…

  • What colour is Tiberius?
  • Why is everything orange?
  • Is his bum darker than the rest of him, or is it just in darkness?
  • How many shadows are there behind his head, anyway?


But most importantly…ask yourself how you feel about this image.

Sure, we know we’re looking at a cat, but everything else is confusing. Because of the amazing effect that has on our emotional response to a photo or painting, it’s important to notice!

While I could still work with it, better lighting will yield a better result.

Tiberius lit by the window. What a pretty kitty!

Now look at this example. All I did was turn off the indoor lights, and look what happens.

How do you feel about this one instead?

Because I can clearly see what’s going on with the light, it’s like my brain is freed up. I feel better looking at this image. Tiberius looks better in this image. Your pet would too.

But flat lighting doesn’t have to be bad!

In the examples below, we’ll look at how outdoor flat lighting still makes sense.

Peaches the St. Bernese Puppy. Paws By Zann Pet Portraits
Peaches, showing us how it's done with flat lighting.

This photo was shot in the shade on a sunny day. The light is flat, but doesn’t she look great?

Compare this to the image below, shot indoors.

While both are absolutely adorable, and the lighting is very flat in each, the top one is much better for art because the light makes sense.

Where Does Flat Lighting Shine?

Now that we know some of the risks and benefits of flat lighting, let’s take a look at its one superpower. Because apart from putting the focus on colour and texture, flat lighting has one very useful, completely unique feature.

Flat lighting is best for combining different photos into one painting.

Dog Portrait from photos Frenchies

Let’s take a look at why that’s the case. Firstly, when I combine daylit images, I either have to get two where the lighting matches, or I have to artificially flatten the lighting.

The more artificial editing I have to do, the less natural a portrait looks, so it’s best to avoid. That’s why working from two flatly-lit photos would have been even better.

In the above example, you can see both dogs are naturally lit from the left. But because one is in much sharper light (notice the squinting), I had to artificially flatten the lighting on Burger (god I love his name), so that he’d match his buddy Hank.

Cat Painting Cat Memorial Pet Art

Another example: these two cats were also composed from two photos. The lighting for each cat was completely different, so I had to flatten it out entirely for them to sit together in the same space.

Because I flattened the lighting, they look like they’re sitting together.

To conclude on flat lighting: when you want multiple pets to sit together in a painting and they won’t sit together for a photo, flat lighting is the way to go.

Flat Lighting Summary

  • Really highlights texture
  • Colours appear true-to-life
  • Great for combining multiple images
  • Neutral mood, allows the subject to dictate emotion

Guide to Taking Flat Light Photos

  • Don’t take flat-lighting photos indoors. Use a different style if you need to shoot indoors
  • Don’t use a flash
  • If it’s sunny out and you want flat lighting, move into the shade and it’ll work great
  • Very overcast days will produce beautifully-lit flat lighting all on their own. You don’t really need to worry about where the sun is, just shoot away!

Pet Art Lighting: Key Takeaways

Lighting is important to keep in mind especially because when ordering a pet portrait, you may have limited photos to work with. For example, maybe it’s a surprise gift. Or maybe it’s a memorial.

So when trying to decide what photos to send over, look for good lighting!

Indoors, look for images with only one source of light.
Outdoors, you have way more leeway. Try to find one where nobody’s squinting :)

Looking for a Pet Painting? Get some free advice first.

Before getting started on pet portraits with clients, I go through their images with them. This is to look at what they have and what they’re hoping to create. To help the two come together, I propose compositions by email.

So if you’re interested in getting your own portrait done, start here!

You can send over photos of your pets any time, and I’ll let you know what’s possible.

I’ve been painting pet portraits for over 10 years, and would be happy to create a special piece for you.

You can see more of my work in my Pet Art Portfolio
or see pricing online here.

I hope your next pet portrait is beautifully lit, in addition to looking just like your pet.

Thanks for reading!

Canadian Pet Artist Zann Hemphill

Zann Hemphill

Picture of Zann Hemphill

Zann Hemphill

Zann Hemphill is a practising pet portrait artist, writer, and video producer.

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Pet Portrait art of a dog and kitten by Zann Hemphill

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