Pet Portrait Gift Guide

Gift Guide for Pet Portraits

How to Give a Pet Portrait as a Gift - The Right Way

Pet portraits make awesome gifts, as a ton of happy recipients can attest!

Whether it’s a surprise for a birthday or Christmas, celebrating a new puppy or kitten in the house, or creating a touching memorial for someone who’s lost a four legged friend, pet portraits are a truly one-of-a-kind gift.

But what is the best way to plan a portrait present to make sure that it a) features their pet at his very best and b) stays a surprise?

In this post I’ll go through what my experience has told me about the best ways to make a pet portrait a real winner as a gift for the dog-lover in your life. We’ll look at how to choose an appropriate size, how to sneakily capture some good reference photos of the subject, and how to keep the package a surprise!

dog painting from photo
Excited to Present this Portrait of "Nixon", almost perfectly life-sized!

1. With Gifts, Size Matters

Giving a small portrait (12″x16″or less) is usually a safe bet for a surprise present. These pieces can fit easily in any home, and you don’t need to worry that there won’t be wall space. Small portraits are a great choice for friends and relatives you don’t live with, when you might not know where a larger piece of art would fit in their home.

These Mini Portraits are a great way to celebrate multiple pets, and the collection can be rearranged and added to over time

But if you want to deliver something really extraordinary…

A centrepiece for example, or even just a portrait that could hold its own on the walls of a larger room, it pays to ask a few questions ahead of time. If this is a gift for your own husband or wife, great! You can ask these questions yourself. If not, no sweat, just bring in a buddy!

#1 Tip for giving large portraits to friends: ask their spouse for help.

Testimonial pet painting from photo
Vivian with her new portrait of sweet Chocolate Lab "Perlie"

This usually goes over well because you can co-give the gift, and you both get share in the delight! Some of the questions below help get you on the right track for for size, colour and placement.

  • What if we had a nice painting to go here?
  • If we had some art for above the couch, how big do you think it should be?
  • Which rooms do you think need something new this season?
  • Mothers’ Day/Your Birthday/Christmas is coming up, and I want to surprise you with a piece of art that I know you’re going to love. Can I get your opinion on size and colour before going for it?
"We get so many compliments on your piece!"

Of course, gifts don’t always have to be a surprise, and sometimes they’re even a collaboration. I’ve had coworkers get together to get a portrait of the office dog or the bookstore cat, and families order a portrait together (with prints) of a family pet to send with kids who are leaving for University.

2. Getting Reference Material

If you’re going with a gift that’s been discussed ahead of time, choosing a reference photo is as  easy as asking. But for all you sneaky surprisers out there, here are some suggestions!

1. If they’re on Social Media, start there
If they have favourite photos of their dog or cat, this is probably where they’ll share them; almost every pet-lover posts about their furbaby some time.

The advantage here is that you’ll know for sure that they like this photo. But the disadvantage is that most social media sites, including Facebook and Instagram, compress images. So quality can be an issue. Not to worry though, if all you have are small images, send them over and I’ll help create a composition that will work!

In the example below, my client really wanted to capture some of Tag’s (the lovely platinum lab there) unique habits, like her sideways sit. But she couldn’t get a good shot of her face sitting like that. So we wound up using three different photos as a reference and I stitched them together in Photoshop before starting on the painting.

2. Offer to pet-sit
If you have the time, this will give you loads of opportunity to get just the right reference! If you want to see my best tips for getting good reference material, check out my Complete Reference Photo Guide. The basics though, are that photos are easiest to work with when they’re shot from the pet’s eye-level, have some natural lighting (a window is fine), and are taken close-up, preferably enough that the pet fills at around 1/3 of the frame.

3. Visit them and take photos when they’re distracted
You can get a perfectly fine reference by taking a few shots during someone’s bathroom break while you’re over for brunch 🙂

4. Ask their groomer/dog walker/spouse/kids for help
If all else fails, ask for help! People are usually delighted to help with a surprise gift, especially other dog people. If they get a few photos from down at the pet’s eye level, I’m sure at least one of them will work for a portrait.

Tip: get them to email the photos to you instead of texting them, as this will preserve the photo resolution.

"OMG I love it!!"

3. Keeping the Portrait Gift a Surprise

You’ve put in the effort to find the perfect size and get an awesome reference photo. Now, how do you get a portrait delivered without them finding out, especially if you live together?

If you’re local to my studio in Nanaimo on Vancouver Island, or if the portrait is a gift for a friend or coworker, this step might be easy-peasy.

But if you’re getting something for your spouse or parents who live with you or visit often… read on.

1. Ship to your Workplace
I ship all my paintings through Canada Post and USPS, so I can arrange delivery to any business or residential address. This can be a great way to avoid questions like “what’s in this big box?”.

2. Pay by e-Transfer
If you share a bank account with your recipient and don’t want to spoil the surprise, especially if you’ve planned weeks or months ahead, e-transfers are a great way to keep the subject of your purchase ambiguous. “Yes, that was me. No, I’m not telling you what it is, it’s for your birthday”.

3. If all else fails, ask for help
Your kids can’t accidentally stumble upon their Christmas or Graduation gift if it’s not in the house, am I right? Aren’t friends great?

Emily after receiving a portrait of her childhood dog "Athena"

4. Adding Personal Touches

Because every painting I make is crafted with input from my clients, it’s easy to add a personal message on the back, include a meaningful tag or collar in the painting or have text elements like your pet’s name on the front.

It’s all about making the pet-lover in your life feel special, and I’m here to help make that happen.

If you’re looking for a unique, one-of-a-kind gift for someone right now, visit me at I’d love to hear from you—and see your furry friends!

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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