Evolution of a Pet Portrait

I’ve been painting pet portraits for almost two years now, and I thought it might be interesting to show you the process, the evolution of a portrait.

I study the photos of Cody and Hana that were emailed to me: I keep them up on the computer and refer to them constantly while I’m painting.

Black dog close-up

First I sketch the dogs in pencil on a canvas board, just getting the outlines and the placement of the eyes and noses. It’s faint in this photo, but there’s enough for me to go on. Sometimes for a more complicated portrait I’ll use a projector or graphite paper to trace the details. I hold the sketch up to a mirror to make sure it looks balanced and correct.

White dog close-up

Then I choose my palette of acrylic paints. I like Golden Acrylics for their consistency and color. I use various sizes of synthetic bristle brushes. One of my favorite brushes is a 1/2 inch angled brush. For Cody the black Lab, I chose Paynes Gray and Prussian Blue. Even though he’s black, he really isn’t all black- highlights and shadows comprise many colors. I don’t like to use black paint – it’s too flat and dark. For Hana I used Raw Siena, Burnt Siena, Buff, and White.

Next I block in the colors and shapes, diluting the paint with water to almost a watercolor consistency. Free and loose, not trying to get any detail.

I like to paint the eyes right away – that way the animal is there and the personality comes through. I used Burnt Siena and Burnt Umber along with Payne’s Gray, and I always put two dots of white in the pupil. It gives life to the eyes. I paint the noses in at that time too. Hana’s nose needed some pink so I diluted some Cadmium Red with White and added a little Raw Siena. A little stroke of white at the bottom of the nostrils gives definition and a bit of shine.

Working more color in, I gave Hana some Prussian Blue for her shadows and even a little pink here and there. I worked with Cody’s shadows and highlights some more.

I don’t do a painting all at one sitting. Acrylics dry quickly, and I leave the painting for a while and then come back to it. Sometimes I leave it for a day. When I come back I always see something I missed and need to correct. If I get stuck I leave it alone and usually I can work it out after a while.  Sometimes a painting reaches the I hate it stage. It’s awful. It will never work. Before I get too frustrated I leave it alone and then later I’ll get a fresh look at it and move on.

Moving along, I worked more on Cody finished up Hana and thought about my background. I usually like a smooth background, although I’ve been experimenting with mottled and different color backgrounds. I try to have the background color complement the dog’s color. Since we have 2 different color dogs here, I decided to use green – lighter behind Cody and darker behind Hana. I mixed Cobalt Blue and Hansa Yellow, both transparent colors, and made a mixture with White, some darker and some lighter. I laid down several layers, letting them dry in between coats. A drop if dish washing liquid makes the paint flow very smoothly and cover evenly.

Finally it was finished. One of the hardest things to do is to know when to stop. I have to stop myself from overworking it, to call it done.

I notified the client that the painting was finished, and she sent a check right away. I mailed it off and a few days later I got this email: Hi, Deena, I received the portrait yesterday. It came out great! I love it and can’t wait to give it to my friend. I will definitely recommend you to anyone interested in having a portrait done of their animal buddy.

Please visit my web site at Pet Portraits by Deena. I have over 40 portraits on the site, mostly dogs, several cats and a couple of horses. I love animals and I love painting, so I’ve been fortunate to be able to combine these interests and create paintings that have made many people very happy.