Today I want to give you guys a look into my process when creating a watercolor pet portrait. I started painting pet portraits when I was about twelve and had immediate access to clientele through my parents’ veterinary practices. Over the years, as my style evolved and became more refined, I got more and more requests to paint people’s favorite furry friends. They also make great gifts, and help ease the pain when a favorite pet passes away.
Step 1: Drawing
I had an art teacher in high school that instilled in me that every good painting starts with a good drawing. Though I don’t do any extensive shading when I draw these out, I do block out where each facial feature and major shaded area goes. I’ve found that if I use a bunch of graphite initially, it makes the paint look muddy, especially with white and lighter colored dogs. A basic drawing to help me figure out proportions and placement is sufficient, but is also often the hardest part.
Step 2: Background and Body
I usually work from back to front in my paintings because it saves time in layering paint. Since my focus is the pet, I usually do some kind of semi-abstract background–something that compliments the animal but doesn’t take away from it. This particular client wanted a neutral background that wasn’t brown but was darker than the dog, so I used a few shades of blues/grays. I almost always add some kind of horizon line because it grounds the subject matter and keeps it from looking like it’s floating out in space somewhere.
Once the background is finished and dry, I start on the body (because in a two-dimensional format, the body is in back of the face). This particular dog is very hairy, so it took about four layers of white, gray, yellow, and a few browns to get the shading and the fur to look like real hair. Sometimes it takes me a few layers to get the color combination right, but eventually I always do!
Step 3: Start on the Head
The head and face of the animal is always the hardest, because that’s really where the personality is shown. Like the body, it takes multiple layers of paint to get the colors and the shading right. Remember, the dog is two-dimensional in the painting, but it has to LOOK three-dimensional. Shading is key because it really defines the shape of the head and the animal’s facial structure. This is usually where I start getting Mom to come in and tell me what’s wrong!
Step 4: Finish the Head
I usually finish all of the hairy parts, then the nose, then the eyes. Once all the hair is blocked in, if I still think the color is off, this is the time when I go back over the entire dog and adjust with thin glazes of paint. It’s tricky because you don’t want to make the existing paint TOO wet, because then it all starts to bleed into itself and create a big mess. This part definitely takes some patience.
Step 5: The Eyes
This is the “make it or break it” stage. If the eyes aren’t right, the whole painting is wrong. Animals, like humans, show their personality and emotion through their eyes. It’s SUPER important that I get the look just right, otherwise the painting does not end up looking like my client’s pet. I take a lot of time on eyes, and most people say it’s the thing I’m best at.
Step 6: All Done!
Once the eyes are in, I go back and add finishing touches like eye lashes and whiskers. Mom then comes in and takes a look at it, often finding things wrong that I don’t even begin to see (which drives me crazy!). Once you stare at one of these for enough time, you just stop seeing what’s really there. Because Mom is around dogs and cats all day as a veterinarian, she is the perfect person to critique my work. And trust me, she’s not afraid to tell me like it is!
I still have a couple of pet portrait slots available before the end of the year if you are looking to give one as a holiday gift. My prices vary depending on size, and I require two to three good pictures of your pet with accurate color and lighting. Feel free to send me a message if you are interested!