Pet Portraits in Oil

Traditional oil portraits painted on linen canvas

My Painting Methods ...

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My painting style…

Layering my oil paintings…

Single subject pet portraits…

Multiple subject pet portraits…

Pet portrait backgrounds…

Unsuitable photo quality solutions...


My painting style ...

I have been using and experimenting with oil paints now for over ten years, although I have involved myself in art for my whole life, and after using many different mediums, such as pastels, graphite pencils, and watercolours, I have realized that oil paints will always be my preferred medium as they suit my style more than anything else. With each medium I have practiced with I have always sought after accuracy, beautiful use of colour, and boldness. I like my work to stand out from the canvas, and I try to make good use of highlights and shadows, as I believe this is one of the most important aspects of a painting.

Oil paints allow me to achieve what I want more than any other medium, and I have grown to love the process of painting in stages, leaving each layer to dry before I can begin the next. It is amazing to see a painting develop day by day, watching the colours deepen and the details forming together to bring the portrait to life.

The amazing thing about oil paint is that you can use it in so many different ways; it can be painted onto a canvas and used for it’s thick, buttery texture as an amazing effect, or it can be painted smoothly and flawlessly, which is my preferred method for a portrait. The paints can also be used to either create soft and subtle blends of colour, or bold strokes that make a portrait eye catching and more life like. The results are equally striking and brilliant, no matter how you use them.

When creating a pet portrait, my aim is not to try and obtain photo-realism, a customer can easily have a pet portrait photo taken at a professional photographer’s studio if they seek perfect photo-realism. My aim is to create a unique piece of artwork that is hand painted to a customer’s personal specification, and that has a perfect likeness to their pet. I want every portrait to have a ‘painterly quality’ to it.

Layering my oil paintings …

Over the last few years I have experimented with many different ways of using oil paints, and I have now gradually fallen into a routine of how to create a portrait from start to finish in the most efficient way.

Now, when I paint, the techniques and process often remain very similar, though different paintings require different attentions and should develop on the canvas naturally through the painter's own technique and skill in order for their unique style to show through.

For me, a pattern of process now forms very quickly on its own, where as when I first started painting years ago, a blank canvas could seem very intimidating and it was sometimes difficult to know where to start. Even when the paintings were almost finished, I could feel like I was just always 'guessing' what the next brush strokes should be, or the next colour mix. Now I feel very comfortable with oils, and other oil painters who sometimes feel lost or frustrated with this media (often known as the most difficult of paints) should just have patience and take the time to study their favourite artists' work.

Below is a rough guide of the steps taken when painting an oil portrait of an animal, with examples of a photographed painting.

Step 1 ~ Outlining the Subject
The first stage is very important as it determines the placement and sizes of important features (nose, eyes, ears, etc), and this is crucial to obtaining a perfect likeness to your pet.

It also has the first roughly painted shadows that are the boldest on the photograph. It might look a little messy but it's important for the next stage.

I start off by mixing a pale colour (usually raw sienna and titanium white) with plenty of turpentine to paint in the outline of the subject and place the key features.

Then, I mix a darker colour (like mars brown) to more turpentine and paint the more detailed areas in; such as the pupil, iris and corners for the eyes, or the teeth, tongue and gums for the mouth. I also scrub in any other important distinctions that need to be noted, such as wrinkles, bulges, markings or collars.

This layer is then left to dry for about a day so that I won’t lose my hand drawn ‘map’ of the subject’s face when I paint the next layer.

Step 2 ~ Blocking in the Colours
The second stage’s purpose is purely for blocking in the colours of the subject, but not the background yet as the colours could smudge and cause dullness when the paint is so wet and thin.

This stage is done very quickly and the oil paint is spread thinly (watered down with turpentine and quick-dry medium) so that the layer can dry as quickly as possible.

First I mix the relevant colours for the subject and I paint them onto the canvas using a large brush, being careful not to overlap any of my lines from step 1. I blend well to soften the appearence.

You can see that the shadows I painted in stage one are still visible in stage two, but they are now beneath a layer of colour. All oil paints have different translucency levels and knowledge of how to use them effectivley develops with practice.

Finally, I line the main features again; eyes, nose, collar etc, so that they don't get lost or dulled amongst the blended colours of fur.

Step 3 ~ Tonal Contrasts
This stage is where the depth of the painting begins to develop. Tonal contrasts in a portrait are extremely important as they determine the shape and structure of the face. For example, if you take a photo in a brightly lit room where hardly any shadows are able to form, there is often hardly any definition in the picture, whereas if you take a photo outdoors where there is light but a lot of shadows, you can capture more definition.

For this important stage I mix the same colours for the subject as I did in the last stage, only this time I also mix variations of the colours, darker ones for shadows and paler ones for highlights. I paint these onto the canvas and blend well so that there are no harsh marks.

I also add a layer to the background, wait five minutes for the paint to partially dry, and then blend gently with the fur outline.

The portrait is then left to dry for at least a day (certain colours take longer to dry than others, such as white and black).

Step 4 ~ Details
This is when the finer details are added, and the portrait appears more realistic. The most detailed areas are the mouth, eyes and nose, these all need to stand out more than the fur in order to bring the pet's face forward.

I start off by using my tiny detail brushes to outline areas that need to be bold, like the outer eye area, the pupil, the nostrils and if the pet’s mouth is open then the whole area needs to be highly detailed and bold.

I add fine hairs to the whole subject, making sure that the direction of the fur growth matches my painting, this is extremely important when painting any fur. If any of my brush strokes appear to be too harsh then I blend them after a few minutes of drying.

I leave the portrait to dry for at least a few days.

Step 5 ~ Final Highlights and Shadows
Before the portrait is complete, I add a final layer of shadows and highlights to the subject, especially on the eyes, nose and mouth areas.

I mix variations of the subject’s colours, but this time I add titanium white to the paint mix, and I use black or purple (depending on the fur colour) for the shadow details. Purple is less harsh than black, and easier to blend softly.

After I’ve applied the paint to the needed areas, I blend if needed, and then add touches of the titanium white paint to areas that need it, such as the nose and eyes. This looks very effective in bringing the portrait to life, especially when the highlight is added to the eyes.

The portrait is left to dry for the next few days.

Single subject pet portraits …

Head studies…
There are many options available to you when choosing the composition for a painting, but the most popular by far is a single head study with a plain background. This composition is perfect for customers who want their pet’s head to be the only focus point of the painting, and who want to see their pet’s features in a lot of detail, especially the eyes. We always remember our pet’s expressions and most of the expression comes directly from the eyes, so this is a very personal portrait composition. The neutral background is designed to compliment your pet’s appearance but draw no attention away from them.

If you choose to have a detailed background with a head study, this can make the portrait have a much more ‘happy’ feeling to it, especially if the background is something like a blue summers sky, or rolling green hills. I would recommend that the background still remains quite simple so that it doesn’t draw too much attention away from your pet, but it’s a customer’s choice how detailed they want the background to be.

Full body paintings…
For a full body painting a detailed background is highly recommended but not compulsory. It is a good idea to send me photos of a specific background (like your pet’s back garden) that you want painted, if you have a full body portrait. This is because your pet will look like they are in a familiar place.

Multiple subject pet portraits …

If you have more than one pet and you would like them to be in the same painting, but don’t have any photos of them together, or they won’t sit still together, then I can easily create a composition from multiple photos. I have already painted a large portrait with eight dogs, all from separate photos. We would work out the sizing differences together so that one pet isn’t too small or large compared to the other(s).

Pet portrait backgrounds …

I can include any type of background that you want in a pet portrait. The photo references can either be provided by you, or you can tell me what type of background you want and I can show you some possibilities.

I would advise that you choose a familiar background that relates to your pet, some examples are your cat’s favourite spot to curl up in, maybe in front of an open fire or out in the garden on a warm sunny day, maybe you could choose your dog’s favourite walking place, or their local park. If you don’t have a specific background that you can provide me with, then I will provide you with photos relating to what you tell me you would like, maybe it’s a lake scene, a river, a blue sky, green hills etc.

Unsuitable photo quality solutions …

If you want a portrait from me but your pet has passed away and you don’t have any good photos, then don’t worry, just contact me and we can work it out together when you have sent me the images that you do have. First of all, send me all of the photos of your pet, even if you think that the photo isn’t clear enough (the more images I have, the more accurate the portrait will be). We will need to discuss the correct colourings of your pet, as old photographs might not be a perfect representation of your pet’s fur colours. I would also find photographs of the same/similar breed to your dog so that we could add any fine details that your own photos won’t show, if necessary.