Pet Portraits: Why and How

I've recently begun taking commissions for pet portraits. As I've been doing art, I been asked every now and then if I would paint/draw a portrait of someones pet (or spirit animal) for money. I was always very eager for the opportunity, but never really thought about why. Now that I've been doing them a little while, I understand why: because pets mean so much to us.

Creating a likeness of someones pet from an image helps the owner show the world how important their animal is to their life. Throughout history, people have been getting paintings, photographs, and sculptures made of their special animals. By creating pet portraits, I feel like I am a part of that old tradition of capturing a loved animal as their owners choose to remember them. In a lot of ways, it's an honor for me.

The process of creating the portrait is pretty simple. The proud pet owner just takes a few photographs with their smartphone and emails them to me. It's best if the pictures are taken in a well-lit room. We choose one, then talk about pricing. My most popular sizes are listed in the "Pet Portrait" page of my website, but some clients have something special in mind.

A quick note: I do expect half of the payment up front and the rest on completion. This is to insure I don't wind up with a lot of portraits of animals that aren't mine!

Now that I have the pics and the partial payment, I print out a copy of the animal and study it for a few minutes. I find this helps me recognize little shapes and spots on the animal that act as a road map during the sketching process. I usually sketch the outline on the canvas with pencil or a light brown oil paint mixed with linseed oil. This allows me to make a lot of mistakes. It also gives me time to take a break and not worry about anything drying by the time I get back to it.

Once I get all the shapes in the right place (for the most part), I start adding the shadow colors. I usually use a mixture of Payne's Grey, Alizarin Crimson, and Prussian Blue. This mixture creates a very dark tone that has a tint of blueness in it. With the shadow shapes in place, I move on to the bright spots. Typically, I use Titanium White and a Filbert brush to glob it on. After the highlights, I start mixing little pools of paint of the tones in between the lightest and darkest areas. Then I glob those on as well. Finally, since the eye loves contrast, I darken the darks and whiten the whites as much as I can. This brings the painting to life!

I've always love impressionism and I think that shows through in my paintings. I like making a picture that appears to have a lot of detail from about 5 - 6 feet away. Up close, the picture looks like a bunch of messy smudges and brush strokes, but as you step back, the shapes and colors begin working together. In a way, the viewer becomes a part of the painting process simply by looking at the picture. The viewers mind puts things where it thinks they should go, creating the illusion of detail.

As for the background, I don't generally put too much thought there. I try to choose a color with shapes that will accent the picture. I don't want too much focus to be lost on the background. I want the views eye to follow the shapes and colors of the subject. The background can serve as a rest area for the eye as it travels. That's good enough for me.


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