My process of a commissioned dog portrait

In the previous blog I wrote about how I prepare my canvas for a pet portrait.

This post will go through the painting process from the drawing up. Often you see artist’s starting their work and the under drawing is already sketched or traced in. The drawing stage often gets omitted, but in order to have a decent likeness of your subject, the drawing has to be spot- on from the start. If it’s not, you’re in for all kinds of trouble later on as you wonder why it “just doesn’t look quite right” .

Well here’s my little secret to getting the proportions and alignment of the features correct from the beginning.


Draw from a grid

For me, the grid technique is the fastest and most efficient way to lay down an accurate template for my painting. It is so easy these days with grid apps you can install onto your iPad or phone.

I always take my time during this stage because the drawing is like the skeleton of the artwork. It is the structure to which I build on top of of. It is particularly important to double check that the grid on the reference photo and the canvas match in dimensions. Sounds basic, I know, but so many times I’ve found myself rubbing out and redoing a section because I had more lines on the iPad grid, or something simple like that. To give myself the best shot at success, I stick to squares. I like squares in a grid. They’re more dependable than rectangles.


The mock-up

Admittedly my photoshop app on the iPad is pretty dodgy with cutting around edges (could be the operator!) but it does give me the capacity to play around with colours and compositions so that I can work with my client to plan a painting before I start. This gives them the opportunity to make decisions about their portrait and have an idea of how the painting will look.


Under painting

I like to use the “grisaille” (pronounced like Versailles) under painting technique at the beginning of my portraits. This method was made popular in the Renaissance and is very useful in creating a monochrome tonal rendering of a work before applying the full range of colours. It allows me to focus entirely on the tonal relationships of the composition, without having to worry about colour. I see it like adding a bit of tonal substance on top of the “structural” drawing.

I always check in with my client at this stage, as it lets them see their pet on canvas and be assured that their portrait is underway.


First colour pass

By using the tonal under painting as my guide, I gently start adding the colour. I’m always mindful of the three-dimensional solidity of the animal I’m painting, so it’s important to paint in the direction of the skeletal form and muscles that are underneath the skin and fur. This helps to give the flat two-dimensional surface of paint on canvas a three- dimensional, realistic look.

I like to call this stage of my portraits the Ugly Duckling stage because you can see what they can grow into, but they always look a bit like a messy cake mix.

I used artelier interactive acrylics for the under painting on Frank’s portrait.


Final pass

And here is the lovely Frank’s portrait.

Final layer painted in water soluble oils (Windsor and Newton artisan)