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Secrets to Painting Dog Portraits Using a Reference Photo

Updated on April 15, 2013

There are many important things to consider when creating dog portraits from photos. Thinking outside the box, letting loose, and being creative is very important.

If you start getting too technical with “where the nose goes”, then you are going to have a dog portrait painting that is not very proportional. A good reference photo, pencils, paints, brushes, and canvases are also vital in creating your masterpiece.

Choose a Good Reference Photo

Get an interesting view of the dog. A profile or three quarter view is more interesting that looking at the animal straight on.

Try to take a picture of the dog when it is relaxed, not when it is yawning or panting. This may be harder to draw, and it isn’t as “candid”.

If you are new to drawing, or you don’t quite know what you are doing, it might actually be beneficial to use a photo that is in black and white. Color photos are difficult to use because of the fact that you have to estimate how light or dark to make something.

If the photo is in black and white, this takes away the guesswork and save a significant amount of time.

Painting Dog Portraits from a Photo

Gather the Best Materials

The type of paint you use really depends on what your preferences are. Watercolors are a fun way to use color, but you wont really be able to blend them unless you just put down paint seconds before.

Acrylics are the more widely used paints. They are easy to maneuver and blend. Make sure you also have a variety of brushes. It would help to have three or four different sizes: small for detail, and large for big areas of color.

Of course, most portrait drawings are oriented as a portrait rather than a landscape. This allows for more room to draw the dog’s face. When choosing a painting surface, there are many choices. It is important to get something with more of a tooth.

This way, there is more texture and the paint stays in place better. There are canvases, and there is also acrylic paper and hardboard. It is completely in the discretion of the artist to decide what feels most comfortable.

Begin Mapping Out the Dog’s Portrait

Start by making marks lightly in pencil on the canvas of where things are, in a general sense.

There is no need to get technical just yet. This step helps map out where things will eventually go.

After doing this, make adjustments accordingly. It would be beneficial to use some kind of unit of measurement so that the drawing doesn’t look proportionally wrong, such as the animal’s nose, eye, head width, or length. It is easy to map out when you know that the head is eight eye lengths long, rather than completely guessing.


After mapping everything out on the paper, start filling in colors. Don’t even worry about actual face elements just yet. This is usually the step that throws people off track. Just look at the shapes, and try to estimate the color in the picture. After you mix the color, fill in any shape you see that is that same color. Before you know it, you will have most of the portrait complete. When you have the general colors painted, you can begin to get technical.

Areas you need to spend a little more time on would be the detail in the eyes, nose, fur, and possibly the ears. It is important to remember that when painting fur, you really don’t need to portray every single strand of hair.

It might actually come out looking obnoxious. Just paint a few strands of hair here and there. If the dog has curly hair, just use light and dark paints to highlight the curls and shade the dark areas. This gives it a realistic look.

When painting the other detailed areas remember to take your time and really look at the photo. Don’t think about it as an eye, think about the shapes that make up the eye and paint those.

When starting out painting, it might seem harder than it is. In reality, painting dog portraits from photos really isn't all that hard. It's just simply painting colors and shapes. Most people think too hard about it, which hinders their creativity significantly. Just remember to focus on getting the shapes the right size, and have them look proportional to each other. That is really all that matters. Eventually, you will get better at painting dog portraits, and will get used to this method of painting!

Dog Portrait Speed Painting


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