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How to Paint Pet Portraits: A Guide for Beginners

Charlotte likes pretty things, and she loves the beach, sushi, coffee and seashells.

My personal artwork, made using these instructions. A coworker's dog crossed Rainbow Bridge and I made this for her as a gift. She loved it.

My personal artwork, made using these instructions. A coworker's dog crossed Rainbow Bridge and I made this for her as a gift. She loved it.

A Guide to Painting Animal Portraits

Pet portraits are beautiful because they help to celebrate the life of the pet. Pet portraits can help capture the joyous moments and expressions of today—or of a pet that has crossed Rainbow Bridge. Pet portraits are a special, unique and wonderful way to honor the bond that only a pet owner, the family, and the pet can understand.

Painting a portrait can seem like a difficult or challenging task at first. It’s important to consider that there are many styles of pet portrait, ranging from realistic to stylistic to even anime-style. Find what kind of style captures your eye, and what kind of style you are most comfortable with.

How to Paint a Dog (Beginner Pet Portrait Instructions)

  1. Gather your supplies (see list below).
  2. Choose a style.
  3. Paint the background.
  4. Print a photo of the pet.
  5. Transfer the photo to your canvas.
  6. Add finishing touches.

Below, you'll find tips to guide you through each of these steps.

Step 1: Gather Your Supplies

First, you need to get the supplies.

  • Paints: You can have a variety of paints; tips for acrylics and oils are included in this guide.
  • Printer: You should also have access to a printer.
  • Tracing Paper: You'll also need some carbon copy tracing paper.
  • Canvas: You should have an art canvas or another kind of surface to paint upon. A recycled wooden plank would do.
  • Gesso: It’s best to treat the surface with gesso first, especially if using wood, a porous surface, or any kind of acrylic paint.
  • Black Marker and Soft Art Pencils: You should have a good quality black marker and soft art pencils.
  • Paintbrushes and Palette: You'll need to mix colors on a palette (as opposed to just using the paint from the tube, which can end up being wasteful).

Step 2: Choose a Style

Keep your final pet image in mind. Think:

  • What color is the pet?
  • What personality does the pet have?
  • Do you want the image to be more abstract, realistic, or a mixture of both?

Keep this mind when creating the background, as you want to consider highlights, shadows, and maybe even tones that match your home or favorite colors of the client who wants the pet portrait.

Step 3: Paint the Background

After you have gathered the supplies, you must decide on how you are going to paint the background. This step is easy if you are using acrylic, as acrylic dries relatively fast.

If you are using oil paint, consider that oil sometimes takes weeks to dry. You can lessen the time to dry with oil paint if you use drying mediums or linseed oil.

American Bulldog portrait: My cousin, who is 44 and has never painted in his life, followed my instructions and created this. It's pretty great! You can do it, too!

American Bulldog portrait: My cousin, who is 44 and has never painted in his life, followed my instructions and created this. It's pretty great! You can do it, too!

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Step 4: Print a Picture of the Pet

While the background dries, find the favorite photo of the pet. Print the photo out in black and white.

Something that you might want to do as well is have the picture, on the editing software, flipped horizontally. Since we'll be transferring the image onto the canvas with carbon paper, flipping the image now will ensure that the final image on the canvas is what the eyes see naturally (as opposed to the reverse image).

Why print in black and white?

The reason you want to print in black or white is so that you can see the color contrasts better, as well as any highlights or shadows. This part of the process can be a bit time-consuming, only because you have to be careful that the picture doesn’t print too dark.

What if it prints too dark?

If it does, you’ll have to edit the picture on the computer software, tablet, or phone until you can see the iris of the pet. This is to prevent losing many of the details. Sometimes with black and white prints, the darker areas might blend together.

How big should the image be?

Make sure that when cropping the picture of the pet that the pet takes up almost the entire page. You can check this on the ‘print preview’ option before you print.

Step 5: Transfer the Picture on the Canvas

At this point, you want to outline your photo and then transfer it to the canvas.

  1. You can either carefully trace the image using the carbon copy paper directly on the dried canvas or trace the lines, shadows, and everything you want displayed in your picture on the printout itself.
  2. Make sure to use a soft graphite pencil. Pencils that are considered ‘hard’ won’t transfer as easily, so keep that in mind.
  3. Then, when you have finished, place the outline ‘face down’ on the canvas and use the end of a paint brush or a hard surface to rub the back page. This will transfer the graphite on to the dried paint.
  4. You can use tape to secure the edges as you transfer using this method, or transfer using the carbon copy paper method.

Step 6: Add Finishing Touches

At this point, you can use the marker to redraw the pencil to emphasize the lines, or you can use acrylic paint right away if you want to use a less stylized approach.

  1. Add Color: Color the lines, or color inside the lines. Be creative with color, or use the photo reference you have for more realistic colors.
  2. Let It Dry: Add final touches to the dried painting, and again, let it dry.
  3. Highlight the Eyes: You can add white highlights to the eyes, or create a different color for the eyes to contrast the painting.

Additional Resources

© 2019 Charlotte Doyle


Janine Miranda from Manila on April 05, 2019:

Wow. That was an amazing article. Thanks for sharing those tips.

Liz Westwood from UK on April 04, 2019:

You give some great tips in this article. I recently saw a charcoal drawing of a friend's dog. It was very effective and much appreciated by the owner.