This is a detailed demonstration of a dog portrait from start to finish. To see my portraits in progress and get painting tips for beginners, visit my art blog or watch a video of a dog portrait from start to finish. If you’re considering an order, you can also read about the commission process, from the planning stage to the shipping.
1. Planning With Reference Photos
When painting a portrait, I try to find a balance between capturing the likeness accurately, and creating a mood that reflects my subject's character. I start by looking at my reference photos. This will be a portrait of Filo the yellow lab, posing near an alpine lake in the Sierra mountains. I started with two photos: Filo in the desired pose for the portrait, and a reference photo of the background, with Filo in the picture to show the scale:
I start with a quick sketch. I don't usually do very detailed sketches, since they will be painted over anyways. The sketch is just to check the initial proportions and map out where each element of the painting will go.
3. Painting the First Layers
I paint my portraits in acrylic on canvas. I'm left-handed, but over the years I have learned to paint with both hands.
I usually start a painting by painting in the portrait subject, then paint the background around them later. I do this because I want to get the most difficult part out of the way first, and I want to make sure I'm matching the background to the subject, and not the other way around.
I started off painting Filo with a thin wash of purple paint. This underpainting of purple will be almost totally covered by subsequent layers of paint, but a little bit will show through, giving Filo a warm glow. I nearly always use this technique in portraits, but I vary the color depending on the color of fur or skin. I chose purple in this case because it is complimentary to the yellow and brown tones in Filo's coat.
While the purple paint is still wet, I mark in the areas of high contrast on Filo's nose and eyes, and the shadows around the edges of his head and body.
4. Painting in detail
Now, I make a mixture of yellow, brown and white paint and paint in more detail on Filo's fur. See what I mean about the purple showing through a little bit? At this point, I like to check in with my client and see if any adjustments are needed to improve the likeness.
5. Painting the Background
Now I've got Filo painted in except for a few touchups. I'm ready to start on the background. I cover Filo’s body with a removable masking fluid so that I can paint the surrounding area without covering up my previous work. Then, I begin painting in the water and rocks behind him. For the reflections of water on the left, I mixed brown paint into the blue while it was still wet to make more realistic looking water.
Next, Filo's rock, the trees on the shoreline, and the sandbar to the right of the rock. I used masking tape to make the shoreline straight.
Now, the sky. I mixed blue and white paint, with just the slightest hint of yellow to make a sky-blue sky with wispy clouds.
Mountains are next. I put in the blue of the mountains first, and I'll be adding more layers of color after it dries. I also added some subtle white to the sky above Filo, to draw attention to his face.
The snow on the mountaintops is made with very thin strokes of white paint. I mix in a lot of water so the paint goes on semi-transparent, and I build up layers as I go. In this photo, you can see the masking fluid that is protecting Filo's face from being painted over:
Now I've peeled off the masking fluid, and you can see Filo's face clearly again. The painting is almost finished, but it needs some final adjustments. I decided I didn't like the look of the sandbar on the right side. To remove it, I painted over top of that area with a thin layer of white paint. After that layer dried, I used some of the blue paint mixture I made for the lake, and painted in water. I like this composition better because it removes distraction and puts more focus on Filo.
Once a painting is finished, I paint the edges of the canvas to match the front, and I sign the painting in the lower right hand corner. After letting the paint dry thoroughly, I apply a clear surface coating to protect the painting from dust and light damage over the years. After the coating has dried overnight, I package the painting for shipping and send it to my client.