How I paint custom portraits of pets: the 7 steps of my creative process

Whether you’re interested in learning more about commissioning a custom, hand-painted pet portrait, or simply fascinated by the artistic process, this post is for you!

I’ve broken down the seven steps of my creative process one by one, so you’ll know exactly what to expect if you should ever decide to purchase a painted dog or cat portrait (or even paint your own).

Step 1: Select a Photo

The first step is to pick our glamor shot. I’ll work with you to help find the best photo of your pet to use as a “model” for the painting. Together, we choose a pose and a shot that captures your pet’s personality. I need an image with a good angle and the right background, so your furry family member is clear and not hiding in shadow or washed out in bright light.

Check out this post for tips on taking a portrait-worthy photo of your pet.

Step 2: Pick a Background

Welcome to the beauty of a custom work of art: you aren’t tied to the background in the photo we picked in Step 1. The painted background can be anything you want: vibrant colors, soft colors, team colors for your favorite pro sports team, an outdoor scene, the American flag … you name it.

The best backgrounds complement your pet’s fur color, so they stand out in the frame. Think about colors that are opposite each other on the color wheel. For instance, if you have a yellow lab, a deep purple or blue background looks great and makes them pop!

If you want a custom background, like an outdoor scene with your favorite flower in view, or a cherished piece of clothing, let me know. I don’t charge extra for this—I want you to love the finished painting, and the setting is part of that.

Step 3: Cropping and Composition

Here’s where I take over! I use image-editing software to play with cropping and composition layout until the framing looks the way I want it. 

This step is particularly beneficial when I’m combining pets from multiple photos into one portrait. So, if you want all three of your pets to be in one painting but can’t get them to sit still for a picture, don’t sweat it! I can work some technological magic.

By the way, I do not use Photoshop or any other image-editing software to create the portrait, which is hand-painted. I simply use the software to create a cropped, modified image that I’ll work from as a model.

Step 4: Drawing on Canvas

Now I use the reference photo to draw a basic outline onto stretched canvas in pencil. Depending on the picture, I might trace your pet’s image with graphite paper, or project it onto the canvas and draw by hand with the projection as a guide.

Why do I do it this way? Well, the key is to get the proportions exactly right. I’m not painting just any yellow lab—I’m painting your yellow lab named Oliver, with the goofy tilt to the right side of his mouth that looks like a crooked smile. All of the nuances need to be precise for the finished portrait to be a faithful representation of your pet.

Step 5: Painting

Now that I’ve prepared in every way I can, it’s time to put paint onto the canvas! I paint the background first, and then paint your pet over the top of that background. (If you’ve ever watched a Bob Ross episode, you’re familiar with this strategy.)

I get lots of questions about how I paint pet faces in a way that makes their expressions come to life. After all, this isn’t just art—it’s a cherished tribute to a beloved family member. 

That’s why I always paint the eyes first. They say the eyes are the window to the soul, and that’s just as true of animals as humans. I spend time getting the eyes just right before I move onto the nose and then the ears. From there, your pet comes to life on the canvas. It all starts with the eyes.

I keep the photo handy as a reference as I paint to make sure the painted portrait matches your pet. I capture the patterns of their fur, light and shadow, and all the other elements that bring a sense of depth to a portrait. 

Step 6: Approval

This is the fun part, where you get to see the painting for the first time! When your pet painting is complete, I’ll send a picture of the finished artwork to you for your approval. You can request any tweaks that will make the finished painting look just the way you want it. (These are almost always very minor.)

Step 7: Shipment

Once you’ve confirmed that you love the way the portrait looks, I’ll package it securely and ship it to you via UPS Ground. You won’t have long to wait; I use acrylic paint, which doesn’t have to dry for too long before shipment. 

The cost of shipping via UPS Ground is included in the fee for the portrait. If you’re anxious to receive it ASAP, I can also expedite shipping for an additional fee.

Bonus Step 8: Feedback

I love getting feedback from my customers once they have their paintings home and on display. I have been the lucky recipient of many heartwarming stories about the pet I brought to life on canvas, which makes my day every time. Honestly, it’s my favorite part. 

So, after you receive your painting, please send me an email and let me know how you like it!

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