Giving Life to a Pet Portrait

“Yes! You caught him perfectly!”

I love to hear owners say that! When I paint, it is important to me that not just the likeness, but the life and personality of an animal pops off of the canvas. This is especially true when I’m asked to paint a pet portrait.  Here I’ll illustrate my process in my most recent commission for “Bear” which resulted in the comment above.

Bear’s owner saw my paintings in Hourglass Gallery in Melrose, MA and expressed an interest to the gallery owner that she would like a portrait of Bear.  From our experiences working together the gallery owner knows that I like to see several photos of Bear and several sentences about his personality before starting the process.  These were emailed to the gallery owner who then forwarded them to me and asked that I contact Bear’s owner.  In my email conversation with her I asked for more details about his personality. She was open to me meeting Bear, so I jumped at the opportunity!  Not only could I take more reference photos, but I would be able get to know him personally!  We arranged a time and I spent a fun hour or so talking to Bear and his owner, taking photos, petting him, observing their interactions, etc.

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I went home and sorted through my photos and the ones his owner sent. There was one photo in particular that spoke to me as the “essence of Bear.” It was the second photo out of the 50 + pictures I took of him!  I was so excited about it that I immediately drew up a sketch for the owner’s approval and emailed it to her.

Bear pre-lim sketch

She approved the sketch and we went over the details of size (30 x 30 inches), shape (square) and framing (no frame in this case – a deep canvas with painted edges instead).  Once all the details were worked out I started painting.  First I texture the canvas using what is called a “ground.”  There are several types of grounds that create different effects.  For Bear’s painting I wanted to create a soft background that would emphasize my brushstrokes and allow that background color to show through.  Next I decide which colors I’d like to use.  I usually start a painting with a color idea and then let the painting guide me as it develops.  I love the honey and apricot colored undertones in Bear’s fur so I thought I’d pump up those colors and use them in the background.  Then I block in his basic shape and form with my other color ideas.  In order to make him stand out against such a vibrant background I select colors that are cooler and complementary (opposite each other on the color wheel) to the background color.  I also need to take value (lights & darks) into consideration.  Where the light is strongest (on his face) I use a lighter shade of the cool complementary color.

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Next I continue to build up his form following my color idea.  While his face is the lightest area, his entire body is pretty light in color so I bring more of that cool light blue into his body still allowing not only the warm background, but also the original violet and blue green to peek through.   I also start adding in some details.

Bear stage 2           Bear stage 3

The face is the most important part of the painting – particularly the eyes!  I refer back to his photo.  I want to bring more light and life into his eyes and enhance some of his features that don’t stand out in the photo while ensuring that I maintain his likeness.

Bear Stage 4 - Face
At this point I realize that my color idea isn’t quite right.  He needs more light and life all over.  No, not just light – he needs WARMTH!  The challenge is to do so while still making him stand out against that vibrant yellow-orange background.
Bear stage 5
After adding some of the background color back into parts of the painting and tints (a color with white added to it) into the the highlights, the painting is complete!  I love the finished painting and I loved painting it.  Every brushstroke is like stroking his fur long distance.  Bear’s owner loves it too and there is nothing more gratifying than that!
Bear Completed


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