'What better way of practising your art than creating a painting study of your pet,' says Paul Talbot-Greaves.
'Familiarity with your subject goes a long way towards success and you will already be familiar with your pet in terms of colour, size, type of fur and so on. You will also be familiar with their character, which will help to infuse any recognisable traits your pet may have. We are all different and animals are no exception – especially pets – from the shy temperament types to the disruptive ones, the cheeky biscuit thief to the ‘I’ll do anything for a bit of salmon’ personalities. When you know the character of an animal, you are more likely to capture that in a portrait or figure study.'
Charlie, acrylic on gessoed board (15x 15cm)
The day was fantastically sunny, which meant it was difficult to get the right shot of this white dog – one that did not reflect too much light and make him appear bleached out, although with too much contra jour he would lose shape and look too dark. So, I got him to turn slightly to catch some sunlight, which defined shape and form with reflected light from the ground.
For the painting, I began with darks of the eyes, nose, and mouth, then blocked in the blue greys, using ultramarine, ivory black and titanium white. In the light reflection under his chin I added yellow ochre, mixing it on the board before the paint had chance to dry.
I added slightly lighter blue greys then I applied the background colour to generate contrast.
At the end of the painting I brushed on thick titanium white to define the light shapes and to create the forms of the fur and whiskers
So where do we begin?
Well as with any other painting subject, the picture should begin with good design.
Not every angle or lighting is going to be suitable, so take time to get this right. This article assumes you will be working from a photograph, although you might want to make studies from life, too.
The main problem here is that unless your pet is asleep or a slow-moving tortoise, they are not likely to keep still long enough for a painting session of any length.
At one time, I would make candid sketch studies of my cat, but the minute I pointed a camera at him, he would come to investigate the lens up close. I do not know why, but animals seem to take on a sense of mischief whenever I try to photograph them.
Taking a good pet photograph
When taking the photograph, try to get some good lighting. Strong daylight is the best. You want to achieve a good balance of light and shade to give the animal form, depth, and shape without losing definition.
I have had numerous commissions where the owner has sent me photographs in which the light is either flat, or worse taken indoors at night without exposure compensation, or direct lighting.
The results are usually a dark orange dog in the shadows – maybe a nice informal photograph, but totally unacceptable for a commission painting. Or any kind of painting to be shown at its best, for that matter.
So, as an alternative, I arrange to meet them in a park on a sunny afternoon when the light is slightly soft and a little lower in the sky. This generates cast shadow and is less intense than full midday sun.
If the painting is going to be a surprise present for a husband or partner, I am forced into making clandestine arrangements, which I suppose might look a little suspect to an observer. Nevertheless, I try to get the animal to pose in different directions, full-on, half-on, looking back and turning to the side, rather like a modelling assignment.
It is important to make it fun so that the pet is happy. And they usually are if their owner is doing the directing.
I take up to a hundred shots and consider myself lucky if I get one or two that make the grade. If you get the right subject material, the painting has a good chance of having strong impact.
Work out in your mind what you want to achieve before you begin, whether it’s head-and-shoulders or full animal in a setting. If there is a background involved, it is worth looking to see if there are any distracting shapes or confusing colours.
Sometimes backgrounds are good as they are, other times they may need to be changed.
Backgrounds for pet portraits
It is worth trying out various options of background before you start to paint.
The traditional way is to make thumbnail paintings, not detailed but with enough shape and value to give an impression of how the painting might look at the end.
Try different colours, values, and shapes to complement your subject.
A poor background can really let down a portrait.
A more modern way is to use some photo editing software; with a little homework, it is fairly easy to load your photo reference and recolour the background or alter the values or shapes.
It is even possible to paste a background from another photograph to see how it might look if it were part of the painting.
The overall aim through the design process is to eliminate any poor decisions and conflicts, to have a solid plan of what you want to achieve and how you intend to achieve it.
Working in acrylic
Acrylic is quick, bold and it dries quickly, allowing you to layer or change passages.
There are many ways of working and in the demonstration below I used a traditional oil-style approach on gessoed board.
With this method, I began with the darkest darks using ivory black.
Part of my painting process is to look and work out where these darks are going to be before I begin. I place the black and take care through the painting process not to overpaint or obliterate it with other colours.
Next, come the mid-values, building up the shapes and forms. It is important here not to become distracted by sentimentality, but to focus instead on the colour shapes and values of the subject as it is these elements that will make the painting.
My process is dark-to-light, working with neat acrylic colour mixed with only a tiny amount of water, blending on the surface before the paint dries and ending up with thickly applied lights.
Binks, acrylic on gessoed board, (15x15cm)