Pet Projects : Paint a Dog Portrait in Watercolor

Paint a Dog Portrait in Watercolor Demo

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A few key strategies can help make commissioned pet portraits an enjoyable—and profitable—part of your art life.

This article features excerpts from “Pet Projects,” by John Keeling, in the October 2022 issue of Watercolor Artist Magazine.

I began painting pet portraits about 10 years ago with a watercolor of my own beloved beagle. Shelby was a simple painting, but it had surprisingly vibrant color and, most importantly, captured that personality-revealing look in her eyes. The painting would go on to win first place in the art show at the 2012 National Purina Dog Show. That recognition, along with a comment my cousin made: “Do more of this,” gave me confidence and set me on the course for what has become a most enjoyable and profitable stream of income. About a year after painting Shelby, when my career as a creative director with Hallmark Cards came to an end, I decided to pursue the life of a professional freelance artist, using pet portraits as the hook on which to hang my new hat.

Watercolor painting of a dog
Shelby (watercolor on paper 8″x10″)
Bonnie & Clyde (watercolor, 14″x11″)

I started researching pet portraits in the marketplace, including Etsy and Google, in order to get a benchmark for what I might charge for a commissioned piece. I identified a gap (and my sweet spot) in between black-and-white pencil sketches and more formal oil portraits. Knowing the price range that other artists were asking for pet portraits—and the caliber of the work in the marketplace at the time—I was able to move ahead with my budding plans, confident in the knowledge of what I could bring to the table.

With the help of a designer friend, I developed a promotional brochure to advertise that I was in the business of creating watercolor pet portraits. I’m now on the sixth edition of that brochure. I update the images with each printing, and have completed more than 150 commissioned pet portraits to date. My experience has taught me several several lessons about what does and doesn’t work in the business of pet portraits. Here are a few of the most valuable tips I have to offer artists who are looking to get started on a similar path:

Get multiple photos of any pet you’re going to paint. Just like people, pets can look drastically different from one photo to another, depending on lighting, setting and how recently they’ve been to the groomer.

Meet the pet in person, if possible. Spending just 15 minutes with a pet can be so helpful. Of course, many commissioned portraits are for honoring pets who have passed on or are being done for clients who live far away, so you’ll often have to rely solely on provided photos.

If it’s not possible to meet the pet in person, ask about the animal’s personality and any unique quirks. I ask questions such as: Is he a cuddler? Does she think she rules the roost? Was she protective? Did he love everyone?” Knowing these things about a pet will help inform your work in subtle yet important ways.

Frankly, even knowing that an animal has passed on brings something to my thoughts and affects my brushwork as I paint a portrait. Perhaps it’s simply a feeling of gratitude for being entrusted with creating a lasting treasure of a beloved pet.


Paint a Dog Portrait

My process for creating a pet portrait begins with whatever photographs I can get my hands on. I put them into Photoshop and use my recently acquired skills (Yes, you can teach an old dog new tricks!) to play with cropping and layouts. I then convert the images to black-and-white to better see the values, which helps me make better compositional decisions.

Artist’s Toolkit

Surface: cold-pressed watercolor paper

Watercolor Pigments: Chinese white, yellow, red, blue

Brushes: Small rigger, 1-inch mop, #7 and #8 rounds

Drawing tools: Micron .01 pen with brown ink, pencil

Finley (watercolor, 8″x10″)

Step 1: Sketch

Once I’ve determined the pose and position of the subject, I do a light pencil sketch. It doesn’t need to be very detailed, but it must be accurate. It’s a portrait, after all, so getting proportions and shapes right is critical. Next, I use a Micron .01 pen to make a stronger drawing. I prefer brown ink rather than black—it’s less harsh and more easily blends with the finished work.

Sketch: Watercolor Pet Portrait Demo
Sketch

Step 2: First Wash

After I’ve established a drawing with a strong likeness, I’m set free to paint with more spontaneity and joy. I start a light wash, using a large brush and plenty of water. I prefer a 1-inch mop to help keep things fluid at this point. I limit the palette to the three primary colors to keep it fresh and allow the paint to make new colors for me. I think of the painting as whole from the start, including what’s happening around the subject. Welcoming drips, runs and splatters helps me avoid the fear of making a mistake when trying to add a background later. I also establish the position of the light source and think in terms of the warm and cool areas it creates.

First Wash: Watercolor Pet Portrait Demo
First Wash

Step 3: Feature Development

I begin to develop the features, especially the eyes—the window to the soul. Using a small brush (a No. 7 or 8 round, or even a rigger), I establish the iris first. I’m careful not to rush the addition of the pupils while the paint is wet, or I’ll end up with a mushy dark mess. It’s important to set the gaze with a single highlight in the eyes. I often change the gaze from what appears in the reference photo so that the pet appears to be looking right at the viewer. At this point, I also begin developing the ears, nose and mouth, but to a lesser extent than the eyes.

Feature Development: Watercolor Pet Portrait Demo
Feature Development

Step 4: Mid-Tones

Much of the painting emerges through the addition of mid-tone values throughout. I think about the light source and push my color choices. I’ve found that using a larger brush keeps the paint flowing and helps me avoid too much detail. I avoid using black, instead pushing my darks with deep blue or violet hues. Some colors can feel strange at first, but once they dry and blend with others, they can be integral to creating an interesting portrait. The mid-tone stage is arguably more about painting a good watercolor than about painting a portrait. Look for areas in which to use negative painting (such as the leg in this portrait) to make the overall painting more interesting. Have fun playing with the addition of nonlocal color like turquoise, orange or pure cobalt.

Mid-Tones Watercolor Pet Portrait Demo
Mid-Tones

Step 5: Final Details

After the painting is completely dry, I add the final details. Most importantly, darks to the eyes, the focal point of the portrait. Here I can adjust the highlight if I’ve lost it, using just a bit of Chinese white. It’s always better, however, to save those whites from the beginning.

Final Details: Watercolor Pet Portrait Demo
“LeBron” (Watercolor on Paper 14″x11″

Meet The Artist

John Keeling (johnkeelingpaintings.com) graduated with a degree in illustration and graphic design from the University of Kansas. He spent 29 years as a creative director for Hallmark Cards before becoming a full-time freelance artist. He’s well known for his pet portraits and teaches watercolor workshops in the U.S. and overseas.

Watercolor Artist, John Keeling with Tillie

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