Animal portraits

Here are some of my top tips for drawing and painting our furry friends

learning to paint or draw dogs –  examples to study by famous artists

When learning to draw or paint animals, you can’t do better than to study historical drawings or paintings. Of course there are some fantastic contemporary pet portrait artists out there and sites like ‘Pinterest’ are a great place to look at and learn from their work. However I love the quality of older works of art and think we can learn a lot from their style and sense of economy. Here are some of my favourite artists whose animal studies are worth a look.

Two Whippets by Sir Edwin Henry Landseer

Two Whippets, Sir Edwin Henry Landseer, 1802 – 1873 © Museum of the Shenadoah Valley, Virginia

Clearly intended as a study rather than for display as a finished work, but these can sometimes be the most beautiful animal drawings. During this era it would be unusual for a finished portrait of an animal to be executed in anything other than paint or etching. Landseer was a superb animal specialist – particularly famous for his paintings of horses, dogs and stags. He had a love of the Highlands and for Scottish themes. He also created the lion sculptures in Trafalgar Square. The skill with which he captures the forms, pose and relationships of these whippets in such a sketchy manner is testament to his talent. On close observation I can see that his technique is to layer a pale well-smoothed pencil layer underneath some really rough dark shaded lines, and it’s surprising how effective this is at indicating the sleek and shiny coat of the dogs, particularly the one on the right.

If you’re interested in drawing any kind of animal then Landseer is a good artist to learn from. Many of his works are in the Tate Gallery, Victoria and Albert Museum and Wallace Collection, and you can also see them in the online galleries of those institutions.

Highland Dogs by Sir Edwin Henry Landseer

Highland Dogs, Sir Edwin Henry Landseer, 1839 © Tate Gallery

The kind of painting that Landseer was famous for and which became so popular in Victorian England. It’s more a genre painting than an actual pet portrait, and is a bravura demonstration of his skill in depicting all the different varieties of pedigree of these Highland dogs – a deerhound, foxhound, bloodhound, greyhound and a little terrier. I think it’s beautiful and love the way that just a few single hairs on several of the animals are picked out with bright light. Landseer has first applied large areas of smoother tones and then dragged some very paint with a very dry brush to give the economical effect of the individual hairs in certain areas.

Study of a pomeranian dog by Sir Edwin Henry Landseer

Study of a pomeranian dog, Sir Edwin Henry Landseer, 1861 © The Trustees of the British Museum

This is such a wonderful and almost funny sketch executed in black and white chalk on brown paper. By working onto a coloured ground Landseer has sort of worked in ‘negative’ – instead of adding shadows and leaving the blank paper to represent the highlights as you would on white or cream paper, he’s allowed the dark background to form the mid-tones and drawn the little dog purely in white highlights with just a little black chalk here and there for the recesses. I find it an interesting exercise to work onto coloured paper and it makes for an interesting type of drawing. It is inscribed “Lady Rancliffe’s Swedish dog. Sketch from nature by Edwin Landseer…”

A Dog Lying Down by James Ward

A Dog Lying Down, James Ward 1769–1859 © Tate Gallery

Here’s a demonstration of how you draw a white dog on light coloured paper. This study has been made in graphite pencil and watercolour and it’s largely the shadow that defines the shape of the very fluffy dog. Shadow is really important when drawing a pet portrait to give a sense of the animal’s posture and weight. The 18th and 19th century artist James Ward was particularly known as a horse painter as well as drawing the hunting dogs of the gentry – perhaps the first type of pet portrait

Siberian Dogs in the Snow by Franz Marc

Siberian Dogs in the Snow, Franz Marc, 1909/1910  Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Stephen M. Kellen © National Gallery of Art Washington

Here we have even more of a challenge! White dogs on white snow, painted by the German Expressionist painter Franz Marc. They are cleverly executed with a range of cream, blue, pink and purple tones amidst the white paint. Much of Marc’s later work portrayed animals and you can see how well he’s managed to communicate the anatomy of the stalking dogs even despite the wide and expressive brushstrokes. For Marc, animals were creatures of God in harmony with nature and therefore closer to God than humans. What seem like impressionistic paintings may actually conceal colour theries about the meaning of different hues: “Blue is the male principle, austere and intellectual. Yellow is the female principle, gentle, buoyant and sensual…”

A sleeping dog with long, flowing tail

A sleeping dog with long, flowing tail, Anonymous, Italy 16thc  © The Trustees of the British Museum

Several beautiful images of sleeping dogs now, beginning with this lovely sketch from an unknown artist in 16th century Italy. It’s confidently drawn by a talented draughtsman with no more lines than strictly necessary. It’s interesting to see how you can introduce and indicate the idea of a dog’s colouring without producing a fully coloured image.

The Little Dog Sleeping by Rembrandt van Rijn

The Little Dog Sleeping, Rembrandt van Rijn, 1640 © Museum of Fine Arts Boston, Harvey D. Parker Collection

Otherwise known as ‘The Sleeping Puppy’ it is hard to imagine a more perfect image of a little dog. This etching by my favourite artist Rembrandt is absolutely tiny at 4.1 x 8.3 cm (1 5/8″ x 3 1/4″). It’s so clever how Rembrandt contains the dog within a tiny space, darkly shaded as if he’s spotted him asleep under a piece of furniture or perhaps within a little dog house as in his other well-known and lovely dog portrait, the Sleeping Watchdog which is created in pen and brown ink.

A Sleeping Dog by Gerrit Dou

A Sleeping Dog, Gerrit Dou, 1650, © Eijk and Rose-Marie van Otterloo Collection

The last of our sleeping dogs is by Gerrit Dou, a very talented Dutch painter of the 17th century. Dou’s highly polished works were very meticulous, a talent he liked to show off in a large number of trompe l’oeil style works which demonstrated his ability to render the world so convincingly in paint. He specialised in genre scenes presenting ‘everyday life’. This smooth oil painting on panel is undeniably very sweet. Dou is demonstrating his skill by contrasting the dog’s soft fur against the polished ceramic pot and the rough texture of the kindling firewood. Evidently Dou was “so obsessively perfect that he had to make his own brushes – and was rumoured to use babies’ eyelashes to get the finest-possible hairs”  It certainly feels like he’s painted every hair on the dog but the softness is achieved by the many layers and glazes of paint.

A Dog Resting by Albrecht Dürer

A Dog Resting, Albrecht Dürer, 1520-1521  © The Trustees of the British Museum

In contrast this image by the animal-loving Dürer may be known as ‘A Dog Resting’ but to me it looks wonderfully alert. Etched in silverpoint (made here by dragging a silver stylus over a pink prepared paper) it’s as precise as Dou’s painting with each fine hair delineated. Silverpoint is no longer really used but there’s something magical about it. Dürer was a superb draughtsman of course and as well as the soft fur he captures the tensed muscles of the animal, ready to spring into action. Since silverpoint is an etching technique not involving any pencil or charcoal it is useful to see how you can create delicate tonal effects and hatched shadow without needing to rub your pencil into your paper too much – something I try to avoid. From Dürer’s dog I learned two golden rules – use cross hatching for shadows which allows light to vibrate between the pencil and stops the image becoming dull, but on the animal itself use simple hatching that always follows the same direction as the fur. One of Dürer’s most famous works is his Young Hare which is made in many layers with meticulous brushstrokes in watercolour and bodycolour (gouache). However another, more beautiful work which is worth studying is his A Greyhound, which is held in the Royal Collection – engraved with a  more limited number of careful lines the delineate each shape of muscle under fur, it is one of the best drawings of a greyhound (maybe the most elegant of dogs) that you’ll ever see.

The Head of a Dog Attr Nicolas Toussaint Charlet

The Head of a Dog, Attr. Nicolas Toussaint Charlet, 1820-1845 © Rijksmuseum Amsterdam J.B.A.M. Westerwoudt Bequest, Haarlem

Some looser oil paintings to finish, from the early and later 19th centuries. Above, I like the mournful expression of this dog and the quality of the fur with the bright golden highlights picked out in thick wet paint to contrast sharply with the brown and green shadowed areas which are executed in thinner paint. The painter has worked onto a rich reddish brown ground which peeps through here and there, bringing a warmth and depth.

 Head of a Dog, Auguste Renoir

Head of a Dog, Auguste Renoir, 1870 © National Gallery of Art Washington Ailsa Mellon Bruce Collection

Above, this small (21.9 x 20 cm, or 8 5/8″ x 7 7/8″) study by Renoir is in his sentimental style but there’s no denying the skill he’s employed to depict this little dog in so few strokes, loosely capturing its bright eyes and the gleam on its bell. As much as that painting is typical of Renoir, the little King Charles Spaniel below feels typical of the challenging and edgy Manet. It’s cleverly painted, again in a minimum of broad brushstrokes. Is there a slight sense of the ridiculousness however of the tiny dog on a velvet cushion? You are never quite sure what tone is being conveyed in a painting by Manet and that’s what I like about him. Anyway the dog itself is painted beautifully, with finer detail concentrated around the face which becomes looser further down his body – this is a great technique that works for paintings and drawings and emphasises the character of the subject. The strokes of paint forming the hair of his lovely ears are softened in, whilst the brush strokes depicting the more wiry fur on his leg are applied with a dry brush.

A King Charles Spaniel by Edouard Manet

A King Charles Spaniel, Edouard Manet, 1866 © National Gallery of Art Washington Ailsa Mellon Bruce Collection

contact me

See current waiting times and get in touch

Pin It on Pinterest

Share This