Painting & Drawing blog

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.

The continual challenge when painting or drawing animals is how to give the impression of the quality of their fur (and muscles and bones underneath) but in an abbreviated way that avoids drawing or painting every single hair. I find it very instructive to see how some of my favourite artists responded to this challenge, and here are a few of the best examples.

Two Whippets by Sir Edwin Henry Landseer

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

This wonderfully observed pencil drawing was clearly intended as a study or preparatory sketch rather than for display as a finished work. In Landseer’s era it would be unusual for a finished portrait of an animal to be executed in anything other than paint or etching. However these sorts of sketches made from life are usually the most lovely images of animals.

Landseer was a superb animal specialist and is mainly known for his paintings of horses, dogs and stags. He had a love of the Highlands and for Scottish themes but is also famous for creating the lion sculptures in Trafalgar Square. The skill with which he captures the forms, pose and relationship between these whippets in such a rapid and sketchy manner is testament to his talent. He has applied a soft and uniform layer of pencil smoothed into the paper for all but the lightest areas and then shaded with dark pencil on top. It’s a very simple but highly effective technique to capture the smooth coat and shine on their short fur.

If you’re interested in drawing any kind of animal then Landseer is a great artist to study. Many of his works are in the Tate Gallery, Victoria and Albert Museum and Wallace Collection in London, 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

This is the kind of painting that made Landseer 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.

Here you see Landseer’s equally clever and economical painting technique to depict fur, in which fairly large areas of tone are painted smoothly on an underlayer and then darker paint is dragged on top with a dry brush to pick out some individual hairs. Lastly a bright highlight is used to pick out an even smaller number of hairs where the light catches them.

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

The last image by Landseer and this is such a funny sketch of this little dog completed in black and white chalk on brown paper. By working onto a coloured ground Landseer has 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 works well with a dog with white fur. The drawing 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

Another demonstration of how you might draw a white dog, but here 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. It’s very useful when drawing a pet portrait always include the shadow they create on the ground, in order 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 and for drawing the hunting dogs of the gentry – a genre that was 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 delineating their fairly shaggy fur.

For Marc, animals were ‘creatures of God in harmony with nature’ and therefore closer to God than humans. The Impressionist style of his paintings may actually conceal colour theories about the meaning of different hues, such as: “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 in no more lines than is strictly necessary. The artist has used black and red-brown chalks and it’s interesting to note this method of indicating the sense of a dog’s colouring without actually 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 than this little etching by my favourite artist Rembrandt. It’s a tiny work at only 4.1 x 8.3 cm (1 5/8″ x 3 1/4″) and is so clever in the way it contains the dog within a tiny space which is darkly shaded as if the artist has 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 
A Sleeping Dog by Gerrit Dou

A sleeping dog beside a terracotta jug, a basket, a pair of clogs and a pile of kindling wood, 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’ which were of course carefully arranged and not really observational.

This smooth oil painting on panel of a very little dog 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. Supposedly Dou was such a perfectionist that he made his own brushes and was rumoured to use babies’ eyelashes for the finest possible hairs!  It certainly feels like he’s painted every hair on the dog and yet a 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

This image by the animal-loving Albrecht Dürer may be known as ‘A Dog Resting’ but to me it looks wonderfully alert. Etched in silverpoint (made 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 and vaguely ethereal about it. Dürer was a superb draughtsman of course and  captures the tensed muscles of the animal, ready to spring into action.

Since silverpoint is an etching technique involving hatching and cross hatching it is useful to see how you can create delicate tonal effects and hatched shadow in pencil too 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: I use cross hatching for shadows which allows light to vibrate between the pencil marks and stops the shadow appearing too dark and prominent, but on the animal itself I use simple one-directional hatching that always follows the same direction as the fur.

A Greyhound by Albrecht Dürer

A Greyhound, Albrecht Dürer, 1500-01 © Royal Collection Trust

Another lovely work by Durer which is held in the Queen’s Royal Collection, this elegant greyhound is drawn in brush and ink. A restrained number of lines, hatched in the same direction as the dog’s fur, delineates the shape of its muscles beneath.
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 later 19th century. Above a study of the head of a dog by Toussaint. I like his mournful expression and the way the fur is depicted with bright golden highlights picked out in thick wet paint, contrasting with the thin brown paint of the shadowed areas. Toussaint has worked here onto a rich reddish brown ground which peeps through here and there, bringing a warmth and depth to the image.
 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 rather sentimental style but there’s no denying the skill he’s employed to depict this little dog in such a limited number of broad strokes, loosely capturing its bright eyes, wet nose and the gleam on its bell. The paint looks as if it’s been rubbed by hand into the canvas to convey an impression of the softness of its fur.
A King Charles Spaniel by Edouard Manet

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

Another little dog to finish, painted by one of my very favourite artists: Edouard Manet. Where Renoir’s dog study was sentimental, this painting of a King Charles Spaniel feels typical of the much more edgy Manet. Like the Renoir It’s cleverly painted in a minimum of broad brushstrokes. Is there a slight sense of ridiculousness here however, of the tiny little dog on its 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.

The dog itself is painted beautifully, with the finer detail concentrated around its face whilst further down his body the strokes become looser and more sketchy. This is a great technique that works both for paintings and drawings, by drawing the focus of the image to the face and expression of the subject. I love the contrast of the different techniques Manet uses to depict the dog’s fur, with the wet soft paint of the spaniel’s fluffy ears gently softened into the background whilst the coarser fur on his legs is suggested with a dry brush that drags the paint into wiry strands.

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