LEARNING TO PAINT OR DRAW DOGS
Examples to study by famous artists
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, Sir Edwin Henry Landseer, 1802 – 1873 © Museum of the Shenadoah Valley, Virginia
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, Sir Edwin Henry Landseer, 1839 © Tate Gallery
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, Sir Edwin Henry Landseer, 1861 © The Trustees of the British Museum
A Dog Lying Down, James Ward 1769–1859 © Tate Gallery
Siberian Dogs in the Snow, Franz Marc, 1909/1910 Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Stephen M. Kellen © National Gallery of Art Washington
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, Anonymous, Italy 16thc © The Trustees of the British Museum
The Little Dog Sleeping, Rembrandt van Rijn, 1640 © Museum of Fine Arts Boston, Harvey D. Parker Collection
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
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, Albrecht Dürer, 1520-1521 © The Trustees of the British Museum
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, Albrecht Dürer, 1500-01 © Royal Collection Trust
The Head of a Dog, Attr. Nicolas Toussaint Charlet, 1820-1845 © Rijksmuseum Amsterdam J.B.A.M. Westerwoudt Bequest, Haarlem
Head of a Dog, Auguste Renoir, 1870 © National Gallery of Art Washington, Ailsa Mellon Bruce Collection
A King Charles Spaniel, Edouard Manet, 1866 © National Gallery of Art Washington, Ailsa Mellon Bruce Collection
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.