Here are some of my top tips for drawing portraits and improving your drawing technique
Some tips for drawing pet portraits
In one sense, writing a guide to drawing pet portraits goes slightly against the grain for me because I think that the secret of drawing anything is to forget what it is you are drawing, and instead to learn to look at shapes and tones or colours. That is how you can learn be truly accurate and stop making assumptions about what you think things ought to look like. Personally therefore, I don’t find that ‘how to draw’ guides that focus on the anatomy (skeleton and muscles) of a person or animal to be very helpful – everything you need to know about the structure of the animal’s head or body is actually in front of you if you can learn to see it properly. It’s above all about not guessing as to how you think things appear and instead observing them as if you’d never actually seen an animal before…. (you can read a further explanation of these ideas of how to ‘look with accuracy’ in my Drawing Tips article).
Having said all this, I guess that with a lot of practice at drawing animals I have still evolved certain theories about how to draw a successful pet portrait from photos. Animals have a lot of fur and unless you are prepared to sit and draw every single hair (and indeed some artists do, but I don’t seem to have the patience!) then you need to find certain ways to ‘abbreviate’ your marks and represent that fur in a more impressionistic manner. (I’m focusing on dogs in this guide because that is the most common pet portrait that I’m commissioned to draw – but the same principles apply to cats, rabbits or any other animal with fur)
LITTLE DOUG Pencil on paper, HB through to 9B
BUILDING UP DETAIL
Here are three stages of a pet portrait of the shiny Sebastian. First I sketch in the basic shape of the dog with simple lines. This gives me a rough layout, but I will refine it as I then start to work my way around the image comparing tones – blocking large areas of dark and light and looking for the very darkest tones in the image and then the very lightest. Once I’ve established where the extremities of light at dark shades are, I can assess the tone of all of the other areas in comparison. Once I’ve blocked in some tones in a fairly rough way, I smooth the pencil a tiny bit using the tissue to create that sleek quality of fur (I try not to do this too much – you can read more below as to why) If you are going to rub your pencil into the paper then always use a tissue or an artist’s drawing stump – never use your fingers as you might introduce oils from your fingertips to the paper and cause smudge marks. Next I’ll start working in more detail in terms of tonal variations as well as using a battery powered eraser to cut back into the image to create highlights. It’s really a process of layering and every layer of adding more detail, erasing into the image and refining with more detail again. You can see Sebastian’s final portrait in the pet gallery ›
MY TWO GOLDEN RULES
ONE The first rule I always follow is that I always hatch or shade in the direction of the fur. This is unlike how I draw when I shade the skin of a person, when I tend to hatch on the diagonal and often ‘crisscross’ my hatching (with human hair however I always follow the direction of the fur, just as with animal hair).
This way your pencil lines ‘stand for’ the hairs of the dog, and by following the fur direction which in turn usually follows the muscular structure of the animal, you create a certain dynamic energy to the image. You can see that with Little Doug, whereas I have hatched diagonally on the blanket the dog is sitting in and have done criss-cross hatching for the darkness around him, on his body all the pencil lines follow the fur direction. This brings out the tensed energy of the animal.
MORE ON ERASING
I’ve already mentioned using an battery-powered eraser to create highlights, and how you can use an eraser to actually ‘draw’ in this way. It’s not just for rubbing out mistakes! Battery-powered erasers are very powerful and mean that instead of creating the lightest areas by just leaving areas of blank paper, you can layer shading onto your drawing and then work highlights back into the fur at the end by erasing the pencil away. This really helps to suggest the layers of fur on an animal. It’s particularly useful for putting in whiskers, which usually appear in front of the darker fur as very white as they reflect the light. You can see on the portrait of Little Doug at the top of the page where I used the battery eraser, sharpened to a point, to ‘erase’ in whiskers after I’d drawn the dark fur behind. With Reilly, below, you can see how I used the eraser to pick out white hairs above his eye and in his ear.
Lastly, if your pet is sitting on the ground in the photo, don’t neglect to shade a bit of the shadow you can see using diagonal hatched lines. You don’t really need to draw shadow as extensively or darkly as you are really seeing it – you just need the slightest suggestion of a bit of shading (as with Tess’s paws, here below) and this will do the job of ‘anchoring’ the dog, indicating a better sense of her weight, and making it clear that she is sitting on the ground and not floating in the air! You can also use a battery eraser to erase in a few highlighted grass strokes into your shadows if your animal was sitting on grass in your reference photo – you can see an example of this at the top of the pet portrait page