Drawing & Painting blog

SOME TIPS FOR DRAWING PET PORTRAITS

There are plenty of books on how to draw animals which focus largely on understanding their anatomy. These can be useful to a point, but I’m slightly hesitant to recommend these types of books as the best way to learn to draw animals because it’s important never to make assumptions about what you should be seeing when you focus on the subject in front of you. Learning to draw well is about learning to measure with your eyes, to contrast areas of tone, to really look at and observe what you are seeing and never to guess.

Having said all this, it’s true that with a lot of experience of drawing animals over the years I have evolved certain practices that I always follow. 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’ with 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.

Dog portrait

LITTLE DOUG Pencil on paper, HB through to 9B

Building up detail

Here are three stages of a pet portrait of a lovely shiny dog named Sebastian, which demonstrate a basic method I follow. 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 the various tones I can see.

I begin by blocking in large areas of dark and light by searching for the very darkest areas 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 tones of all of the other areas in comparison.

Stages of a dog portrait
Stages of a dog portrait
Stages of a dog portrait
Once I’ve blocked in the tones in a fairly rough way, I smooth the pencil a tiny bit using a piece of tissue (Kleenex) to create that sleek quality of fur. I don’t rub the marks into the paper too hard, for reasons I’ll cover below. 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.

Once the basic areas of tone are in place, I’ll start working in more detail to add light and dark areas: not only adding darker lines with my pencil but also using a battery powered eraser to cut back into the image to create highlights. I will smooth these down a little once more, and then add further pencil marks on top until I’m happy. It’s 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 another layer going the opposite way. With animal fur (and also human hair) my pencil marks always follow the direction that the fur is growing. This brings out the sleekness of the fur, and mean that your pencil lines will ‘stand for’ and represent the hairs in an abbreviated way, without needing to draw every single one. By following the fur direction with your lines you will also show the way that the fur hangs on the muscular structure of the animal, suggesting the anatomy underneath and therefore creating a certain dynamic, tensed energy to the image.

Shading close up
Shading close up

TWO  Although I’ve mentioned that I do a minimal degree of smoothing to my pencil marks, I try hard not to really rub the pencil into the paper until it turns grey as this creates a dull and rather lifeless drawing. Instead I always try to build up tone using hatching which allows tiny little white specs of the textured paper to remain, even in the darkest areas of shadow. This gives the image a vibrancy and luminosity even if the animal is very dark. Animal fur is incredibly reflective and shiny and I don’t want to lose that quality, so I try to keep as much brightness as possible shining through in every area.

The erasing technique

I’ve already mentioned using a battery-powered eraser to create highlights, and that you can use an eraser to actually ‘draw’ in this way. Erasers are not just for rubbing out mistakes! Battery-powered erasers are very powerful and mean that you can put layers of shading onto your drawing and then work highlights back into the fur at the end by erasing some of the pencil away.

This is a particularly useful technique when drawing animals who are covered in layers and layers of fur. It’s also particularly useful for putting in whiskers and youu can see on the portrait of Little Doug at the top of the page how I have used the battery eraser sharpened to a point by holding it against a piece of paper while holding down the power button to ‘erase’ in whiskers after I’d drawn the dark fur behind. With Rocky, below, you can see how I used the eraser to pick out white hairs above his eye and in his ear.

Shading close up
Shading close up

Shadows

Lastly, if your pet is sitting on the ground in the photo you are working from, don’t neglect to shade a bit of the shadow beneath them using diagonal hatched lines. You don’t really need to draw shadow as extensively or darkly as you are really seeing it. Just a slight suggestion of a bit of shading (as with Tess’s paws, here below) 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

Dog drawing

Finally….I always advise studying and learning from art of the past, so I’ve put together some lists of great dog portraits and cat portraits by famous artists for inspiration and ideas.

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