How to Paint a Dog – Pro Tips for Realistic Pet Portraits

Pet portraits were where my journey as a professional artist began. Whilst I was building up my portfolio of wildlife work and developing my style, painting pet portraits was my main focus and source of income.

Even though the wildlife work has begun to take over, I still continue to welcome pet portrait commissions. I have found dogs are by far the most requested subject for a portrait. Since they come in all shapes and sizes, painting dogs can be a continuous challenge, as there are no limit to the different textures and colour schemes that you might need to work with.

When faced with starting a new dog painting, it can seem quite overwhelming and difficult to know where to start. That’s why it can help to break it down and ask yourself a few simple questions:

  • Are the reference photos good enough to work from?
  • What length of coat does the subject have? And what texture?
  • What colour combinations might I need?
  • How can I capture the dog’s distinctive features, such as the eyes and nose?

By thinking about these key points, you can put together a plan of action as to how to paint the best dog portrait you can!

Are the reference photos suitable?

Whilst I do not feel that professional quality photos are necessary to produce a high quality painting, it does improve your chances of success if the images show good lighting and detail. The angle of the photo is also important, some angles can be much more flattering to your subject than others!

Lense distortion is another factor. One thing I often see is the camera being positioned too close to the dog’s face, making features such as the nose and muzzle area appear much larger than they would in reality. In this respect the camera can lie, so make sure that the reference gives an accurate representation of the subject!

If the dog has sadly passed away, it might not be possible to have the perfect references, and in this case I try to work with what I have. But if this is a paid project it is always best to be honest about what your expectations of the finished painting may be based on the quality of reference material.

If you’d like any more help on how to choose a reference photo, we have more tips in our guide here.

What fur length does the subject have? And what about the texture?

The answers to these questions will have a bearing on the selection of brushes that I use. There are so many shapes of brushes to choose from when painting fur, such as round, angle and filbert, which I might use in different situations depending on the species of dog that I am painting.

I find that filbert brushes, for example, are perfect for painting species such as poodles, where the curly texture of the fur means that you are painting sections of hair rather than the individual strands. The rounded shape of the filbert brush means that you can paint curved strokes with a softer edge than you would achieve with a flat brush.

I would use a round brush for a species such as a labrador, where the short fur lengths means that more strokes are needed to render the texture of the fur.  For finer details such as loose strands of hair, that you would find on almost any breed, I would use a round detail brush or a sword liner depending on the scale of the painting.

Round brushes were mostly used for this Labrador portrait

What colours will I need?

For most dog breeds, I find that I can build the basic tones using a combination of these acrylic colours:

  • Carbon Black
  • Titanium White
  • Burnt Sienna
  • Burnt Umber
  • Yellow Ochre

Here are some suggestions of how to mix your colours:

Black dogs

When painting black fur, it is vital to pay close attention to the various values in your subject, as you will need to mix different shades for the dark, light and mid-tones.

Various shades of grey mixed from a combination of carbon black and titanium white will likely make up the majority of the paint ratio, but you might want to look at introducing reflected colours for added realism.

For example, if the dog has been photographed in a field during summertime in your reference, there are likely to be hints of green from the grass and blue from the sky reflected in their coat.

Blue highlights were added to the top of this Labrador’s head as a reflection of the sky colour

If you would like any more tips of how to paint black fur in more detail, please check out our separate blog post here.

White dogs:

Similarly to black dogs, for added realism in your acrylic painting you will need to consider the colours that are reflected.

This will depend totally on the environment that the dog has been photographed in and the colours of their surroundings. It is not unlikely for me to introduce subtle hints of lilac and blue into white fur to reflect their environments.

In the vast majority of portraits, I find that I need to add cream or yellow touches to the white fur for the most realistic effect. Most white dogs will have even just a minor degree of staining to their coats that prevents them from appearing pure white.

In this painting blue-grey shadows were used within the white fur to create a sense of depth

Brown/Chocolate dogs:

My go-to paint colour for brown dogs is burnt umber, mixed with varying amount of carbon black and titanium white to achieve darker or lighter tones. Colours such as burnt sienna and even small amounts of red may also come in handy if there are some copper tones to the fur.

Yellow/Cream dogs:

For dogs such as yellow Labradors and Golden Retrievers, I find that a mixture of yellow ochre, titanium white and buff titanium gives a good foundation for a base colour. The ratio of each of paint can be varied and mixed according to the specific shade of colour that you are aiming for. Generally speaking, I only ever need to add a small amount of yellow ochre to the mix, as too much will give an overly saturated and artificial looking result. For this reason, I usually start with titanium white and add small amounts of buff titanium and yellow ochre to the mix until I have mixed the ideal shade.

How to Paint Dog Eyes

It is frequently said that the eyes are the most important part of any portrait. They are what the viewer sees first and are responsible for conveying a sense of expression and character.

When painting a dog portrait I usually start with the eyes and will not move on until I am happy with them. No matter how good the rest of the painting is, if the eyes are not accurate it will always look ‘not quite right’.

The first thing to make sure you have right is the shape of the eye. This will vary depending on what angle your subject is positioned, but generally if you are doing a straight-on portrait the shape of a dog’s eye will look fairly round, with a gentle slope towards the duct.

For the whole process of painting an eye I will use round brushes of various sizes. Depending on the size of the painting, I will generally use a medium size round brush to map out the basic shape of the eye, a larger brush to paint the colour of the iris, and a smaller detail brush for the pupil and reflections.

I find that the key to painting realistic looking eyes is striking a balance between blending and sharpness. For areas such as the iris and pupil, the paintwork should give an almost liquid effect which can be achieved though a blended basecoat, with finer details layered on top.

When painting quite strong reflections, this is where sharper, more definite shapes will add to the wet-look of the eye.

Sometimes you will be able to pick out hints of blue reflecting in the pupils, in addition to the blue that can often be found in reflections. Adding blue to some areas of the pupils can help give a more three dimensional effect to the eye.

How to Paint a Dog’s Nose

Second only to the eyes, I think a dog’s nose is one of the key elements of a portrait. Similarly to the eyes, the shape that you will paint will depend on the angle that your subject is positioned.

To paint a realistic dog’s nose, you can follow these four steps:

  • Draw or paint the basic outline
  • Fill the nose with a mid grey
  • Glaze the shadows
  • Add the texture and highlights

For most dogs’ noses, I find it helps to block in the basic shape with a mid-grey colour, with the outline and the nostrils in darker grey, almost black. With these colours in place, you can then start to glaze the shadows with thinned down grey paint in a darker shade than your base coat.

For the highlights, I use a very small detail brush to add tiny specks of light grey and white in an almost pointillism style, to capture the texture of the dog’s nose and to give it a wet look. Some dogs have pink markings on their noses too. If you add markings like this, make sure to keep this quite pale and not too saturated for a realistic look.

So these are my top tips for painting realistic dog portraits in acrylics! To recap, here some main points to keep in mind:

  • Make sure your reference is of a good enough quality to see the dog’s form and key features.
  • Select your brushes according to the fur length and texture.
  • Mix your colours carefully until you reach a good match- add black and white paint to adjust the tones.
  • Pay close attention to the dog’s features such as the eyes and nose. Take time and care when painting these areas especially, this is where the life of your painting comes from!

If you have any questions please leave a comment below and we will get back to you.

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