For an artist aiming for a good likeness, a good reference photo is the single most important factor that will determine whether a pet portrait or dog portrait will work well, look like the subject, and most importantly – take your breath away.
It is sometimes possible to use less than perfect reference photos when creating a pet portrait or dog portrait but without having the detail available in the reference photo it’s impossible to guess accurately about form and colour and where the subtle changes of light and dark that describe the unique changes of direction of fur or hair, muscle and bone structure happen.
These precise but subtle points of interest are the characteristics that make one dog look so different from another of the same breed. It is for this reason that it becomes more difficult to paint a lifelike pet portrait or dog portrait when the details are absent in the reference photo.
If an artist uses their imagination for these unique characteristics there is a danger that the pet portrait or dog portrait could look too generic and not enough like the subject.
I take time to study the reference photos for many hours and take many hours during the painting process of the portrait to carefully and accurately describe the subject in paint or pencil and everything about them that makes them unique – so that their portrait is truly an amazing likeness of them.
The subject is three dimensional and your role as a portrait artist is to recreate the illusion of that three dimensional subject accurately on paper or canvas, in 2D. It sometimes feels like a feat of magic has occurred when the client or a viewer says that the portrait is so lifelike they feel like they could run their fingers through the fur.
Without having the subject in front of you, the reference photo needs to give you all the information necessary for you to work your feat of magic.
Sometimes the reference photo shows every hair and whisker and sometimes there’s nothing!
I find that the longer you study the reference photo, the more detail you can see. Adjusting the photo digitally in editing software by increasing contrast or brightening overall can sometimes reveal more detail as well as printing the reference photo on better quality paper or with different printer settings. Viewing the reference photo on a tablet or screen is better than relying on a printed reference. I use a swan neck clamp to hold a tablet in place at my drawing table while I’m working on the portrait and will often use this alongside 2 or 3 different printed references.
If there is really no detail to be found and there are no other reference photos of the subject available you need to find stock images of the same breed of dog in the same position and with the same lighting. Not an easy task! Almost always I find that every other pose, position and lighting arrangement is available except the one I need. Take the time to find several that would be useful. Often one part of the dog in the stock image is correct and a good match – a hind leg for example but the angle of the head isn’t and you’ll probably need several different stock photos to get a complete picture, Using several stock photos rather than just one will also help to avoid one photo being relied on to heavily for detail, and the portrait turning into a portrait of that particular dog instead of the subject. I’ve often spent hours searching for a suitable reference photo to supply detail for a nose or ear. This time is not wasted, think of it as part of the work process and very necessary. When you have a successful portrait and a delighted client at the end it’ll all be worth it!