Painting Project : Expressive Portrait of a Dog

This painting project challenges you to paint portrait of a dog with expressive brushwork, against a background dominated by a single colour. To use visible, loose brushwork on the body, getting more detailed in the face.

This trio of photos are provided for inspiration, from a friend of mine on Skye. (Click on photo to get a larger version.) If you’ve your own favourite four-legged friend, you will likely find taking a reference photo is easier than painting from life unless they’re sleeping, or if you really like a challenge, first do a painting from memory, then compare the result to reality.

SIZE AND MEDIUM: The format (portrait or square or landscape) and medium are up to you. If you use pastels or coloured pencil rather than paint, think about the different sizes of mark you’ll make depending on how you hold it.

BACKGROUND: As it’s to be a portrait, keep the background simple. Use colour variation, but avoid having the background look flat and even, it wants some energy to it through some gentle colour variation. Use a colour that’ll enhance the colours of the fur and/or eyes. For example, a blue will make the golden oranges of eyes brighter, blue and orange being complementary colours. You can then use blues in the shadows and blacks, so the background connects with the subject.

Watch out for the background feeling like it’s painted around rather than going behind the head. With longhair dog this can be solved by painting fur so it goes over the background at the edges of the face and body

BRUSHWORK: For an expressive style, leave brush strokes visible and don’t blend them out. Use loose brushwork that suggests things and leaves our imagination to fill in the details, rather than telling us everything. Use ‘streaky’ brushmarks where the hairs of the brush are spread out giving a broken mark rather than a solid one. Use a big brush for the fur on the body, at least an inch — pick the one you think you want to use, then swap it for a bigger one. Use a brush half that size for the ears and sides of face, again keeping it loose. Then smaller mark making again for the face, but don’t paint every single detail; remember to leave some things suggested.

COLOURS: Add life and energy by using colour, going beyond what’s “real” for poetic effect.

Don’t use pure white except at the very last layer. Think of “almost white”, using warmer tints in the areas catching the light (yellow, orange, pink) and cooler in shadow (blue, green, purple) as well as areas the light doesn’t fall (such as below chin). Remember to think about two different aspects to the colour choices: tone and separating warm/cool. (I don’t do much with warm/cool in my own painting, but it’s an interesting way to approach colour. What’s warm and cool is relative, depending on context. So a yellow-green can be warm whereas a blue-green is probably cold.)

For black, either mix a strong dark so it’s not pure black and makes a more interesting grey when you mix in white, or use Perlyne black because with white it’s such a lovely earthy black with green tinge (perfect for a sheepdog). In terms of adding a dark blue (Prussian) or purple into areas so it’s not only black, I’d possibly start by painting the areas black, then overpainting with blue and purple that aren’t quite as dark.

COMPOSITION: think about how much space there is around the head and body, doesn’t want to feel squashed in. Also whether you place it centrally or to one side. Another option is to let the ears go off the top, though you loose the lovely sharp points.

FUR DIRECTION: look closely at the direction the fur grows, and have brushmarks follow this. It may be worth taking the time to draw a fur map so you know what direction to move your brush across each part of the body and face (see this article of mine from days).

If you’d like help and/or feedback on your painting, this is available to my project subscribers via Patreon. Have fun, and remember to send me a photo of your painting for inclusion in the project gallery for us all to enjoy.

It’s a subject contemporary artist Sally Muir paintings beautifully and tenderly. Sally has two books of her paintings: “Old Dogs” and “A Dog a Day“, and posts photos of her social media.

Painting a dog’s portrait not a modern idea. This painting is attributed to 19th century English artist Joséphine Bowes (1825–1874), in the Bowes Museum in England.

Portrait of a small dog with a red collar by nineteenth century English artist Joséphine Bowes
“Portrait of a Dog”, attributed to Joséphine Bowes (1825–1874). The Bowes Museum

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