All of my pet portrait work is created using reference photos. I am grateful for the invention of photography and could not imagine painting a pet from life. There’s no way any animal could sit still the long hours required to create each painting.
So in my line of work, reference photos are a must. Since, with each pet portrait painting, it is my job to capture the likeness and spirit of each animal, great reference photos are a must.
Often times, I work off of more than one photo. For example, I may like a certain photo because of the pose and expression of the animal, but will reference a different photo to capture their eyes.
The above photos are examples of poor reference photos. Photos are to dark, low resolution, the side of the animal’s face is not visible, photographed at to high of an angle, animal is too small in the photo, not focusing on the head of the animal, the photo doesn’t showcase their personality.
What makes a great reference photo?
Providing more than one photo of your furry family member is a great start. Three to four photos focusing on the animal’s head / face is essential. A photo with great lighting helps a ton, and will ensure the painting looks realistic. A photo taken outdoors in natural sunlight with shadows and highlights provides great detail to the structure of the animal’s face and head.
A great reference photo is not blurry. It is high-resolution, crisp and sharp - in-focus. Most smartphones today have sufficient resolution. It helps to have minimal background clutter. There needs to be a clear distinction between subject (your pet) and the background. If your pet is light colored, it helps to have a darker background, and vice versa.
Another quality that leads to a great reference photo is to get down to your pet’s level and photograph from there. If you are photographing your pet standing looking down at them, it does not lead to a great reference photo. The natural foreshortening that occurs looks odd and out of place in a painting.
Here’s the bottom line… The better the reference photos are, the better the finished pet portrait painting will be.
On Pinterest I have a collection of examples of great reference photos for a pet painting. Each example on my board visually shows what I have talked about in this article. Click the button to view great reference photo examples and follow Hand Painted Pet Portraits on Pinterest.