The old adage, the better the photo, the better painting certainly holds true with pet portraits. As a pet portrait artist, I am continuously perusing through photos that people send to me to find the perfect pose to use for a memorable portrait.
The very best view for the photo is to be eye level with the animal you wish to photograph. Try to have their nose tipped downwards slightly, otherwise the camera may distort their nose and jaw making them appear larger than they really are. For smaller dogs or cats, I like to place them up on a couch or chair, so that I can be eye level with them. The furniture also makes a nice backdrop to the painting. Even larger dogs look adorable and comfy lounging on a couch, chair or bed. I sometimes use a little squeak from a dog toy to cause a dog to prick up his or her ears. This can backfire, however, if the dog wants to play and leaves his pose for a lively romp!
It's not necessary to be too concerned with the background in the photo. One nice thing about paintings is that backgrounds can be easily changed. If the perfect photo has a less than perfect background, a more meaningfulful background can be placed into the painting. If your dog loves the beach, the mountains, backyard or wherever, this background can be painted into the portrait. One woman wanted her father's Miniature Pinscher named Lucy placed in a Texas theme. The reference photo was of Lucy on gravel pavement with picnic supplies behind her. I changed the background to a grassy area with a blanket behind her hanging in the wind that contained the Lone Star of Texas symbol on the blanket. Lucy's red scarf against her black fur added that special touch to the portrait.
I remember photographing a Shih Tzu named Bailey outside on his bed which was placed low on the rock patio. I laid flat on my stomach for that photo. Bailey was experiencing the last few weeks of his life, was incontinent and could not be photographed inside the house or on any piece of furniture. The day was warm and sunny and Bailey looked his best in his green bed smiling a greeting among the red carnations growing in pots behind him. He had a very long and comfortable life and I'm so honored to have met him before he passed on.
Fortunately, it is possible to combine photos for the animal, as well as the background. I remember a Merle Australian Shepherd named Annie. Her Mom sent several good photos to me of Annie sitting in her backyard. "The photo I love best," she told me, "is the one with her ears back. I wish her ears were more forward. Otherwise, this would have been the perfect photo." One of the photos she had sent to me was showing Annie's ears forward, so I just combined the two photos into one painting, painting Annie's ears forward from the one photo and using the body posture and expression of the other photo. Annie's Mom was delighted!
I remember one visit to an aged Rottweiler's home. The dog's name was Ginger and she was very gray around the muzzle and had a problem with arthritis. Ginger's Mom was unable to take the photo because of a tremor in her hands. Ginger was utterly terrified of the camera. Every time I took the camera out of my pocket, Ginger would meander behind some piece of furniture or turn her head away and hide behind her Mom. We decided a chew toy would settle her down and Ginger promptly hid under the dining room table with her prize as she began to gnaw on it. "Now's my chance," I thought to myself.
Knowing she had arthritis and would not be able to scramble away from me in a hurry, I slowly moved the chairs out of my way and climbed under the table! "I'll either be killed or get a great photo," I thought to myself. Not hearing any growling or other warning signal from Ginger, I lay flat on the floor in front of her. Just then Ginger's Mom called her name, Ginger looked up and "Click!" I got a truly great photo. I did thank the angels that day as I drve home with my prize photo waiting patiently in my digital camera. For the painting, I just deleted the furniture around her and added a lovely background. I painted out the gray on her muzzle and also added a young, fresher appearance to the golden tan of her face and body.
Cats are extremely photogenic. They seem to be striking up a pose no matter what they do. I love window shots especially. There's just something about a cat peering out the window that makes a lovely composition for a painting. One of my favorite reference photos was of a cat named Tillie lying amid her mom's scarf. The scarf was a maroon color with an interesting pattern and looked great against Tillie's black fur. The same rule of thumb applies to cats, too, of being sure to be at eye level with them. Even cats that are sleeping make great photos. I especially remember two cats in a basket curled up together that made a lovely painting. You could hardly tell where one cat started and the other one stopped!
With these tips for the best photo angles and explanations of how portraits are painted from reference photos, you're now ready to capture your pet's likeness in a way that will contribute to a lasting memorial treasure – a pet portrait either for yourself or a special Gift for your friend or relative.