Painting in Oil - Learn to Paint Animals / Pets in Oils

I decided to write an art article about how to paint pets in oils because I’m many times asked how I paint my pet portraits by other astists.

In this section you will be able to learn my techniques and why I use them. If I go from my own aspects I have to say the learning period can be very hard and long, but I am learning something new every time I paint!

I’m learning from my old mistakes and I always look at my work with criticism. Every portrait you will create will be better then the last and don’t give up trying.

Take a look at how the paintings of the Old masters look like, Rembrandt, Titian, Vermeer and others. I use a bit of their technique to paint my own portrait paintings with.

Pet portraits in oil

Before you start to paint a pet, find out about the character and personality. If you just have a photo and you don’t know anything about the pet, you can find about the personality form his eyes.

The eyes are images of the soul and can tell you quite a lot about personalities. If the pet has fur over the eyes its way harder to paint the personality, then just go with your feeling.

So now we have a photograph to use and we know a little about the animal too. The photograph has to be high quality and that means you have to see details otherwise you can’t create a very detailed pet portrait.

If you however want to create a more impressionistic / painterly portrait, you don’t need all the details in a photograph, but this article is about how to paint realistic and detailed pet portraits.

If you are a beginner don’t start painting animals right away. Draw subjects from reality such as mugs, apples, tables, or your own hand and learn how to find right angles with help of that.

If you aren’t sure about how to find angles, don’t start with adding colours until you are, especially if you are a beginner with colouring too. You need to be an animal lover from the bottom of your heart to be able to paint the personality and character of the animal you are portraying.

"Stop" loving the modern art and buy books about how the Old Masters painted! Today they usually never teach the students how to paint lifelike artwork in school; I had to learn these techniques by my self even though I went to Art school.

Art Supplies

Oil Paints

There are many different kinds of oil colours on the market to find. Some are high quality and very expensive but, believe me that high quality is all worth to buy. I use Winsor & Newton Artists and Rembrandt Oil Colours but there are many other good ones such as Da Vinci Artists or Gamblin.


When you buy brushes it’s also worth to pay a little bit more since very cheep brushes tend to brake in the brush and leaves particles on the canvas. Purchase some hard and some very soft brushes which will help you achieve the results you want and need.

Don't be afraid to invest in many different sizes and shapes, its all worth it and the big and expensive brushes can hold out for years. My favorite brush brand at this time are the Da Vinci Nova.

Try out which brushes you like the most. Some of my brushes are very big and some are the smallest you can buy. Flat brushes are the ones I tend to I use most.

Other Fittings

Easel, Oil painting Palette (wooden, plastic or paper palette), Storage box, Brush Vase, Turpentine, high % Soap to clean brushes, Drying Linseed Oil and finally Household roll of paper to clean brushes when you paint.


There are many different canvases to choose from. I use stretched linen canvas for my oil paintings. Sometimes I stretch the canvas to the wooden frame myself. There is a favorite canvas that I like, which absorbs the oil paints very well and I can offer any size the clients wants.

The ready-stretched canvases available to buy in art stores would limit me too much. However, you can find oval, 3D or traditional stretched canvas which are ready-stretched. It's up to you, purchase already stretched canvas or learn how to stretch the canvas to a wooden frame yourself. Read my Article about how to Stretch your own Canvas »

Canvas papers and canvas boards with hardboard are also an option but I wouldn’t use it myself for my clients, because I’m selling high quality pet portraits and it’s very important the canvas is stretched, but for learning its great!

Starting Up

Sketching and Photo editing

Before you start to paint you might want to sketch up what you will create, maybe add another background or/ and include other elements to the subject you want to paint.

You can sketch it up on paper or do like me; create a photo montage in a photo editing program. You can also purchase a drawing pad and sketch directly to the computer program.

For me its the perfect way and it takes less time because you can move around objects, erase, change colors and change light very fast. This way you don't need to sketch it all once again if you didn't achieve what you wanted.

Well, it takes some experience of course, but if you aren't familiar with these programs consider to take the time for learning. Its all worth it at the end.

When you create a sketch or photo montage on the computer, remember its only a guide for you, it doesn't mean everything has to look the same when your painting is completed.

The photo I got looked exactly like the top photo you see below. I cropped out the head and filled the background with suitable colors. I had to cut out tips of the ears from another photo and paste them on the photo montage to see the overall picture of this dog.

Sketching and Photo editing

First Steps - Stage One & Two

Sketching with Pencil

On the First step of the progress I’m trying to find the right angles with help of a pencil. I’m measuring with the pencil from a distance of the canvas. I squint with my eyes to see angles easier.

It’s good to take your time and be totally sure about getting the angles right before you go further. Try to have the photograph or print from your computer in height of your eyes and 40cm away from you; otherwise it can be difficult with finding angles.

Sketching with Pencil

The pencil drawing on the canvas can be all wrong if you see the reference photograph from a wrong angle. You can erase pencil strokes on the canvas as many times you like too and try to use a soft pencil such as 4B or 6B.

The soft pencils are easier to erase if you don´t push to hard when sketching up the subject. You find the angles with help of various points on the subject. You have to measure in % from one point to another with the pencil to get the angles right. It’s also important to place the subject right on the canvas.

Sketching with Oil

Many artists skip this step, but I wouldn't do that because its way easier to continue with the next step if I do this first. After I’m finished with the pencil I start painting the pet as a simple sketch with thin dark oils.

Use turpentine to mix with the oil paint which makes the colors a bit transparent and dries allot faster and that’s what we want. Try not to use too dark or too much colour if the animal is white because it can be hard to add enough colour to make sure the strokes won’t show under it.

You can use a small brush for areas like eyes and nose and a big brush to paint the big and darker areas. Don't exaggerate with Turpentine when painting the big areas, its better to keep the brush drier when you do that. Now you have to let the painting dry for one day before you continue with the next step.

The Draft - Stage Tree & Four


After you painted the final sketch of the animal, add some thin base colours to the background. From the beginning its only a guideline and a way to fill out the white canvas, not the final colours and lights.

Several layers has to be added before you can achieve the result you want. Use a big flat and soft brush from the beginning or like me; a medium sized brush to apply and after that a big soft brush to make sure the entire canvas texture is filled in.

Make sure to apply paint over the lines of the subject, this will create a beautiful transition between the background and the subject and it will help you to apply details at the final stages without having any unwanted edges between the subject and the background.

Leave the painting to dry for a day, that way it will be easier to apply the first layer of the subject.


Now when the background has had some time to dry, its time to fill out rest of the canvas. This time its the subject, but it doesn't mean you need to choose to paint the background first.

You can choose to do the other way around too. Use thin paint, mixed with

Turpentine (not too thin though) and make sure the canvas is entirely filled in, without leaving out tiny white spots. At first I dot the colours to make it easier to fill out with more colours later.

I use a rather small flat brush to fill it out and later a big, soft brush to make the colours mix together. At this stage everything looks plastic or plain, but don’t worry. This is only a step in the process.

Remember that you already from the beginning have to work on the light and dark colours on the painting; otherwise it can get very hard to create a good light later on. You don't need to worry too much though, since you will be working from dark to light to achieve good results painting with this medium.

After all the areas on the canvas are filled out, use then a big and soft brush over the intire canvas area to create a soft look, let the colours mix a bit. Leave the painting to dry for two or three days.

painting stage four

The Underwork - Stage Five, Six & Seven

Many times oil paintings aren’t detailed because the painting didn’t have a drying period in between the layers of oils, but we left it to dry for a few days. Now we will add more layers to the subject and background.

painting stage five

With each layer start applying the lightest and darkest areas. Add light and dark colours to the right places. With each layer you have to be more exact with these areas to make the painting look realistic.

You need to find depth, colors and light. That is the most important aspect in every artwork. Details is only a bonus! Never use only one colour, mix colours together to find just the right hues.

Add the details you need to the draft under-layers but keep in mind that most of the details you create at this stage wont be visible later. It will help to guide you for the later stages though.

More layers you paint before you start with the tiniest details, more realistic result you get. Take step five as step six and 7 too. Make sure never to use a too small brush at this stage, its very hard to paint with a brush too small and it takes ages.

Don't forget to let the painting dry for one day between the layers.

Final Steps

Ligts & Fur Painting

So what have I been doing? Its a big difference from the latest picture because I continued working with light tones, shadows, global light and details. The painting is not yet finished, but its a step in right direction.

The former photo was a draft, this one is only one step before the completed portrait.

Global Light

Before you start to paint you need to think about where the lightest areas are, where is the light coming from? Which colors will you be using in the background?

The colors in the background need to be reflected in the subject in order to create realism. If the background has warm and brown colors, then the fur need to have warm colors too. Even the blacks and whites has to have some of those hues in them.

Painting Fur

When you paint fur you need to think about how the fur is built. Try not to think

too much about that its fur you are painting, its better to paint something you see. If you see dark color, paint dark color and if you see light, paint that too. When you paint fur, paint the dark around at the bottom and create a brush stroke with the light hair straw over the dark hue.

When you apply hair strokes, paint from bottom to top, from the direction hair is growing.

If the hair you are painting is short, use a tiny brush. If you paint long hair, use a bigger brush that holds more paint. If its hard to paint the hair and you find it too dry, use some Turpentine and Linseed Oil mixed with the paint.

Good luck! See the completed painting here »

painting stage six