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

I decided to write an 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 learn 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.

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, then just go with the feel.

Pet portraits in oil

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.

Brushes

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.

Canvas

There are many different canvases to choose from. I use stretched linen canvas for my oil paintings. 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 create a photo montage in a photo editing program.

You can also purchase a drawing pad and sketch directly to the computer program. It takes less time to sketch digitally because you can move around objects, erase, change colors and change things very fast. This way you don't need to sketch it all once again if you didn't achieve what you wanted.

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. To right you can first view a simple pencil sketch I created in order to find important shapes. After that, I created yet another sketch in oil on paper to find the color harmony and light for a much larger painting.

Initial skethes for a painting


First Steps - Stage One & Two

Sketching with Pencil

On the first step 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 and squinting with my eyes to see rught angles. It’s good to take your time and be totally sure about getting the angles right before you go further.

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. 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 or Acrylis

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 acrylics, just like with watercolours.

If you are using oils, mix the oil paint with allot of turpentine, this creates transparent colors and it dries allot faste. 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 large and darker areas. Now you can let the painting dry for one day before you continue with next step if you prefer, I usually don't.

First stage of oil painting

The Draft - Stage Three

Background

After you painted the final sketch of the animal, you can start blocking in some thin colors mixed with Turpentine to the background. Use large brushes for this, remember always to use as large brushes as you can.

You will have to add deveral layers before you achieve the result you want, thin colors are absorbed to the canvas and dry fast enough to keep on working Alla prima (wet in wet). Work from dark to light, dark colors are usually applied thinner than light ones.

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

Subject

Now its time to fill out rest of the canvas, but it doesn't mean you need to choose to paint the background first. You can choose to do the other way around or even work at both at the same time.

Use large brushes and thin paint mixed with Turpentine, make sure the canvas is entirely filled in, without leaving out tiny white spots. Remember that you already from the beginning have to work on the right values but slightly darker, otherwise it can get very hard to create a great light later on.

You don't need to worry too much though, since you will be working from dark to light and you used thin paint there will be no problem to apply lighter and more opaque paint later on. After all areas on the canvas are filled out, you can use a big soft brush or even your fingers to soften up or mix some colors a bit.

Second and third stage of oil painting

Underwork - Stage Four

If you would like to work Alla prima you can continue your work right away. However if you aren't confident enough, leave the painting to dry for a day or two. Now we will add more layers to the painting.

Use a smaller but still large enough brush to apply light and dark colours to the right places. With each layer you have to be more exact with these areas and also use more and more opaque color. If you don't like what you have done, use some paper to dry the colors off.

You need to find depth, colors and light. That is the most important aspect of any artwork. Right values are more important than right colors. 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 smallest details are applied last. More layers you paint before you start with the tiniest details, more realistic result you get. It is better to think twice before applying any paint, rather than hurry too much and make a mess of it.

Fourth stage of oil painting

Final Steps

Color Harmony, Light & Painting Fur

Its a big difference from the latest picture because I continued working on color harmony, global light and details. Before you start to paint you need to think about where the lightest and darkest areas are, where is the light coming from? Think about the colors you will be using, perhaps premix all colors in advance and only use a limited palette?

The colors in the background need to be reflected in the subject in order to create a great enirety and color harmony. If the background has warm and brown colors, then the fur need to refect those warm colors as well. Think about the highligts, are they warm or cold? If the shadows are cold, the highligts are usually warm.

Painting Fur

Painting fur can be tricky, especially if you find it hard to see the entirety. When you paint fur you need to think about how it is built, pay attention to large areas rather than the actual hair. Try not to think too much about that its fur you are painting, its better to paint just what you see.

When you paint fur, paint the dark area around at the bottom and create a brush stroke with the light hair straw over the dark hue. In order to apply hair strokes paint from bottom to top, from the direction hair is actually growing. Study first and paint later! Pay attention to hair length, it's easy to create far too long strokes. Use a bigger brush that holds more paint rather than a small one.

Completed dog oil painting