Art Demos

It’s a Dog’s Life: Expressive Pet Portraits

It’s a Dog’s Life: Expressive Pet Portraits

A little artistic license makes for personality-laden pet portraits.

By Vickie Nelson

My two biggest passions are watercolor painting and dogs. I’m enchanted by the animals’ sweet faces and expressive postures, and strive to create unique works that complement each pet’s persona.


When creating a painting, I like to begin by observing the subject’s facial movements and nuanced body language. I initially focus on the face and eyes, whether in person or via a photo reference. Over the years, I’ve learned that a subtle shift of an eye or ear tells a story. Likewise, the dog’s posture and action also reveal a narrative.


Once I’ve formulated an impression based on my observations, I consider the elements of design— line, shape, form, color, value, texture and space—and how best to implement them to show the dog’s essence.


Pet in Purple

Follow along as I demonstrate my process for pet portraits in six simple steps.

Step 1

After studying the photo of Baxter (1a), I draw him on Arches 140-lb. cold-pressed paper (1b).

Step 2

I usually paint the eyes first, because if they don’t turn out as I’d like, I seem to lose interest. I paint the eyes slowly and work my way out to the face and up into the ears using Holbein lavender, Winsor Newton permanent rose and burnt sienna, and Da Vinci manganese blue, French ultramarine blue and yellow ochre. This is where I take my first break. As you can see, the face isn’t completed, but it’s “done” enough for now, so I move on. I’m from the school of working the whole painting at once. In other words, I don’t finish the dog to perfection and then contemplate the background.

Step 3

I begin the background using the same colors I used for Baxter’s face. In fact, I’ll work the entire painting using just these half-dozen paints.

Step 4

I work on Baxter’s body before I make any further background decisions. It’s tempting to add some abstract shapes in the background at this point, but the body will take up such a large portion of the painting that I need to paint it in first. I add some background color to the white of the chest as a repeating element. I leave the collar unpainted, because I might need to repeat a color toward the end of the painting process, and I can then use the collar or tags as a place to do so. After the background is dry, I start thinking about shapes that would further enhance the design.

Step 5

Using a stencil, I lift out shapes on the darker side and paint in some squares on the lighter side. I determine that the light checks need to be pushed back slightly, so I glaze a layer of French ultramarine blue onto this area and “ground” the dog with shadows.

Final Step

I glaze a mix of permanent rose and lavender over the background, which helps. After a few tweaks here and there, I’m pretty happy with Baxter Blue (watercolor on paper, 14 x 19).

About the Artist

Vickie Nelson is an award-winning international artist living in Camas, Washington. Check out Watercolor Artist magazine for more great technique articles and inspiration.


Watch the video: Its a Dogs Life. Official Trailer. Disney+ (January 2022).