Top 10 Tips for Painting Dogs

Handy hints and tips for painting dogs

oil painting of a Pug with a brown background
Lisa Van Dyke / Getty Images

Painting dogs can be very rewarding, but also hard work as any dog lover will know it's impossible to get a dog to sit still while you work on getting the perspective just right... But there are things you can do to make your life easier when painting a dog. Here are 10 of them:

Painting Dogs Tip 1: Don't Create Stress 

Even the best-trained dog can't stand still for hours (and it would be cruel to try), so don't stress yourself by trying to get it to happen. Make quick sketches, take reference photos for the poses you want and make detailed studies from life when your dog's asleep -- it may not be the angle you want, but it's good practice for fur, muscles, and proportions. Get your partner to walk your dog back and forth in front of you so you can observe it and sketch (remember to have a reward to hand for both when you're done!).

Painting Dogs Tip 2: Get to Know Your Dog Breeds

Each dog breed has its own characteristics, whether it's the short nose of a Pekinese or the curly hair of a poodle. Get to know the basic shapes, proportions, and characteristics of specific breeds and it'll make painting an individual dog easier. If you're painting a 'pavement special', you'll be able to use your knowledge of specific dog breeds to identify its probable heritage. But at the same time, make sure you capture the individuality of a dog and aren't painting a generic. Use it in the same way artists use their knowledge of human anatomy used as a basis for portraiture.

Painting Dogs Tip 3: Hair 

Dog hair doesn't only vary in length, color, and curliness, but it also grows in different directions on different parts of the body. This is visible even on the shortest-haired of dogs. The face is one region where there are several 'changes' in direction of hair.

Painting Dogs Tip 4: The Eyes

Start by observing where the highlight in the dog's eyes are. Draw this, then the size of the pupil (black part of the eye), then the size of the iris (colored part) and then the rest of the eye. If you get the highlight in a dog's eyes in the correct place and in the correct proportion, the eyes will look right.

Painting Dogs Tip 5: Eye Colors 

Most dogs have brown eyes, but of course not all browns are the same, nor uniform, so once again be sure to not to paint a generic eye color but to look closely at the specific color of that specific dog's eyes. The irises of the eyes of miniature dogs tend not to be very visible. Like humans, dogs can have eyes that are different colors, though it's rare.

Painting Dogs Tip 6: Ears

Ears play an important part in conveying personality in a painting of a dog. Are they pricked up, listening? Droopy? Is one folded back on itself? Pay particular attention to where they sit on the head, as this varies between breeds from well down the side to right on top of the head. Also measure the length of the ear meticulously -- it could be a lot longer than you think!

Painting Dogs Tip 7: Legs and Paws

Legs are the hardest thing to draw from life as if they're not moving, they're often hidden by the body. Reference photos are very useful for ensuring you get the legs 'right' in a running dog. Once again different breeds have characteristic legs and paws, for instance the claws of an English bulldog don't touch the ground because of its thick stubby paws, whereas the claws of a doberman pinscher stretch beyond the paw pads. If it's a long-haired dog, pay attention to how the hair falls; in short-haired dogs look at how the muscle structure differs when the dog is sitting, walking, or running. A puppy's paws can be big in proportion to the rest of its body (and usually a sign of how large a dog they'll grow up to be).

Painting Dogs Tip 8: Tails

A tail is not something stuck onto the end of a dog above its hind legs. Rather, it's an extension of its spine and a crucial indicator of mood. Pay attention to the way a dog typically holds its tail, whether it prefers to tuck it to the left or right when it sits. Look at the way the hair grows and its color. Long-haired tails are easier to to paint than short-haired tails, which need to be rendered accurately and in proportion to look realistic.

Painting Dogs Tip 9: Older Dogs

The most obvious sign of age in a dog is the fur turning white or grey around the jaw, and later the chest and front legs. Look for missing and ground-down teeth, especially canines.

Painting Dogs Tip 10: Give a Sense of Scale

If there's nothing in the painting to compare the dog to, how does the viewer know how big or small it is? (Not everyone is a dog lover and immediately recognize the breed!) Put something in the painting to give a sense of perspective, whether it's a ball, bone, water bowl, or shoe. Be imaginative in your composition, don't automatically paint a dog from the front, or from the angle humans usually view a dog (ie from above). What about painting a dog from a puppy's viewpoint?