Pet Portrait - How I Got Round a Tricky Reference Photo

Updated: Nov 21, 2020

It was an absolute pleasure to complete a pet portrait of the lovely Benji, particularly because it was a surprise gift for his owner. However, this meant that the photos I could have of him were very limited and they were quite low in quality. Artists request high quality photos for portraits because the better the photo the more detail you are able to put into the portrait, but I welcomed the challenge, it really put my abilities to the test and it was great to be able to use artistic licence for a change.

I have put together a photo comparison image to show you my drawing vs the reference photo. As you can see, the photo has a lot of dark shadow areas, you cannot see his left eye at all!! It's also quite difficult to see the fur direction.

To get around not being able to see the eye, I lightened up the photo as much as I could, mainly by lightening the shadow areas. This revealed the left eye just enough to be able to roughly tell where it needed to go in my drawing. I then spent a while looking through google

pictures of similar dogs, to try and find one sat in the same position to get an idea of the shape of the eye, but I didn't have much luck with that, so in the end I used my own dogs as models, which did help, but as this was not completely accurate because they are a different breed, I basically had to make up the eye, going by what looked right on the drawing.

A useful tip is to turn the drawing upside down, stand back and look at it, I like to have the reference upside down next to the drawing too. If there are any sections that are not right they will stand out to you. It's pretty clever how this works; when the drawing is the right way round, you will inevitably have a preconceived perception of how the subject should look, because we all know what a dog looks like, right?; but upside down, your brain will be unable to recognise the forms, the nose, eyes etc. and so instead you will simply be looking at individual lines and shapes (including negative space) and you should start to see how these connect to one another, in turn, forming the full image. Once you stop recognising the subject and are seeing the lines, this is when you have engaged the right side of your brain. The right side of the brain responsible for visual tasks, seeing how objects exist in a space and how something is made up of individual parts; while the left side of the brain is responsible for logical and analytical tasks, memory and recognition, and so this is what makes you think you know how something looks, whether that is right or not.

I learnt this from a really interesting book called 'Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain' by Betty Edwards, my explanation of this is only very brief and so I highly recommend this book if you would like to learn more about this. It is available here on Amazon:

It has a lot of really useful tips, techniques and exercises to build on your drawing skills, or you can even use it to learn to draw from scratch! You will see an improvement in your artworks very quickly, I certainly did! It truly is a fantastic book.

Something that I needed to be conscious of whilst completing my drawing was to not replicate the harsh shadows that are in the reference. To achieve this, I simply reduced the tonal range of the fur in the areas of shadow to create a smoother transition between the lights and darks. The drawing still needed to have some shadow otherwise the dog would look very flat. I also increased the brightness of the highlights, as this is what really makes a drawing pop. The tonal range I used and how this differs from the photo becomes more apparent when both my drawing and the photo are put into black and white.

I hope you found this blog interesting. If you have any questions about using difficult reference photos that I haven't covered, please get in touch and I'll do my best to help, either leave me a comment here, or send me a message on social media @katebirdart. If you would like to see more of the pet portraits I have completed, click here.

Take care and stay safe.

All the best,


*Disclosure: some of the links in the blog post are affiliate links, which means, at no additional cost to you, I will earn a commission if you make a purchase through my link.

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