Wednesday, May 05, 2010

Some Photography Tips for Commissioned Pet and Equine Portraits by LindaLMartinArtist

Last month I had the coolest thing happen to me. One of my clients wanted a specific color scheme in a painting of her dog. She sent me a designer’s sample of the color she wanted. All I had to do with one of the background elements was to match it to the sample.

One of the hardest things for an artist, especially for us who sell commissioned work online is to get the color correct. Sometimes the computer monitors are set slightly more intense or provide more contrast so we don’t always see what you see as the client.

Sometimes the photo you send us doesn’t show slight variations in color. Such as the little mare I painted last winter. On the photography I was sent on the computer made the mare look black instead of chocolate brown, which was her color.

As an artist I have learned to ask questions if something looks off. But it’s not always possible to determine the right questions to ask. Anything you can do, as the client to help us see what you envision, is more likely to produce that product you really want and the quality you expect.

Another problem is that sometimes clients expect very refined details or dramatic whimsy however the photographs are sent with back lighting that puts the pet in shadows that distort color and make details impossible to see. Fig.1 is an old photo of my cat Nikki. It is back lit and so its hard to tell that his color is really gray and not black. Also you cant actually tell what color his eyes are. Although it’s a dramatic photo with a lot of fond memories it is not a helpful photo in making a portrait of the cat.

Fig. 2 Is from an old photo taken about the same time. But this time the light is from the side so that it casts a complimentary and contrasting shadow. Nikki’s true color which is gray can been seen. And His eye color, which is pale green can also be seen. Although the photo is a little washed out there is enough contrast and drama in the photo to paint a nice color rendering of Nikki.

Fig. 5 Is a more recent photo of Nikki. It is a much better shot as far as documenting his personality and his true coloring. The shot still has a nice cast shadow and side lighting with just enough shading and texture in the background to make it interesting.

Fig. 4 is a photo of my old horse Piper. This one was taken about two years before he died. He was 39 here. Piper was actually a silky deep black all over. However, if he stayed out in the sun, his hair would burn and lighten to almost a dark bay(this is why you keep show horses in during the day). This is an old photo too, and as you can tell ,well loved. However, even this scanned photo, though not sharp gives strong contrast. The sun was at just the right angle to brighten his face and cast a shadow on his neck.

Although, the detail in his shaded eye was not good, in fig.3 I lightened the image with photoshop. Not only did the eye details show up, so did the gray on his muzzle and face, which was more in keeping with his actual age at the time.

In a painting like this, it would be client’s choice to paint the horse with or with out the gray and to paint the horse with black or darkbrown.  I would need  the client to tell me or point out what was not obvious to me on the photo, especially regarding gray areas that sometimes appear as highlights. Not easy to tell in the image.

I often have to paint from photographs like this. Sometimes because a pet has died or at the time of the pet’s life there wasn’t enough money to commission a painting so all that remains to work from is a family snapshot, taken years earlier.

One of the most challenging paintings I ever painted was of a mixed breed dog that had a brindled and spotted coat and had died. The dog was also an amputee. My job was to take all the reference photography and paint the dog as he was before he lost his leg. It was a very challenging painting simply because of the coat color, but more so in painting the dog’s missing leg. The reference photographs didn’t show the side of the missing leg in the direction it need to be painted.

It is at times like this that we artists need a huge imagination, a lot of prayer and clients who are willing to communicate.

The outcome was worth it. The client’s father had owned the dog for many years and wanted to remember him as he was when he was young. That was how I painted the dog. The note of appreciation I received was worth all the effort.

Just to review: the better the photo the better able we artists are able to give you what you want in a cherished memory of a special animal friend. I want nothing better than to have you be blessed by the outcome of all our efforts.
If you are intereseted in a pet protraits please contact me at or

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