These days, there are so many pet portrait artists in the UK and around the world. When I first began painting pet portraits over 15 years ago, there were far less pet portrait artists in existence. Now there is an ever increasing number of professional artists and hobbyists offering pet portrait commissions online. Many people have discovered hidden artistic talents during lockdown so there is an ever increasing amount of amateur and professional animal painters. I first began working for extended family and friends and became known through word of mouth, but now most of my business is from my website. We all have our own unique style, strengths and ways of working. If you have never commissioned work from an artist before, I have written this post to help you. I will advise you on how to find animal artists, how portraits are priced and what to ask the prospective artists and what to expect concerning the process. I hope this will help you to commission your perfect pet portrait!
Choosing an Artist
I would first recommend looking at as much animal art as you can in order to find out what sort of painting or drawing style appeals to you. Pinterest is especially useful for this. Most professional artists have examples of their work online on social media platforms, such as Instagram or Facebook, or on their own websites or those of galleries who represent them.
Many traditional pet portrait painters, often with pastel painting, strive for photo-realism, other artists have a more impressionist approach. You will also find artists who offer something totally unique and modern, such as pet portraits with playful backgrounds, illustrative pet portraits, or digital pet portraits.
As you look at different artists’ works, note if you tend to favour highly detailed realistic art or more painterly impressionist works? Do you prefer the look of modern or traditional portraits? Do you like bold colours and bold brush strokes? Have you considered commissioning a humorous pet portrait, perhaps in a naive style, or something illustrative?
Some artists and illustrators are especially creative and adaptable to a brief. The style and interpretation of the artist is a often a feature of the piece. The portrait will capture a piece of the artist’s personality as well as the pet’s! On the other hand, a photo-realist artist is generally concerned with reproducing exactly what they see before them, so there tend to be less stylistic differences between artists who work in this way and less creative input. It is all a matter of personal taste, but do consider, that this is a piece of art, made with great care and the wonderful thing is that it has a human touch. You are presumably commissioning a piece of art because you hope it will offer a different viewing experience from the many photographs you may already have of your pet.
TIP: If you are ordering a custom pet portrait for a gift, you will want to consider the personal taste of the recipient and the type of art they would like. Is their home modern? Would they prefer something humorous, modern or traditional? If they already have a portrait of a pet in a conventional style, perhaps you might consider a totally different take on this portrait. You could choose a different background setting, medium or scale, if you would like to keep things traditional.
When you find artists whose work you like, look at the range of their portfolio. Is their work consistent in quality, or does their style vary from piece to piece? Which of their paintings appeal to you the most? Artists often work in different styles and media but if the quality of the work is consistent throughout their portfolio, you should feel confident that your commission will be of similar quality.
Pet portrait artists often work in pastel. This can be used in an impressionist style or with many blended layers of detail. Pastel is very good at describing fur. It is usually used on a coloured paper or Pastelmat.
Watercolours are bright and fresh and usually painted on white paper. This is a medium favoured by illustrators and also very “flowy” painters. It can be combined with ink and other media.
Oils on canvas are a luxurious option. They were favoured by the Old Masters as they offer great depth of colour. They are usually more costly because of time required to build the layers of paint, lengthy drying times and because of the cost of the paints and canvas.
Drawings and sketches can capture the personality of a much loved pet in a few or many lines. They are often more affordable, requiring less time of the artist, depending on the level of detail.
Artists’ Techniques & Methods
Most animal portrait artists work from photographs, but there are exceptions. This is usually because animals do not sit still for long enough to be painted in sufficient detail! This also ensures that the process is more affordable and practical, because the artist does not have to travel for sittings! If you choose a local artist, they may offer to travel to meet your pet (usually at additional cost) and take their own reference photos and get to know the animal.
Some artists use tracing, a projector or grid up the drawing and composition. Others draw entirely from observation, which is my preference. Some artists create works digitally, building up the detail in the same way they would have painted it in oils or watercolour, but using a computer programme and a stylus. Others create digital paintings simply by manipulating the source photo with computer software, which is another thing altogether, and should not be sold as hand drawn paintings. Whoever you choose to paint your pet, I would recommend finding an artist that draws and paints by hand, whether or not they are an artist who uses traditional painting materials or digital devices.
Once you have found an artist whose style you like, and have discussed costs, ask them about their availability and what their turnaround times are if you have a deadline. Many pet portrait artists have waiting lists and are particularly busy at Christmas time. You may need to pay a deposit in advance of work being carried out or be asked pay for the full portrait cost up front. This is to protect the artist from potentially wasted time and materials, carrying out projects which are cancelled. Obviously, you will first want to assure yourself that that the artist and website is reputable.
Many artists will provide terms and conditions, explaining if they include postage costs, whether they allow returns or alterations (please note that this is not a legal requirement for bespoke items and many pet portrait artists do not offer refunds for completed paintings) and what charges may apply should you require changes to the agreed brief. The artist should send a contract or written confirmation or invoice confirming the commission price, detailing the agreed brief and deadline before work has commenced.
Prices vary with the artist. You may be surprised at the range of prices you come across. This will usually be determined by the artist’s notoriety, training/ qualifications and experience. There are many talented amateur and semi-professional artists who will work below the minimum wage, but a good professional artist often has years of knowledge, training and experience under their belt to justify the extra investment. Professional artists are very aware of conservation and should use professional quality materials and the correct techniques to ensure the longevity of the work. They will need to cover the costs of their business but they will offer a consistently professional service so you will more likely be happy with the result than if you went to a less experienced artist.
Some artists offer fixed prices, others price by quotation only. Most artists will price their pet portrait commissions based on the size of the piece, the complexity, the number of animals included and the medium. Some may charge more to paint a whole body than a portrait head. Oil paintings can be very time consuming and more expensive to produce, whilst a sketch or line drawing may be very quick to execute and is usually more affordable. If you require a detailed background you can expect to pay more to cover the artist’s time. A pet portrait can take weeks, even months, to complete and will be priced accordingly.
Sending the Artist Reference Photos
Be kind to your artist and give them the best opportunity to succeed! Send them the best quality reference photographs you can (if required to send your own photographs). Use a digital camera instead of a mobile phone or iPad if possible. Choose photos, without distortions, which capture the character of the animal. Ensure that the images are in focus, taken in good natural light and without flash photography or severe sunlight. The images should ideally be high enough resolution that the artist can enlarge the picture to the size of the portrait and the photograph does not pixelate. Consider sending separate photos of information missing from the main reference photograph (such as feet hidden in grass).
The artist may ask for more photographs to cross reference or they may refuse to work from your preferred photo if they are concerned about the image quality. Don’t be offended if this is the case, they simply want to give you their best work and may suggest a different reference photo. Ask the artist for their guidelines on photographs.
Some artists offer framing at additional cost, many do not. Be sure to budget for this and allow time for your picture to be framed if the portrait is to be a gift. Like artists, framers get very busy near Christmas time. Framing can be a very personal matter. Ready made frames are more affordable but do not always show the picture at its best or offer suitable conservation. Framing can be expensive but a professional framer will know how to present the picture at its very best and help preserve it. Works on canvas do not always require framing, so this may be a consideration when choosing a medium for your pet portrait.
How much input will I have? This will depend on the artist and the nature of the brief. If you have chosen an artist who consistently works in a very particular way, you will probably find they offer less choices of styles and materials. They may specialise in what they do best so there is usually less possibility of client input. Other artists offer lots of choice and you may be invited to choose a background colour or medium. Some artists are outstanding at replicating a photograph, but less confident inventing a composition, which may be something you require. Others are practised at landscape painting, should you want a scenic background.
If you have (hopefully!) chosen an artist whose you have confidence in, you may want to leave the painting entirely in their safe hands. Of course, if you have particular requirements, outside the artist’s normal range, such as a bright pink background, or detailed landscape background, you can discuss with the artist if they feel this is achievable or practical given their abilities, stylistic tendencies and work load.
Once the brief had been agreed and the commission is underway, try to give the artist breathing space and trust in their ability and expertise. The artist will should contact you ahead of your specific deadline or guide time. For longer projects, it is okay to enquire about progress and to make sure things are on track from time to time, but do not pester or rush the artist unnecessarily, e.g. if you have agreed a deadline you are both comfortable with and there is still ample time. If you need to change the brief or deadline, notify the artist as soon as possible to see if they can accomodate this, but do be reasonable and be aware that you have an agreement in place.
The artist may be working on other projects simultaneously and will produce their best work if granted the full time agreed to dedicate to your commission. Some artists will send photos of their progress to assure clients, others prefer to reach a final stage of completion before consulting the client. I personally fall into the latter camp because the finished picture can look very different! Do respect the way the artist likes to work, this will show that you have trust and confidence in their professional abilities and they will be confident to produce their best work.
Copyright of the Work
Whilst you have paid for the art work, and the portrait itself is yours to love and cherish, do note that the copyright of the work still belongs to the artist. Unless you have purchased or been granted the rights to the work by separate contractual agreement, you cannot reproduce the artwork for either personal or professional gain without consulting the artist or you will be breaking copyright law. The artist will probably want to use the image to promote their work (on their website portfolio etc) so you should discuss any concerns you may have in this regard with the artist.
If you looked at the breadth of the artist’s work, when choosing them, you hopefully won’t be disappointed in the overall style and quality of the finished piece. If you feel a small detail is wrong, and the artist permits alterations, write to or speak to the artist promptly and tactfully. Enquire if they would be able to alter the work easily (before it is posted!). Most artists are happy to make minor alterations to achieve a better likeness, but extensive reworkings may not be fair or practical.
Receiving a pet portrait can be a very emotional experience. Once you receive your portrait, please do tell the artist that you are happy with it! Nothing makes me happier than hearing that a portrait has hit the right note. I love it when people send me a photograph of the pet next to its portrait or write to tell me that the recipient shed happy tears over it!