Blue-Violet Iris Interior

Monday, January 21, 2013

Drawing Dogs: A Portrait Process

Photography has become my primary mode of creative expression in recent years, but for much of my life, including the period when I was studying art in college, drawing was my preferred medium. Between the migraines and the medications I take to treat them, I have felt that I haven't had the cognitive capacity to answer to the demands of drawing. Photography has been perfect for me because all the effort it requires is for me to be alert in observing the world around me and I am never out of alert mode! So drawing has fallen by the wayside.

But then one of the foster parents for a dog rescue I follow on Facebook started up a project of drawing a dog every single day. Apparently, she, too, had once studied art with a focus on drawing, but had put it aside in recent years. I was so delighted and inspired by the drawings she posts daily on her blog,, that I had to start sketching dogs, too. I don't draw one a day, since my intellectual and creative faculties are not always equal to the task, but I've really enjoyed getting back into drawing. Most of the drawings are small sketches of the dogs I dog-sit, some from photographs and some from life. I've been working a lot in pencil, which is more forgiving than ink, my previous preferred drawing method. I've been posting the dog drawings on my photography Facebook page and they've been a huge hit, so much so that my sister asked if I'd be willing to make a large, custom portrait of her friends' dog for a gift. I agreed and received a photograph of their sweet mutt, Kora, and got to work. I documented my progress because I always like seeing images of works as they progress and thought readers of this blog might enjoy seeing the process.

Sweetheart sketches.
Until I began this portrait, all of my drawings had been made in a 5.5x8.5" sketchbook, so they were, by necessity, rather small. I realized, when I confronted my smooth expanse of 90 lb. vellum paper, that creating a 8x10 image would be too difficult for me to scale accurately in a freehand fashion. My drawing skills were returning as I had made more and more sketches, but I still wasn't up to whipping out a larger scale drawing, especially one that needed to be a realistic likeness, without some assistance. So I took the photo of Kora, pasted it into a Pages (the Mac program) document, enlarged it to 8x10, and drew a 1x1" grid over the image. I then used a ruler and placed a small, faint dot at where each intersection would be on the paper. I then went square by square, lightly sketching in the outlines of the dog's main features and markings. When I was finished, I had a properly proportioned guide of faint lines ready to be filled and transformed.

The original photo with the grid.

The faint outline ensures that my drawing
will be properly proportioned for a realistic look.

For the bulk of the drawing, I used a relatively soft 4B graphite pencil sharpened to a fine point. I am right-handed, so I started in the upper left edge of the image, working my way down and across so that I wouldn't drag my hand through the soft graphite, which will smudge. The smudges are erasable, but the less you have to clean up, the better!

And so it begins!

To make the drawing, I opened the photo without the grid on my computer and expanded it so that it filled my entire screen. I then sat down in my easy chair, some ten feet away, put my cousin's new album on (Jameson & Co.'s "Out of the Canyon on Crutches"), and went to work, typically two hours at a time, which was as much work as my brain and eyes could handle.

The left eye emerges.

One of the ways in which drawing differs from photography is that there are so many different ways to go about it. You can draw realistically or choose a more loosely evocative style. You can make an image extremely detailed or minimally detailed. You have to decide how you will convey textures, colors, and shadows. It made me laugh when a Facebook commenter referenced Magritte's famous "The Treachery of Images" when I posted one of my collie sketches because I'd already been thinking about how, unlike when you photograph something, when you draw it, you are always making an interpretation, a translation of the object. I choose to point my camera in such a way that it shows people things that they don't necessarily see themselves, but everything I photograph is there, in the present, completely real. When I make a drawing, even if the end result is recognizable, it must come THROUGH me.

The left half of the face has been sketched in!

Drawing in a realistic fashion is not something I ever spent much time doing, even when I was drawing a great deal. I was interested in the emotionally evocative power of inked lines, so this way of drawing was new to me. So I thought back to my days of Life Drawing class in college (that's drawing humans from nude models, for those of you who weren't art students) and decided the best way to create a realistic look without messing it up was to draw the light and dark areas. You see, if you try to draw an eye, for example, you will end up drawing your idea of an eye, and chances are, your idea of an eye is not going to look right at all. If you want to draw an eye that looks like an eye and feels like an eye, you are best off drawing the curves, the shadows, the light, the dark, making yourself blind, as it were, to what the thing is, focusing instead on what is there. Part of why I seated myself at a distance from the computer screen displaying the image as I worked was because at a distance, I could more easily shift my focus to see not a dog with eyes and ears and charming spectacle markings, but an abstract form of shapes and shades.

We have a right eye!

Once I had drawn the entire face with the 4B pencil, I used an even blacker and softer 8B pencil to increased the blackness of the dark areas around the eyes and nose. I also smudged gentle layers of the soft 8B graphite over various parts of the fur and features to increase the depth and dimension of the figure.

Dark details have been added; it is now time to start erasing and refining!
You can see some of my fingerprints about the right ear.

I spent a great deal of time fine-tuning the piece, trying to get exactly the right balance of dark to light. I must confess that the right side of the face gave me a great deal of trouble: I erased and redrew it several times trying to get the highlights of the white fur near the eye just right! Ultimately, deciding when to stop working was one of the hardest parts of the process. It's tempting for a perfectionist to simply refine and refine and refine without committing to a final version.

This detail allows you to see the layers of cross-hatching and smudging and erasing that went into giving the muzzle its appearance of three dimensions.

A detail of the work around the eye.

I ended up being extremely pleased with the final result. As I said, I'd never attempted something exactly like this before and was rather impressed by how well it turned out! The many short pencil strokes I'd used for the base layer of the fur on her ears and forehead ended up working perfectly to capture the velvet texture of her fur and my concerted effort to capture the shapes of the light and dark areas on her face paid off as far as giving her muzzle a beautiful, natural, three-dimensional feeling. I'm pleased to report that Kora's owners have received this drawing and love it! I'll still be working on informal sketches, but it looks like there will be more formal dog portraits in my future. Thanks, Laurelin at A Dog A Day, for bringing drawing back into my life!

The finished portrait of Kora.

Interested in commissioning a dog portrait? 
You can contact me through my artist's Facebook page.
Visit my Etsy photo store at!


  1. Beautiful! Love the progression photos!

  2. I Have been "liking" your work on FB (when I am there) they are beautifully done.

    You are inspiring me to draw more :)

    Have a lovely day, cheers, T. :)

  3. Wow! Wonderful work! I wish I could draw with such refinement.
    Thanks for sharing your process.

  4. Nicely done! I haven't done much graphite work in quite a while - you have a great touch with it!

  5. I love your blog but I missed this post till now! I love seeing your process...I create a grid just like that for my painted portraits. I do so much painting that I don't get to just do realistic sketches with pencil that often anymore...I really love it though, and I'm jealous of the fact you have such great models on hand with your dog sitting business!