View Full Version : Possible dog commission ... help!

11-23-2005, 05:19 AM
Hello guys!

I've been approached by someone wanting a portrait painted of his family's recently deceased dog. We agreed a price and he sent me some photos and I said I'd take until the end of this week to decide whether the commission's doable. I upped my price when I saw how poor his refs were, but in the event that we don't go ahead with the painting, any prep work I put in will be free of charge. I need to feel very confident that I can do this, or not do it at all.

They want a plain background, which I'm thinking of doing in shades of blue and grey/blue. Given the pose, and the fact that the client wants the tail included, the painting would be pretty much a square format. This is the basic pose the client would like:


The problem originally was the head - you can see from this enlargement just how unhelpful this photo is as reference:


The client was requesting that the dog be portrayed with nothing in its mouth, but the other refs I was sent show the dog either with a toy bone distorting its jawline, or with its mouth wide open, making them useless:


After many hours spent trawling the web for additional refs of golden retrievers (over in Animal & Wildlife they were very helpful and pointed me in all the right directions) I did a couple of b&w sketches. I modified the first one when the client said their dog wasn't as thin in the face:


I've since managed to get my cient to pull a much better head shot out of the bag!


My first colour sketch isn't quite him, but it represents the first time I've felt happy enough to put pastel to paper since starting to think about this commission:


Although I'll use some of my other ref photos to help me with the fur and various other details, I'm intending to base my painting on these two main images - the body pose and the new head shot - and need to have this basic shape ready to transfer to my paper. Those of you who know dogs, I'd love it if you could try to see past the "Frankenstein's dog" effect of my abysmal mock-up and tell me whether you think the head is in proportion to the body here, and whether it's high or low enough on the shoulders to look ok?


It's been suggested that the head's a bit small, but when I try enlarging it, he looks top-heavy. Perhaps this head is incompatible with the body as it's positioned here?

It will be a real shame if I have to tell my client the commission can't go ahead, but I don't have any experience in working like this and have been stressing over this for six days now. ANY input on this would be very welcome indeed! :)

11-23-2005, 05:44 AM
Hi E-J,
His head does seem a tad small. But you could make the body a bit smaller, don't you think? I've got two of these critters and it seems to me you are quite close. I think I would like to see what happens when you place his head a bit lower...just a bit!


11-23-2005, 06:03 AM
Hi Pam - thanks for responding.

The problem seems to be that when I make his head larger, his facial features appear too big. Do you think this is because the head shot was taken with his face very close to the camera, while the body shot is longer/further away? Also, if I move his head lower, he looks like a hunchback ...

Thanks for your help. Unfortunately it looks as if this commission is going to slip away from me. I have no progress to show for all the hours I'm putting into this. I guess I was spoilt by the good quality refs I had to work with back when I did my first commission (which were taken specially) ... I hadn't realised what a disheartening experience a commission could be!

11-23-2005, 06:46 AM
Have you shown the client your pastel of the good headshot? Perhaps he would be happy with that. I agree with what you're thinking about why the combo picture isn't working--it's a distance issue. I'd like to see what happens when you try Pam's suggestions. Those are just terrible references!

You've done a lovely job on your pastel sketch though--I'd try to sell that one, even if you have to drop the price a little for a smaller format.

11-23-2005, 06:50 AM
Hi E-J,

Please don't be disheartened. Look to the future and insist on good photos from now on. Commissions are very rewarding. I have learnt to say no to bad reference photos, but I have had times when the client asks if I would try anyway and then I do find it hard to say no. It breaks my heart to say no and I have very often said yes when I shouldn't. I guess we really want to help them with their grief and give them something special.

I have edited your photo in photoshop and done two changes. One of them I have tilted the head slightly to one side, which may sit better. See what you think. Also I have posted a retriever that I have on file that looks very similar to yours.

11-23-2005, 07:24 AM
Kimberly, I'm not that happy with the sketch "in real" because of its texture and smudginess, and inaccurate measuring. I could easily do a more careful head sketch, though, and invite my client to buy it. Plan #2: I'll do that tomorrow if all else has failed!

Lorraine, you are an angel to put your own time into manipulating the pic for me. Thanks for your kind words and your PMs this week! :) I rather like the head being at a tilt like that, so plan #1 for me is now to try sketching that out but making the features slightly smaller, if I can ... The proportions in the two pics are definitely what's causing the problem now.

The irony of all this is of course that in a full body portrait of about 15x15", the head isn't going to take up that big a space anyway!! The painting is intended to be a gift from the client to his parents, but most of the input on what's wanted seems to have come from the parents themselves. They must wish they'd taken better photos of this fella when he was alive :(

Thanks friends.

11-23-2005, 08:16 AM
What a challenge EJ! But, it seems you're on the right track. The head shot looks great though, too bad they aren't more receptive to that.

11-23-2005, 08:33 AM
Hi E-J,

Your welcome :)

Just thought I'd mention, I enlarged the head slightly in my edited version. If you look at the images with squinting your eyes you see it without the crop marks. :D which helps to see if it is in proportion. You could always show the client the rough mockup and they can let you know if it looks ok. Then you can paint away happily knowing everything is in the right place as they have approved it.

Good luck.

ps my siamese cats came out ok in the end. I went to sleep last night convinced they wouldn't like it, but I got a email this morning that they do phew..

11-23-2005, 08:46 AM
Hello doe, Lorraine

Lorraine, great to hear your siamese worked out ok! I guess you'll be sleeping well tonight.

Yes, I thought you may have enlarged the head just a bit ... at first I thought perhaps I was imagining it, but I compared the photos very closely and could see the slight adjustment! However slight, though, it highlighted the issue of the features being disproportionate for this body pose. Keeping the head the size that you see here relative to the body, but making the facial features smaller, which is what I will need to do, sounds too difficult, and no matter how encouraging people are, I can feel that this just isn't going to work out. I'm thoroughly sick of this painting before I've even had a chance to get started on it!

I've decided to stick to plan #2 and do a head study that I can offer to my client when I explain that I cannot produce the painting he wants.

11-23-2005, 09:07 AM
Excellent E-J :clap:

I would do the same thing. I bet you are feeling relieved already making that decision. I bet the client will happily agree with you and agree to the head study.

All the best

11-23-2005, 11:39 AM
What a beautiful dog and sketch- it is a shame the owner did not want a toy in his mouth- the colorful rope shows a lot of the dogs personality (and adds color too).

11-23-2005, 02:54 PM
Hi E-J,

I cannot give you any technicall advises on this but would like to give you an advise that as far as I've red - I know that I keep repeating myself about this - is usefull for someone who pretends to draw/paint animals/humans: do a bit of anatomy study of the subjects that you want to paint. This is even more usefull if one wants to paint the body in movement.

Good luck with the comission !



11-23-2005, 02:59 PM
Hi there JosÚ

I hope you intended "pretends" with the Portuguese meaning, not the English :p

Yes, you're right of course - studying anatomy is really important. I have just been reading a helpful little tutorial on drawing canine noses, over in the A&W forum. I don't specialise in any one particular subject, however ... So perhaps I wasn't ready to have this tricky commission suddenly sprung on me. I am still learning. Aren't we all? :)

11-23-2005, 04:55 PM
Maybe we should think of adding a little extra cost when we can't get any better references? It could be an alternative to saying no. I also charge extra if they want me to take the photos. That takes time but I also get better photos. lol I think you can pull this off just fine.

11-23-2005, 06:05 PM
Maybe we should think of adding a little extra cost when we can't get any better references? It could be an alternative to saying no. I also charge extra if they want me to take the photos. That takes time but I also get better photos. lol I think you can pull this off just fine.

Hello Tammy - thanks for looking in! Well, I've decided now that I will try a head portrait but as for Frankenstein's Dog, it is not to be. I would be charging more than originally quoted if the commission were going ahead, but it is not, because I can't pull this off, and this is something I know now after six days of stressing - and I'm quite relieved, as Lorraine guessed, to have come to that realisation. I have to say that I'd be fascinated to see what a more experienced dog portraitist could have come up with.

I also can't take any photos of my own, sadly, as the dog was hit by a car recently and died as a result, which is why the family are looking to have a portrait done.

11-23-2005, 07:13 PM
I'm just looking in on this one for the first time and admire the challenge of this project! I think the right approach would be to do the head portrait from that second ref photo.

I've got a similar "dead dog" portrait that I've agreed to do for peanuts - my sister in law wants to give it to her parents for Christmas. The dog is cute for sure, but the photos really leave something to be desired.

I'm looking forward to you final rendition! I"m sure you'll be fine!

11-24-2005, 11:16 AM
OK, so work on the head portrait has begun! My client may not be interested, but I feel the need to do this so that I can at least offer him the option of buying it, and to get some kind of personal satisfaction from this whole thing.

This is about 2 and 3/4 hours' work. It's on blue Canson, 11x11". I made marks using TraceDown to place the eyes and "compass points" correctly (the top of his head, the outside of each ear and underneath his mouth) as well as the top of his nose so that I these features would be spot-on when I started to draw. The nose/mouth area's practically invisible on my printed photo but I have managed to invent a nose by looking at refs of other retrievers and having read that "canine nose" tutorial! :) That area will still be pretty dark anyway, but if the underlying structure is acceptable, hopefully what you CAN see should look ok.


So far it's just black ContÚ crayon and white CarbOthello pencil. I'm toying with the idea of working this up in pastel pencil and harder pastel sticks because after making such a careful drawing, I want to keep everything in its right place!

11-24-2005, 11:25 AM
This is a really noble-looking head--I can't imagine that they won't want it. I so admire your work. You get bonus points for being so persistent with this one!

11-24-2005, 11:43 AM
Hi E-J,

The painting is looking excellent already. You are going to enjoy this much more now. :) and the client is going to be thrilled.


11-24-2005, 11:51 AM
Thanks guys! I am having REAL fun now - THIS is how painting is supposed to feel!!

I'm not sure about the left nostril (on our right) ... do you think there's something "off" about it?

11-24-2005, 12:40 PM
Hi E-J, It is coming along fine. I really admire you taking such a job on. I wondered myself about his left nostril but did not want to say anything because I haven't done any dog paintings myself.Also the line above the nostril seems a bit off. I hope you don't mind me saying it but in this stage I think you can change a lot still. I am sure it will be fine in the end.

11-24-2005, 01:26 PM
Hi applebee! Thanks for your comments. I certainly don't mind you mentioning the nose - I welcome fresh eyes! I feel that this is going nicely now, but as I don't actually have a specific reference for the nose, I'm winging it.

11-24-2005, 02:28 PM
Hi E-J,

I am so glad you are now having fun. :D

This is going to be stunning I know it is.

Here is a pressy for you. A retrievers nose that is very very similar in positon to the one you need. Just needs straightening a little bit. Even the mouth is the same.....enjoy :)

I have posted your reference again as well to show the simularity.


11-25-2005, 07:31 AM
He's looking great EJ! Even if your client doesn't take it (which is highly unlikely) you will still have this painting in your portfolio and you will have the pleasant experience of having done it. Regarding his nose - since you can't see it all that well you can make it the same - be vague about it - don't try to be overly detailed with it. This drawing is really handsome as is by the way and keep having fun! :)

11-25-2005, 10:09 AM
It's great you're getting going on this & having fun. It's looking great.

11-26-2005, 02:55 AM
Lorraine, once again you are a star! Thank you!!

The saga continues. I knew I only had until Friday to show something to my client, and because I work in layers, the portrait would have looked weird if it was only halfway done ... So, I rushed the job. D'oh! I went in too soon with the paler tints and ended up hating the way the picture looked. I even got out of bed the other night to overwork it just that bit more. :rolleyes:

Although I was very dissatisfied with the way the picture turned out (which is why I'm not posting it here) I decided to show it to my client anyway, to let him see what I was considering. Had no idea what he'd say. The upshot is that he's happy for me to do a head portrait, so I've ordered some burgundy Art Spectrum for this one and will start the commission next week, properly, in a considered and most of all UNRUSHED manner!!


11-26-2005, 03:14 AM
Congratulations on the commission. Looking forward to seeing the result.

11-26-2005, 07:01 AM
E-J....something tells me you're being a teensy bit too hard on yourself!

I'm so glad the client liked the new concept, and I am sure the final product will be beautiful. Thanks for sharing this whole saga with us--I've now heard so much about trying to paint dead pets from bad snapshots that I'm pretty sure I'll never do a pet portrait, LOL (except my own dog, of course). Helps me stay focused on what I do well...

11-26-2005, 07:12 AM
Good for you EJ (except for the sleepless night of course)! Burgundy is a great choice for the paper too! Good luck - I'm sure it will be magnificent.

11-26-2005, 09:09 AM
Your welcome E-J,

I am glad I could help.

I'm looking forward to seeing the final result.