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How to take a great reference photo.

Here are a few guidelines to help when choosing reference photos. It is extremely important that you follow these guidelines if you would like me to create a piece of art that looks just like your pet.

These photographs are the only way I will get to know the pet so it's important they depict them accurately. Things you mainly need to look for in a good image are - does it show their colouring correctly? Can you clearly see their face and features - particularly the eyes? Does their character and personality comes across? Be sure to include any funny little quirks that really make them unique.

Here is an example of a great reference image. It is taken outside in natural light, without any direct bright sunlight. You can clearly see her colouring and the whole shape of her head and body. Both of her eyes are clearly visible and looking towards the camera. It's also taken at her eye-level so there is a good head to body ratio.

Here are common mistakes I encounter regularly and I've used my beautiful muse and studio companion Tovah to demonstrate. Her unique quirk is obviously her magnificent snaggle tooth!


For this photograph I found the darkest spot in our flat, our (lovely) basement stairs to demonstrate why it is so important to think about lighting when taking a photograph of your pet. As you can see, most of the definition has been lost, it isn't clear where her ear ends and her body starts! She's quite blurry and her fur appears almost completely black whereas in reality, Tovah's coat is made up of many different tones, especially around her muzzle. The best way to ensure good lighting is to take them outside on a clear day - a well lit window will also do. Natural light is always best as indoor lighting tends to light from one direction, meaning half the face/body appears less clear. The unnatural yellow glow also affects how their colouring appears.


This is the perfect example of why a really, really, really, really, REALLY cute photo doesn't necessarily make for a great photograph to paint! The main issue with this is that it is taken from directly above - meaning it appears she has a giant head sitting on a tiny body with no neck, shoulders or legs. It is best to get down on their level - sit on the floor or raise them up on a sofa or table (depending on how huge they are!)

Close Ups

In this example, Tovah is all nose and mouth and not much else! It's always best to include the whole of the pets head in the frame. It makes for a much more pleasing composition and it is exceedingly difficult to fabricate the shape of the head realistically with the amount of detail I like to include in my paintings. But by all means, send close up photographs as well as full head shots. The more photos I have to work from the better understanding I have of what the pet looks like!


This is probably the most common issue I encounter. This is an example of a low resolution, small image file. As you can see, it appears grainy and out of focus, with all detail and definition lost. Her features have blurred into shadow so it would be pretty much impossible to achieve a good amount of detail or even make it look like her! I often receive screen shots from Instagram or Facebook which unfortunately I cannot work from. Painting from these is not unlike trying to work without my glasses on (I'm as blind as a bat!) I really appreciate that my Pawtraits are often intended as surprise gifts but at the end of the day, it's better to find a way of sneakily getting some good photos and for them to receive a much better painting! Photographs ideally need to be at least 1000 pixels. Most smart phones are pretty good these days so you don't necessarily need a professional camera - although it does help!

So hopefully that has given you a few helpful pointers. Tovah is no stranger to having her photo taken so she makes my job easy. I know lots of pets have a harder job of sitting still! I find an endless supply of their favourite treat helps (in Tovah's case - ham!) or a squeaky toy is a great trick for getting them to look alert. If you have any further questions I am always happy to help!


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