Capturing Pets in Photographs and Paintings

Capturing your favorite pet in artwork.
Tate Carlson provides a comfortable place for his four-legged subject to perch during a photoshoot.

We love our pets and who wouldn’t when they are so adorable, in person and in pictures? We spoke with two local experts, a painter and a photographer, for tips about how to capture our favorite best friends at a special moment in time.

An Artist’s View

Nature and animals have always been popular subject matter for artist and teacher Lisa Vitkus. She’s been a pet owner for most of her life and helps the Minnesota Sheltie Rescue foster dogs, so animals have a special place in her heart. “I know others have the same strong connection to their pets as I do and thought offering a class in painting pet portraits would be something people would be really interested in learning,” she says.  

When creating her own pieces, Vitkus picks the perfect medium to capture the likeness of a specific animal by considering the subject’s personality or the environment in which it lives. For instance, painting an animal that lives in water or near water, may cause her to choose watercolors. For something that has lots of detail, such as a reptile, choosing graphite or colored pencil helps in capturing scales.

When drawing with grayscale mediums such as graphite or charcoals, she explains that she is able to focus more on the values of highlights and shadows. “Painting adds an element of challenge by having to take into consideration color range and mixing colors,” she says. “I also take into consideration what type of composition and placement of animal would look best; profile, full body, or just a portrait of the animal’s head.”

For beginners, Vitkus suggests transferring or tracing the picture of the animal onto the drawing or painting surface. “If you start with an accurate drawing, it can take some pressure off and help [students] enjoy the process more,” she says. When she offers pet portrait classes she uses this tip so that students can have fun picking out background colors and concentrating on capturing their pet’s personality. “A lot of times, getting the eyes right is most important,” she adds. “That is where you can really capture the uniqueness of the animal.”

Vitkus shares her painting of her rescue dog, Oakley. “I liked the pose with the full body and the way his ear is playfully bent back,” she says. “I chose the purple swirl background because it fits his uneasy personality. He is shy, always nervous, concerned about what is going on, and uneasy about most things. Plus, I like the color purple. I chose to leave his collar on as he is usually wearing it.”

Oakley has short hair with a smooth coat, so Vitkus says she blended the paint and smoothed it out. Had she been painting an animal with a fuzzy coat she might have used different paint strokes by dabbing the brush or used thicker paint to hint at texture.

(Left: Lisa Vitkus immortalized her rescue dog Oakley on a purple background.)

The Photographer’s Take

Tate Carlson, lead photographer at Tiger Oak Media, also takes into consideration the animal he is photographing. For instance, he says he has learned that certain surfaces make dogs more comfortable. “The surface can’t be too slippery, even if they are sitting,” he says. “They won’t do what you want when they think they’re going to lose traction.”

He mentions lots of treats, a squeaky toy and a liberal number of shots as a way to increase the chances of getting the perfect one. “We usually set up the lighting and composition well before the animal arrives,” he says. “My style is to get them in and out as fast as possible. I try to keep it simple.”

Taking a great photograph can serve as the starting point for a great painting. So, think about the comfort of the animal involved, let that shutter go crazy and explore the possibility that your great shot can inspire creativity in an upcoming class.


Paint a portrait of your favorite friend on an 11”x14” canvas. Maple Grove Arts Center at Old Village Hall October 27, 7-9 p.m. $38 Member/$42 Non-Member ages 16+, register at the Maple Grove Arts Center website.