Pet Portrait- Process

This project was super fun to take on; it's a pet portrait of one of my friend's dogs: Enzo! Since it's in digital media, it completely cuts out the dry time of painting traditionally, and I can scale up my brushes really large to do big washes quickly, and I can make the image as big or small as I want. This one's an 8x10 portrait!


As usual for any sort of portrait, we're starting with a reference image of this sweet baby having the time of his life. On my actual piece of work, I first added in a layer of just paper texture to give the whole illustration a tactile and traditional feeling to it. Then I'm using the reference image as a guide for my sketch layer. I don't just do outlines here; this isn't a coloring book. I'm making sure to pay attention to my line weight, making darker and heavier pencil lines where it's darker, and adding less detail to the tail and back where the reference image isn't in focus.

A note on where to concentrate your detail: even if you don't have a reference where some parts of the image are out of focus, you want to have the most and sharpest detail work wherever you want the viewer to look first, and have the detail lessen and lessen as you move to parts of the image that don't matter as much. This is a really easy-to-follow principle of design called "Hierarchy" to follow when you're doing your own drawings. In this case, because Enzo's little snout was so crisp and his ears and tail sort of fade out of focus, that hierarchy was already established for me. If you're doing a portrait and this isn't the case, though, a good go-to for the most important element of visual hierarchy is the face, and most specifically the eyes.


After the sketch is done, it's time to start adding some value! Whenever I do digital watercolors, I always make my value a "multiply" layer in the blending settings, which is Adobe speak for making the layer where I paint my value look like it's merged with the other layers of the image. And while it would also get that effect if I painted my value on the same layer as my sketch, the biggest perk of digital media is being able to work on separate layers that you can turn on and off and that you can edit independently from one another! It makes it really easy to delete something and start over a certain part without having to trash the whole piece, and to go back and take process photos retroactively. In fact, the last image of just the sketch of Enzo was taken after I took this screenshot, because I could just turn off the value!

For the actual technique of the value, it helps to turn your reference image to black and white as well, so you can make sure you're getting 100% accurate values. As good as our eyes are, we often interpret colors as having certain values (yellow being the lightest color, and indigo or violet as being some of the darkest) and that can often trick our eyes into seeing something blue as darker than something red, even if the red in question is actually darker than this hypothetical blue we're talking about.

And so I do just go ahead and paint in the value in exactly the same way I would paint it in traditionally (as far as physical brush strokes; the color we'll get to): picking out my favorite watercolor brush and just building up that value! Because the blending mode for the layer is on Multiply, every brush stroke I make compounds on top of what's under it, so that with a few layers, you can get a full range of value from lightest to darkest.

The color, though: that's a little different. In a traditional piece, I would simultaneously be assessing color and value at the same time as I work into my final piece, though I may do a value study separately before the final work, or I may take lots of black and white photos as I'm working to see what value I need to build up. The benefit of working in digital media, though, is that I can have — you guessed it — a separate color layer!

My friend Enzo's mom wanted something between realistic and non-representational color, so when I picked colors for the image, I made them true to life, but I turned the saturation of the color up to a million. This makes Enzo really seem like he's smiling on a super bright sunny day, without making him all the colors of the rainbow.

Lucky for me, though, I put all the color on as a separate layer! The layer settings are set to "color" this time, which means that the hue (the ROYGBIV of it all) and the saturation (crazy, awesome, overwhelming intensity) is taken from whatever color I pick, but the value will show up based on the layers below it. All that is to say that even though the colors look very intense and our minds might trick us into thinking they're very bright, the black and white values underneath are still there, contributing to the full range of lights and darks in our image.

All four of these images have the exact same value, even though we are naturally inclined to say that the one with muted colors is darker than the ones with more vibrant colors.


After I put in all the beautiful funky colors, I needed to put in some detail, and the line work (my favorite!) The style of art that I've cultivated for myself is very line heavy because I really admire the tactile look of lines, what we would call "visible mark-making" in my foundations classes. I think hyper-realistic, super smooth, no-linework-to-be-seen paintings are very beautiful and take a lot of effort, but they're just not my thing. I can do them, sure, but my philosophy has always been that if you want something that looks like a photograph, just hire a photographer. They are also very talented and can get you something exactly photo-realistic and smooth and true to life. But at least when I make art, I want to lean in to the fact that you're commissioning a drawing; I love that you can look at my work and see that I drew or painted it with my hands, and that you can almost tell how I was feeling when I made the piece by how much line there is and its intensity.

Tangent over, and our line work is done! The white was done first in what is basically a digital gouache brush: opaque watercolor, that when used traditionally, applies like watercolor but allows you to paint light on top of dark, and paints on more solid than watercolor. The black lines were done last with a super easy inking brush, so I can have all the control I want and lay down solid black ink.

The best part: when I showed it to Enzo's mom, she loved it!