Acrylic Animal Portraiture: Paint Pets in Costume | Laura Irrgang | Skillshare

Playback Speed

  • 0.5x
  • 1x (Normal)
  • 1.25x
  • 1.5x
  • 2x

Acrylic Animal Portraiture: Paint Pets in Costume

teacher avatar Laura Irrgang, Artist, Author, Illustrator

Watch this class and thousands more

Get unlimited access to every class
Taught by industry leaders & working professionals
Topics include illustration, design, photography, and more

Watch this class and thousands more

Get unlimited access to every class
Taught by industry leaders & working professionals
Topics include illustration, design, photography, and more

Lessons in This Class

10 Lessons (32m)
    • 1. Introduction

    • 2. Orientation

    • 3. Sketching

    • 4. Applying a Base Color

    • 5. Highlights & Shadows

    • 6. Animal Faces

    • 7. Cats

    • 8. Dogs

    • 9. Costumes

    • 10. Final Adjustments

  • --
  • Beginner level
  • Intermediate level
  • Advanced level
  • All levels
  • Beg/Int level
  • Int/Adv level

Community Generated

The level is determined by a majority opinion of students who have reviewed this class. The teacher's recommendation is shown until at least 5 student responses are collected.





About This Class

Does your pug need to dress up as Elvis? Does your kitty want to be a vampire? Of COURSE they do. Well, in real life it might be *cough* challenging to squeeze your cat into a ballerina dress, but it's totally do-able in a painting. 

Join artist and illustrator, Laura Irrgang, as she walks you step-by-step through how to create your very own pet portrait!

Laura teaches you how to:

  • plan your composition
  • utilize reference photos 
  • sketch your idea 
  • use acrylic paints to portray your cat or dog (or lizard or unicorn) in a fabulous outfit

This class is great for all levels. If you’re a beginner, painting from a reference photo is helpful because it allows you to set up your composition without the challenges of working with a live model. Or, maybe you’re an art professional or even a passionate hobbyist who wants to get more serious about acrylics.  Painting animals is a project that lets you practice several useful elements like the placement of features, fur, and the detailing of costumes.

Beyond that, this class is for people who genuinely love their pets and want to make a treasured keepsake that shows those feelings. We have such special relationships with our cats and dogs, and this project lets you take that love and affection and turn it into a physical object...a portrait of your special friend.

Meet Your Teacher

Teacher Profile Image

Laura Irrgang

Artist, Author, Illustrator


Class Ratings

Expectations Met?
  • Exceeded!
  • Yes
  • Somewhat
  • Not really
Reviews Archive

In October 2018, we updated our review system to improve the way we collect feedback. Below are the reviews written before that update.

Why Join Skillshare?

Take award-winning Skillshare Original Classes

Each class has short lessons, hands-on projects

Your membership supports Skillshare teachers

Learn From Anywhere

Take classes on the go with the Skillshare app. Stream or download to watch on the plane, the subway, or wherever you learn best.


1. Introduction: If you own a pet, you've probably discovered by now that pets and costumes aren't always a good mix. If your pet isn't into costumes, that's okay because you can paint a portrait instead. Hi there. I'm Laura Irrgang, and I'm an artist living in Lone Oak, Texas. I spend my time painting, illustrating books, writing, and cartooning. I also paint murals and make music. I've been painting animal portraits for over 25 years. In this class, I'll show you how to plan and complete an acrylic painting from start to finish. I'll show you how to take and use reference photos. We'll make a sketch and then I'll show you how to make the face actually look like your pet. I'll share tips on painting fur and the background. We'll finish with a fantastic costume. Whether it's for your pets, birthday or Halloween, or a costume party, or just because it's Tuesday, it's always fun to paint your pet in a fabulous costume. This is a fun project for any level. If you're a beginner, it's just going to be fun to paint your pet and work on a costume. But if you're an advanced artist or a professional, this is a really good project because it helps you work on feature placement, highly refined costumes, and fur. You see animals in everything, from paper products to the children's book market. There's always room for pets in costumes. Illustrators are always being asked to show animals in poses, often in clothing and showing emotions. This is a great way to practice those skills. If you'd like to learn more about painting highlights and shadows, and fur, you can also watch another one of my skillshare classes called acrylic painting for beginners, painting toys from childhood. Let's go capture your pet in their best outfit without actually having to physically shove their little paws in the tiny shoes. Come on mittens, I sewed these matching squirrel costumes by hand. Who's mommy's pretty princess? I've noticed that cats are particularly uninterested in wearing costumes. Do you want to be Martha Stewart? Who's mama's little meow Riyachi? The only limit is your imagination. Come on, let's get started. When you hear the magic wand, you'll know it's time to go on to the next lesson. 2. Orientation: Welcome to orientation. Our class project is to paint your pet in a costume. I'll tell you what supplies you need, then we'll sketch out your basic outline. Next, we'll work in the fur, then I'll show you how to paint features, and finally, we'll create a fantastic costume. We all love our pets and seeing them in a costume, is very special. The pets are not always into that, so painting them in the costume is a perfect solution for everybody. We end up with a fabulous portrait and they get to keep taking a nap. Now let's talk about supplies. The first thing we need is acrylic paint, you can use whatever you have on hand. You can use anything from a student kit to top of the line acrylics, it's up to you. You also need paint brushes and a container for water. You also need canvas or a canvas panel. These are basic supplies you can find at any art supply store or online, and if you want to get extra fancy, you can even cut out your pet shape on a piece of wood. You need something to put your paint on like a palette or a tray or a plate, paper towel or a rag, and chalk. Next, we're going to start dreaming up the perfect costume. Does your iguana want to be Dumbledore? How about your dachshund in a Weino Patra costume? Or maybe your cats want to dress up like the Beetles. Decide on a costume, then find a good reference photo. If you're anything like the average pet owner, you probably already have thousands of these on your phone to choose from. But if there's a certain pose you're interested in, start snapping. Look at the camera, Fred, be so pretty, work it. Grab a friend or two if you need a little extra help posing your pet, who is a wicked witch? Look at the camera. In the next video, you'll plan your composition and start sketching. Are you ready? Let the glamour begin. 3. Sketching: In this video, we're going to start the actual drawing, so we're going to make some decisions. First, decide about pose you want your pet in. Do you want your pet sitting? Do you want your pet up on two legs or do you want them lying down? You make the call, but try to pick something that's opposed, that will show the most fun part of a costume. One of the first steps I like to take is to find a reference photo for inspiration. For example, when I painted my beloved [inaudible] in Bronte's cinnamon glitter shines as I dream of a weenie, I wanted to highlight those harem pants and give the impression that she was dancing. I had her standing up on two legs. In this pug Elvis portrait, I wanted it to be cool and lazy and just sitting there and awesome, so I chose a seated pose. For Lolita, I wanted a come hither glance over her shoulder. See how this works? It's time to sketch your pet. I always start my sketches with chalk. Chalk is really easy to fix. Just wipe it off with your hand or get a paintbrush wet or a Q-tip and then lip that chalk off and start over it. When you paint over it, it will virtually disappear and if not, you can just remove it with water later. I think it's fun to capture the entire body if you have a really hilarious outfit, but if you have something that concentrates more on just the head and shoulders, you can focus on just that portion. For example, if you want to show your cat as a witch, you just focus on the head and shoulders. Show the big pointy hat and just a hint of color. Now, we'll sketch the costume. If you have a really fluffy dog or cat, we might need to compress the fluff. Imagine what your pet would look like when they are wet. If you have an enormous fireball, you're going to have to squish there far down a little so that the costume looks like it's tight and fitted. I think it can be fun to let animals with lots of fur have a spillover at the collar or cuff line. It emphasizes that they're wearing people clothing and it's just kind of silly looking. Make sure to draw in key bits of this costume. Focus on a few main parts of your costume and exaggerate those features a little bit. With Elvis, I really wanted that big color and the swoopy hair. Don't forget the fun accessories. Draw in any jewelry or hats or other little bits and bobs you'll need as well. More than anything else, just have fun with the costumes. I mean, seriously, they're ridiculous. That's the point. Now, we sketch the background. Keep it simple or make it as complex as you want. If you want your painting to have a really strong atmosphere, then you might like drawing in a more involved background. In my painting of a Victorian dogs in Christmas scene, I painted in an elaborate tree and a box of decorations. It takes more time to do an elaborate detailed background, but if you're more ambitious or a more advanced painter, knock yourself out. But don't worry about just having a simple background either. Focusing on your pet in a fun costume will look great. Now that you have your basic drawing in place, we'll start painting in the next video. 4. Applying a Base Color: In this video, I'm going to show you how to paint in the basic color and the background. I like to start from the top to the bottom. This keeps me from smearing paint with my hand, if I move all over the place. Acrylic dries quickly. If I start at the top and move to the bottom, it keeps this part of my hand clean, and I like to sometimes brace the heel of my hand against the canvas. I also paint the background first, then do the foreground next. That's because in real life, the object overlaps the background. I want to mimic this with my painting for a more realistic look. I also like to paint the sides of the canvas at this point, so they match the background. I start with the fur and lightly put in a base color. If your pet is one color, start with that; if your pet is multicolored, pick the most predominant color. If your pet has distinguishing markings, like a spot on a dog, try to get a basic shape of that color and pattern in the right place. Take a look at this pop as an example. His muzzle fades from light tan around the edges. See how it gets a darker tan away from his mouth as it wraps around underneath. Note the dark freckles on his face or her face. Those little dots, make sure you get those in the right places. Now look at those eyebrows, they're tan and they're symmetrical. They're in the same place on either side of its eyes. On the left, there is a slight tan section of fur on one ear. It's small, but it is a distinguishing feature. The line down the center of the face is evenly divided between black and white, and there is a small pink side of the nostril that's only on one side of the nose, try to get that shape really accurately. Paint in the basic color of your costume in any accessories. For example, I painted a very simple code of pink for this dress. It may look a little ugly right now, but that's fine. It's just the base coat. In this video, we've finished up our basic color. In the next video, we're going to talk about highlights and shadows and adding details in the fur. 5. Highlights & Shadows: In this section, we're going to work on highlights and shadows. For my reference photo, I tried to get the light source above and slightly to one side. I know it's not always possible with the squirmy pet, but try to photograph them in natural sunlight. Snapping a shot near a window can be helpful. I find that lighting from that angle gives me predictable highlights and shadows and will show the pets features clearly. This is where we'll start concentrating on fur. When you paint, imagine you're touching the pet with your paint brush. That will help you get the direction the fur is actually going. Pretend you're touching that fur in the same direction. Use lighter colors where the light is heading. Use darker colors on the shadow side. The fur on the other side of the light source will be darker. Pay special attention to the areas like the chin and the nose where you get a major shape change. To make your pet look like your pet, you really need to get these colors and shapes put down in an accurate way. Really follow the contours of the nose, the little poochie piece of muscle where their teeth and mouth parts are and that little curve down under their chin. We already have the basic fur color painted in. Next, I mix two shadow colors, a deeper one and a slightly lighter one and two highlight colors. A light color and then an even lighter version of that color. Here's a tip. Only mix up the two shadow colors at once or the two highlight colors at once. That way, your paint won't dry out as you're working. I'll show you what this looks like step-by-step. You already have the basic fur color and now you're going to put on the deepest shadow color. Now, you're going to add the second shadow color on top of this. Here's a very simple example of what this looks like sped up. There's not much for showing in this portrait, but you would just apply these techniques wherever they are applicable in your portrait. Pro tip, use a blow dryer or a heat gun to dry paint between layers. Next, add the darker of the highlight colors. Let the paint dry for a moment and then finish with the lightest of the highlight colors. Continue with the highlights all the while trying to use that lighter color to make the parts of your pets face that are sticking the furthest out, come forward in the parts that are in the light look as though light is hitting them. Covering your paint on your palette when you dry your Canvas, otherwise, you'll dry it out. Make sure your brushstrokes follow the direction the fur is actually going. I mentioned this before, but try to pretend you're actually painting that part of the pet with the brush. Make sure you're getting any spots or freckles or stripes or markings as you do this, just vary the color of the paint to match as best as you can. I like to keep my paint pretty dry for this. If it's wet and drippy, you just fill in all of that space and it's smudges and you can't see the fur, but if you keep the brush dry, the individual bristle marks will help mimic the fur. If the pet has multiple colors like stripes or spots, I also mix a dark and light shade variation for their other markings. We're finished painting the fur on the pet's body and in the next video, we're going to concentrate on the features of the very important face. 6. Animal Faces: This video is really important because we're going to start adding the details of the face. Now, this is the section of the painting that almost always takes me the longest amount of time and you may find that it's that way for you too. Give extra attention to the eyes, nose, and mouth. Those are the most important parts of painting a portrait of your pet rather than just a generic dog or cat. We want this portrait to really look like your pet, so it's important to spend time studying their facial features. I recommend getting a very strong reference photo, and we'll use that to make this look specifically like your pet. A solid under drawing is crucial. You have to get the drawing right for the painting to look like a true likeness. There are a few ways I go about achieving this. The first method is to draw your pet from the reference photo freehand. Now, this is the most complicated way to do it, but if you're an advanced artist or a professional, this might be the way you prefer to go. Method 2 is to create a transfer. For this technique, you must print your reference photo out the exact same size as your canvas. In this example, I used an 8 by 10 for each. On the back of the reference photo, apply thick, dark pencil using broad strokes with the side of your pencil. I turn my lead a little sideways to help me get broader coverage. You can also use a darker colored chalk for this method. Now, flip the paper so the photo is facing out and center it over your canvas. Firmly trace over all of your pet's major features with a pencil. Make sure to get the ears, any major color markings, the eyes, nose, and mouth, and any paws and tails and parts of the body that are included. This will press the color on the back onto the canvas and it will leave a transferred impression of your reference photo on the canvas. The third method is to use a grid. Using a marking every inch, I create a grid of squares on top of the reference photo and the canvas. Finally, I draw the image one square at a time, focusing carefully on what I see in each square until I've transferred the entire image. Give extra attention to the eyes, nose, and mouth. Those are the most important parts of painting a portrait of your pet rather than just a generic cat or dog. If you don't like a feature, you can simply paint over it with the basic fur color, then draw it and paint it in again. I'm going to focus on cats and dogs today. Now, all pets are different just like people, but we can study some generalizations to help you figure out where their features are arranged. Over the next two videos, I'm going to spend some time talking about the features of cats and then dogs. 7. Cats: Now let's look at some features that are pretty similar to most cats. Then we'll move on to dogs. Main part of this video we'll be talking about characteristics cats share. I did want to point out a few things here at the beginning. All pets are somewhat different and you need to pay attention to those differences so that you get a likeness of your pet. Some breeds like Himalayans or Persians will have squished in noses and their muzzles will have a slightly down-turned look. Some cats are just a little Derpy looking and I think that's cute. Special breeds of cats requires studying unique features like being hairless. Cats heads are approximately round. If you go halfway down that circle and draw another smaller circle, that's approximately where the cats muzzle will end and where the nose will start pulling away from the body. Divide this circle into thirds. It will look like a tic-tac-toe board. The top line equals the top of the cat's nose. The bottom horizontal line equals the cat's mouth opening and the left and right vertical lines equal the sides of the nose. The ears are triangular and gently rounded on top. They look a little bit like the letter A. Have you ever wondered about that little wrinkle or slit in the side of your cat's ear? It's called a Henry's pocket. It's technically called the cutaneous marginal fold, but Henry's pocket is much cuter. Some people think the Henry's pocket is used to funnel sound to the inner ear at a different speed, which allows a cat to determine the sound's location. Ear furnishings are the tufts of fur that grow on the inner ear of the pinnae, they primarily grow on the interior side towards the middle of the cat's face. Let's work on the nose. Let's start with a slightly long and skinny heart shape. The top of the nose is not flat. It has a slight M shape that dips down toward the middle. Now, draw a V at the bottom of the nose. Then draw two upside down J shapes that extend into the heart. Erase the bottom of the heart shape and then darken the nostrils. Add a vertical slit that goes halfway up the nose, then extend the nostril with a thin line to either side of the nose. Now, let's take a look at the eyes. The eyes are slightly tilted ovals. They start near the inner vertical lines we drew in our tic-tac-toe circle. The cats pupil lines up approximately with the edge of the muzzle. The pupil is always in the center of the iris. The pupils are vertical slits in bright light and they get larger and rounder in low light. Here's what they look like in medium light. Remember, they're shaped like an almond. When they're in the smaller phases or medium phases, they have a point on the top and bottom. They taper. In very low light conditions, the pupil can appear almost entirely black. A really large dark pupil can give a cat a kitten like, very cute appearance. The muzzle has a rounded W shape that connects to the bottom of the nose and wraps around to the side. The chin is round or pointy depending on your cats individual features, but it never overlaps the muzzle, it's always smaller. The whiskers extend past the edge of the face. They arch slightly down at the ends. For realism, keep them very thin and add them last. Cats typically have 12 whiskers on each side of their muzzle for a total of 24. These are arranged symmetrically in four horizontal rows of three. Cats also have six to eight whiskers up above their eyes. In the next video, I'll talk about the characteristics of dogs. 8. Dogs: Let's move on to dogs. Now, as opposed to cats, dogs are going to have a lot more facial variation in their features depending on their breed. Whether they're little and fluffy and squishy, really big and active, what we want to do is capture your dog at its best. If you love your dog's golden fur, try to make that a priority as you paint. Or if you love their blue eyes or extra big smile, try to make sure you work those elements into your portrait. Let's discuss some general traits about dogs. These will obviously be different from pet to pet, but these are some good guidelines to get you started. Their faces are roughly oval. If you draw a line through the middle of the head and a line across the base of the ears, their eyes are going to fall somewhere in between that. If you draw vertical lines from the inner ear base, it often lines up with the inner corner of the eye and pretty close to the edge of the nose. If you draw a vertical line down from the center of the eyes, it often matches the outside of the muscle. Depending on your dog, their muscle can have different shapes. The dog on the left has a diamond-shaped muscle. The dog on the right has an upside-down heart-shaped muscle. Ears are triangular and A-shaped. They can be erect or they can flop and fold over. Dogs can move their ears in different ways at different times. Make sure that your reference photo has their ears in a pose that you like. Does your dog have a little fold in the corner of its ear? If so, it has something called Henry's pocket. It's also known as the cutaneous marginal fold, but that's not as cute. This is only found in some dog breeds. No one is entirely sure what function this serves in dogs. Some people think it helps the pet determine the location of a sound. The muscles in their forehead can move and wrinkle. With a short-haired dog, like the one on the right, you can see those muscles more easily. With thicker or longer for like the dog on the left, you'll have to see how those muscles are moving the fur above them. It's more subtle. The muscles above the eyes often look like eyebrows, even if they're not a different color. Dogs eyes are slightly tilted ovals. First, draw a curved line along the top of the eye. Then draw another curved line along the bottom of the eye and add a top lid if the dog has one that is visible at a dark circular ring around the iris. At a dark round pupil, it's usually solid black. Start painting lighter iris color in the C-shape area. If your dog has brown eyes, this will be a lighter shade. The alar fold is a bulb located inside the nostrils. When the dog inhales air, the bulb opens completely to allow good circulation inside the nose. When exhaling, the bulb closes the upper part. It creates a vortex and directs the air downwards using the slits. The slit wraps around the edge of the nose. Nostrils are not just dark holes. The nose will be slightly different for all dogs, but here is a basic structure. When you get to the painting phase, notice that the nose has small bumps on it to give it a lot of texture. It's often wet, so you could add a gentle highlight here. Also note that the top portion gets more of a highlight where the light hits it, then it starts to create a shadow where curves forward. A dog's tongue can really change the way they look. Some of this has to do with habit and personality. If your dog has a habit of sticking their tongue out in a certain way, work really hard to make their reference photo capture this. Another tip I find that helps is to paint a slightly upturned mouth. I chose all of these photos because the dogs all seem to have a smiling, pleasant expression. One of the reasons is, the corners of their mouth both tilt upwards in most cases. Be careful when painting your dog's teeth. Only paint them if they are an important part of your dog's mouth like in these two examples I have circled. Otherwise, they can look angry or aggressive. Make sure you slightly round the teeth instead of making them extra pointy. Now that we're done with the face, we're going to move on to paint the costume. 9. Costumes : In this video, the painting's going to get even extra fun. We are going to paint the costume. Let's focus on those little details that are really going to make that costume stand out. If your pet has on plaid or stripes, let those lines slightly wrap around the outside of their tummy and back. It will give more of an illusion of being three dimensions. We're going to start with the basic fabric. If you want to make things easier, skip the highlights and shadows and just use a single color for the fabric. If you want a more advanced approach to give more dimension, mix up a highlight and shadow color and work these into the parts of the costume that are in the light or in shadow. Here's a pro tip. If you're painting fabric with a pattern, don't start on the pattern until last. Block in the basic color of the fabric and the highlights and shadows. After that, you'll work the pattern on top of these shapes and it will look more realistic. Don't forget to make the pattern wrap around curved shapes too. Now you'll add a shadow under your pet. Mix a slightly darker color than the surface they're sitting on. Make it even darker at the park rates directly under them. Whatever is happening in the reference costume, try to find the pet equivalent. In this example, you can see that I used the same hair piece for the model and the dog. I even added a wig. On the top, the bottom of the chest line placement is the same on the model as the dog and on both, the pants sit slightly below the waist line. I also chose to take the pants that are flowing and gather them at the ankle. You might choose to add fur, that might logically be extending over the edge of the costume. This is something you want to do at the very end because it will overlap the costume. Now let's concentrate on those fun accessories. Try to make them pet-sized. Think of what scale would be appropriate for your cat or dog. Don't forget fun touches like a pitchfork or sunglasses or a microphone. The world is your oyster or maybe your pet is an oyster. I'm not judging. Did you see that Jena has a pet oyster? That's weird. That little leash so strange. Anyway, finish that costume and you're almost done. We'll come back in one last video and take a final look at your artwork. 10. Final Adjustments: You're almost done, you guys. I want you to walk away from your painting for a little while and then we're going to come back and take a look at it. Sometimes I'll come back and I'll take a look at it and I'll just rebel in my genius. But a lot of times, I'll come back after I'm done and think; I forgot the highlights in the eyes or maybe my dog's tongue, and my dog's tongue always sticks out and I wanted to include that. Or maybe I notice my cat has five legs instead of four legs. If there's something you want to add at this point, go ahead and add it and if you've made a mistake, you can take the background color and just paint over that fifth leg. If you haven't already done it, remember to come back at the end and make sure there's a little fur overlapping some of the sections of the costume, that'll make it look a little more realistic. Just keep going until you're happy. There you have it. Your finished portrait. Now that you're done, you and Mr. Whiskers can go curl up on the couch together and enjoy that painting of him in his Elton John costume. Really good art deserves a celebration, so don't forget to invite your friends over for an unveiling party. Don't forget the guest of honor and be sure to invite some of their friends too. I hope you guys enjoyed this class. Please share your project with me. Take a photo of it or scan it and just upload it to the class project section. It makes me very happy to see these. If you liked the class, please leave me a review. Thanks for joining me, everybody. Stay glamorous. Mmwah! Bye.