Saturday, September 13, 2008

Elvis - How I drew a Yorkshire Terrier" portrait in colored pencil

This is Elvis! I asked his mom if he was named after the Elvis Presley or Elvis Costello. (Pressley)! She commissioned me to draw Elvis in colored pencil for a gift for her husband, Elvis' dad.

One of the questions I'm asked most often is how I get the dogs to pose so nicely. I don't!! Elvis' portrait is a great example of my process so I thought I'd show you what I did and explain how I got there:

I looked through the array of photos his mom sent me. She really liked this pose, but it was a very fuzzy photo. Because there was more than one photo, I could take the basic pose, and study others to get the expression on his face...all the details. Then, I looked at photos of Elvis outside in natural light to make sure I got the coloring right.

Elvis is sitting on his favorite Ottoman. To get a "background", I asked his mom to push the ottoman next to the drapes. And to take more than a few shots of each. Since the pattern on the ottoman is white on white texture, I next asked her to shoot some of the ottoman next to the window to pick up the patten. Otherwise, the camera flash would bleach the pattern out.
Then I put them all together! The drapes went fast, the ottoman was a little tricky with the details...the pattern started competing to be the star of the show. But Elvis would never stand for that, so I layered more colored pencil on the ottoman and used light blues and lavenders that looks "white" but really isn't that bright. This let Elvis stand out.
But with that cute face, how could he not? For the fur, I layered colored pencil in blocks of color, with a very flat "point". For the highlights, I then layered light tan on the brown parts, light blue on the gray parts to create the shiny, silky fur. Then I sharpened up those pencils and drew just a bit of fur "strands", digging right through the layers of the highlights, some light, some dark...a variety of shades, just like in real life.
I think it's important to put our pets in a setting that has meaning in portraits but let the "background" support the story, not detract from it. I sometime see folks who are learning to draw pets make the mistake of not thinking through the "background", and how they can and should change it to support the star.
And I can always tell when someone tries to pull a fast one by printing out a photo of a pet, coloring or slapping matching paint swatches over the photo and calling it a "painting". One of the telltale ways to see this kind of dishonesty is that they don't change the composition! Except in rare cases do amateur photographers catch the perfect framing with the perfect shot of the dog. Usually, it's the pose that is worthy of the portrait, and our job as artists is to build the rest of the painting/drawing around that pose to make a treasured work of art.
I have some really strong opinions on this, I guess, and welcome your thoughts as well. If you would like a portrait of your pet in colored pencil on paper or acrylics painted on canvas, just give me a holler! My email is robinzebley at Just replace the "at" with the "@" symbol. Or visit my website at


Linda Blondheim said...

I love your portraits Robin.

Robin said...

Thank you so much Linda! You know I've been a long time fan of your gorgeous southern landscapes, especially the Florida ones!