How I create my horse, dog and cat portraits and paintings

My method of painting is pretty much freehand - I start by measuring out my main points of reference to get my basic proportions right, I don't trace, project, or grid as I know horses and dogs characteristics so very well after years of painting different breeds, colours and horses that perform different disciplines - dressage, showjumping, eventing and showing.  Knowing the anatomy really well helps get musculature and positioning of eyes and ears etc correct - but regularly stand back and observe proportions and positioning carefully against my subject (usually a photo but occasionally a life model) and look for blocks of shape and colour.


I start by sketching the subject onto the paper then usually  move on to straight on to the eyes. As you will know you can really see their souls through their eyes, horses eyes are so gentle and expressive and as we all know when they see us arrive in the yard waiting for their feed - eyes fixated on us and vocalising (and sometimes impatiently pawing at the floor or door!) and as we all know when our dogs sit and look so soulfully at us their eyes fixated on us when they want your attention, to play, or their dinner – or your dinner! 


Once I have done the eyes I start on the subject's head and shoulders (and body if a whole body painting). I am usually inspired by the background in the photograph of the horse or dog that you supply, Then I block in the basic colours and tones in much the same way as an oil underpainting, and gradually keep working over the whole portrait graduating up to the light tones. The final stages are the highlights, fine whiskers and hairs.


Below you can see my tutorial on creating a Black Labrador painting on black pastel paper.

Bay Horse Portrait
Cat Painting
Wirehaired Hungarian Vizsla Portrait Painting

About Pastels and Pastel Paper

For many years I have painted in pastels. Pastels are a dry medium and made into powder form and either pressed into sticks or pans. I use Daler-Rowney stick pastels and Pan Pastels (TM). Pan pastels are professional quality, highly pigmented and lightfast.The sticks are applied directly onto the paper and blended with a finger , sponge, or Tortillion paper stump. The Pan Pastels are applied with applicators. I primarily Pan Pastels as I enjoy the hybrid of painting and drawing. It gives a very painterly feel as you use the applicator in the same way as you would a paint brush. You can mix the colours on the paper or pick up several colours on the applicator to blend together on the paper. 

Pastel paper comes in many different varieties. For years I painted on Fabriano Tiziano, a 160g, acid-free, high rag content, pH neutral archival, textured paper. I then discovered Canson Mi-Teintes which is a pulp-dyed paper, 60% cotton and is 'hot pressed' for it's honeycomb texture. I found this side a little too textured but the "smooth" side is just perfect for me. I have used this for many years. 

When I have completed a painting I use a pastel fixative very lightly. I then cover them with a sheet of archival glassine paper for protection.

Black Labrador Painting with Pan Pastels Tutorial 
The following is a tutorial of a Black Labrador painting which was published in the Society of All Artists bi-monthly magazine "Paint" - November 2021.


Pimms and Sam the Black Labradors 


Materials used -


Faber-Castel Pitt Pastel Pencils -

Black; Grey; White


Derwent Pastel Pencil - 



Pan Pastels -

Black; Violet Shade; Violet Extra Dark; Magenta Shade; Magenta Extra Dark; Paynes Grey Tint; Chrom. Ox. Green Extra Dark; Permanent Red Shade; Burnt Sienna Tint; Orange Tint; Orange; Ultramarine Blue


Black Canson Mi-Teintes Paper (smooth side)


Sofft Tool knife and cover Number 2 Flat



For this painting I used a reference photograph that I took of Pimms and Sam at my friend's stable yard quite a few years back, and I recently got round to painting it.


I like to paint black animals on black paper, it can save a lot of time and effort getting intense coverage when having to rub black pastel into lighter colour paper, and it can make the colours really vibrant! I love Pan Pastels because of their painterly quality, I also love the fact that I can mix it on the paper and/or the applicator. I always have several applicators on the go throughout a painting – one for black, one for other dark colours, one for oranges and reds, one for mid-tones and one for very light colours and white. I use an old tea towel attached to my easel to gently wipe excess pastel off the applicators.




Step by Step Guide 

1. Start by sketching your subject using a light colour pastel pencil. I like to measure the main points of reference and multiply up to the size I want the painting to be. I put in rough marks - top of head to bottom of chin; to bottom of feet; from back to chest etc, and then I draw the rest freehand and by eye.  But you can use any method you prefer to get your proportions as correct as possible. Try not to get bogged down in too much detail.


2. Pick up the colour for each stroke generously with the applicator from the Pan Pastel containers. Put in your mid and light tones so you can see your tonal values overall - your darks are already there so you're painting the negative shapes. Look for the colour in the fur and the background. Work in blocks and shapes not lines, the Sofft applicator no.2 Flat is good for this - I use it all the time. For smaller areas and lines I work with the tip and the corners. 


3. Continue with your blocks of colour and shape blending them with the applicator. I can see shades of purple, magenta, green and blue in my reference photograph, these are reflected colour from the surroundings. I added in the red for the collar. Work constantly all over your painting to avoid getting bogged down in one area. I work standing up at my easel and often stand back for a overall view. I also take regular breaks so I can come back with fresh eye. 


4. Start to work on the face but be careful not to add too much fine detail at this stage. For the light areas on the ground I used white layered with different light colours, (avoid using just white as it will be too stark) and the same with your mid tones, constantly looking for colours.


5. Use black Pan Pastel to go over any exposed paper areas that need to be black, ensuring it is all covered. Gently blend the colours in the fur to create coloured greys, but be careful not to overwork as you will just get grey and no colour.  Continue to work all over the painting in the same way. 


6. Put in your last fine details and lightest highlights.  I use a maul stick for the detailed areas to avoid leaning my hand on the work. Add detail to the paws using mid and light grey plus a touch of any colour you can see. The bright sunlit wisps of hair on the leg in my painting is teased out with a pastel pencil from the block of colour I originally put in picture 3, as are the wispy hairs on the necks. Carefully refine the facial and paw details by shaping with a pastel pencil. 

Black Labradors pastel painting
Black Labradors Pastel Painting - Stage 1
Black Labradors Pastel Painting - Stage 2
Black Labradors Pastel Painting - Stage 3
Black Labradors Pastel Painting - Stage 4
Black Labradors Pastel Painting - Stage 5
Black Labradors pastel painting