Choosing the right photograph

As portraits, especially pet portraits, can rarely be done from life a huge part of creating a portrait that a client will love is choosing the right photograph.

Posing for a portrait for hours on end is probably the only thing that dogs are not brilliant at…

The ‘right photograph’ should ideally be clear enough to work from, and not over or underexposed.  The lighting should show the true colouring and the subject should be in focus, blurred photos are so difficult to work from. Once those simple guidelines are covered, the ‘right photograph’ is largely defined by what the client wants.


Ernie’s reference photo could not have been better.  Outdoor lighting is always best.
Luca, Sol and Missy all featured in the same portrait from separate reference photos.

Some of my favourite portraits were created from reference photographs I would never have chosen or ideas I would never have had, but were requested by clients.  If you have ideas or unusual poses, please suggest them!


The reference photo chosen by the client for Blondie’s portrait has extreme shadows and is a very unusual pose, I would never have chosen this as a refrence photograph but the result is a definite favourite.
Bella’s suggested reference photograph had unusual lighting, and her face wasn’t very detailed or clear.  It turned out to be a perfect reference photo.


Clear headshots are often the best option when choosing a reference photograph, but sometimes, there may be a photograph which captures much more of a subject, especially for tender moments which cannot be staged or posed.


I don’t want to show the original photograph I used to draw sweet Gracie’s pastel portrait as it was taken in a hospital shortly before she passed away.  Besides omitting medical equipment, this photograph was absolutely perfect as it captured her expression.  As tired as she is, she is still looking up at her family with complete adoration, and even though it is the end she is so secure and loved.  I loved that they chose this photograph to use for a portrait to remember her by.
The same can be true for people portraits.  Rather than choosing a photograph of the bride and groom posing, the client opted for a quieter moment which showed the couple’s connection with each other as they behaved naturally for this wedding portrait.
If I were asked to choose a photograph of my children to use for a portrait, I don’t think I would have had the imagination to go with this one.  Thankfully the client did, and it shows such an incredibly special and beautiful moment that probably lasted only a few seconds but is now captured forever.

If a photograph is to dark, too blurred or too small I won’t be able to create a good portrait from it.  If, sadly, it is the only photograph available then I will do my best to create the best painting or drawing that I can.

In the sad cases of pets who have passed away, a blurred photograph is often the only option available.
Photographs from this era are simply not going to be clear or focused, but are often among the most precious photographs that we have.

To view more of my artwork you can visit my online gallery or sign up to my monthly newsletter to see new work and projects.

Published by gillianussherart

I am a pet and wildlife artist, originally from Ireland but now based in Frome, England with my husband and children, two rescue dogs Rua the Hungarian Vizsla and Ogie the blind terrier, and Jet the cat. I take commissions for pet portraits and draw original animal art, most of which is sold as fine art prints and art cards. I also teach others how to draw through online classes and short courses available through my website. I have been working as a full time artist for many years, and have fulfilled hundreds of pet portrait commissions. My client base is international, and I ship worldwide for free. My work has been featured in publications such as Dogs Today Magazine, Dogs Monthly, The Guardian, Talented Ladies Club and Country Living Magazine. I support animal charities whenever I can, by regularly donating art to various rescue group fundraisers, donating 20% of income from prints to various breed specific rescues and providing wildlife rescues and rehabilitations centres with original art to fundraise and create merchandise. If you are interested in purchasing or commissioning art, or if you just want to connect, you can contact

3 thoughts on “Choosing the right photograph

  1. Hi Gillingham I would like to get a portrait done of my dog. How do I send the photos to you?

    I had wondered if there were three or four different ones could you capture them all on a canvas or print?

    What do I need to do first?

    Thanks Jane

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Jane, yes I can use separate photos for the one portrait – I know too well how impossible it can be to find a good photograph of them all together! The first thing would be sending photographs you can e-mail them through to me at or if you would rather send them by post I can send a mailing address. The next thing would be to decide on what size you would like, and if you have specific instructions such as layout, background etc. You can then secure your order with a 20% deposit and it will be ready within 2-4 weeks depending on size. Best wishes, Gillian Here is a link to multiple subjects in a portrait –


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