UART Tip #46: “Steps for Creating a Pet Portrait in Pastel” with Lisa Ober

Step One: Sketch

  • Lightly sketch your subject using a medium-value, neutral color pastel pencil.
  • Remember to place your drawing so that the bottom of the head of your subject is above the 1/2 mark vertically on the page.
  • Try to balance the amount of chest you show with the height of the head.
  • Leave plenty of background room for matting and framing.

Step two: Middle Value of the Local Color Everywhere

  • Place the middle value of the local color on the whole painting.
  • I typically start with the background as it doesn’t need much after being added….so you can use softer pastels and blend them if you wish. This will also give you a color and value reference point.
  • Try to use the harder pastels first so you can layer for depth.

Step two (tips): Middle Value of the Local Color Everywhere

  • For black fur, it is best to start with the darkest black and work toward highlights. This way your blacks will be deep in value. Use a harder pastel so you have value wiggle-room in subsequent layers.
  • For brown fur, ignore the highlights and the shadows and apply a medium brown in the color that is appropriate. Again, use harder pastels.
  • You can make some color and shape distinctions if you are in danger of completely losing your drawing.

Step two (more tips): Middle Value of the Local Color Everywhere

For white fur, recall that applying shadow values and colors first and working toward the highlights will give you great realistic fur with depth.

  • At this stage, I prefer to blend the pastel into the paper to set the stage for pastel marks at later stages.
  • I always make the eyes black, leaving a little of my drawing showing. Pupils are black.

Step Two Overview: Middle Value of the Local Color Everywhere

  • This is how my painting looks at the end of STEP TWO after blending my middle-value colors into the paper.
  • Note that at this stage, it’s pretty messy!

Special Note: Normally, I would make the nose completely black at this stage, but this dog had a very brownish nose with a lot of highlights, so I put that in at this stage to preserve the drawing. You can adapt as you see fit.

Step Three: Darkest Darks and Shadows

  • Begin to put in the darkest darks for fur that is not black or white.
  • For brown and colored fur, ignore the highlights and focus on the shadow colors.
  • You can make some color distinctions if you are in danger of completely losing your drawing.

Step Four: Apply Colors Lighter in Value than the Middle Value

  • At this stage you are building toward the highlights.
  • For black fur, you will be using a slightly lighter but very dark grey (or whatever you see!).
  • For white fur, you will be using a lighter grey, some ivory, maybe light blue. NOT WHITE-YET.
  • This is where the mark-making comes in. I make pastel strokes and do little blending.
  • Remember to apply your strokes in the direction the fur is growing, tapering at the ends.

Step Five: Even Lighter in Value/Checking Everything

  • Continue to build toward the highlights; don’t get to light too fast.
  • Begin fine tuning details such as teeth, shaping the nose, and addressing tongue.
  • Double check your proportions.
  • For white fur, use white with light pressure, saving room for the whitest whites.
  • You are nearly there so pay close attention to your reference. If you see something, put it in or make a change!

Step Six: Final Highlights and Details

  • At this stage, I finish the eyes (adding brown for the iris) and place my highlights.
  • Highlights on the nose are added.
  • The very lightest lights are applied to all areas, including black fur.
  • Whiskers, if present, are added using a white pastel pencil or white NuPastel.
  • Wispy hairs that overlap the background are put in. WOO HOO! The painting is finished! If I could get it to bark, I would really be onto something!

The final painting

Image 11 closeup of face

I hope this overview was helpful!


Check out Lisa’s website at

Attend Lisa’s UART workshop “Phenomenal Pet Portraits”, Friday April 29th – Sunday May 1st, 2022. Click for more info.