Painting pets in pastel is one of the most popular art genres in the world. Thousands of amateur and professional artists use pastel to portray our furry friends. Pastels are loved as the perfect medium to paint fur as its colourful strokes mimic hair so very well.
From the early days of pastel animals have featured as a popular subject matter. In the 18th and 19th century we saw pets mostly on the laps of girls and ladies' in more formal portraits. Still pastel remained a popular medium for it.
In the 20th century pets became more popular to paint as a subject in itself, mainly for amateur painters. No longer did they function as companions to the main sitter, but they featured as the main subject of a portrait. Many try to capture the unique character of dogs and cats, as well as the joy and love they bring to our lives.
But dogs and cats rarely feature as the sole subject matter in museums. For some reason they either remain lap bound, or keep themselves strongly in the realm of hobbyists.
But the world of pet portraiture (hobbyists or not) is huge. Just a simple search on Google for pet portraits in in pastel and you will come across hundreds of results. It is one of the most popular subject matters for hobbyist artists and for good reason: we all love our pets and pastels are a fun, and direct way to paint them.
A sugary sweet example from the late 18th century is this portrait by John Russell. It is painted in pastel on paper and is around 58x44cm. It is not a very big painting, but has lots of detail and is tightly cropped. The boy only just fits on and the cat is slightly cut off at its back. The painting is chocolate box sweet and not really my taste, but it shows what one can do with pastel.
Liotard's portrait of Maria Frederike van Reede-Athlone (what a name!) from just a few decades earlier show much more character and interest. Gone is the sickly sweet show of cuteness, and we see an alert young lady (she is supposedly aged 7) with her pet dog in her arms. I have written about Liotard's fabulous people-skills in another post, but the dog as well as the girl, shows liveliness and character.
Here is a wonderful sheet of cat studies by Thomas Gainsborough. It was probably created around 1763-1769. It was created in black and white chalk (not quite pastel) and is just delightful to look at.
A very expressive piece by Degas of a man with his dog on his lap (again) from 1889.
All this inspiration might well make you want to give it a go yourself. As said before, googling 'pet pastel portraits' will come up with hundreds of results. There are endless books and videos available about how to draw pets in pastel. A really good pet pastel artist is Emma Colbert, whose Youtube channel shows lots of demonstrations of highly realistic pet portraits in pastel.
Do you know of any great pet portraits in pastel from art history that I could add to this post? Let me know!
Sophie’s Art School hosts regular 5-day online painting workshops where we tackle pastel and oil painting. The Pets in Pastel workshop in November 2019 was super fun.
Why not join us for the next workshop?
Featured image at the top of the page: Mary Cassatt, Woman Holding a Dog, pastel on paper.