Realism painter Allie Royston specialises in watercolour pet portraits, using layering techniques to make dogs appear lifelike and three-dimensional. She kindly demonstrated her process for us in a FREE Demo.

If you want to learn how to paint dogs or better understand how to colour very light or dark areas, I recommend learning from Allie. She explains how she begins three types of dog portraits

Allie used a lot of Payne's Grey in her demo, which I don't have, so I improvised. I mixed a homemade grey of different blues and browns until I got a close match. Sometimes the tone was less than perfectly neutral, but it worked well enough for my purposes. 

If you don't have Payne's Grey, just mix your own grey. 

Dog #1: Black Labrador 

Black Labs can be counterintuitive to paint because when you want to paint a jet-black object, the natural urge is to use only black and different shades of neutral grey.

However, to truly capture black, you must make the highlights blue because the reflected light off of black objects is blue. This is an effortless switch to make that will make your painting far more lifelike.

Allie's technique involves a lot of layering, so I first mapped out the shadowy areas. When I added the colour to the light sections, I could spread that layer to the darker areas letting each section come to its correct value evenly.

As you can see in this photo, I'm a couple of layers into some of the areas already, but you can also see where I've left the white of the page showing. In the case of the eyes, you can see where I haven't shaded anything.

The intense brown colour will tone down once I add the grey mixture for shading, so it's okay that it's a little too bright in the first layer. Layering neutrals over bright colours can look quite lovely when done well.


I made sure the layers were fully dry before I added the subsequent layers to shade the picture. I used a damp and clean brush to smooth out the edge when I needed a soft edge. This method gave me plenty of control. 

Due to time constraints, Allie doesn't finish each dog portrait all the way; she just starts them to demonstrate the techniques, giving you something to think about. My biggest takeaway from painting the Black Lab is how vital blending is when using hot press paper.

I usually use cold press paper because the layers blend more easily. By using the hot press for a change, I gave myself a chance to practice edge control.

Even though this picture wasn't completed in the demo, you still understand how gradual paint layering and using the correct colours for the values goes a long way to add realism to a picture. 

Dog #2: Dog with Curly Fur 

Curly dogs can be challenging to paint because their fur has noticeably tiny strands that taper to the most precise points. Allie's secret is not to overwork any one area in particular. 

Use a fine brush and paint each section of fur only once. Follow gravity and the curl pattern of the hair when deciding your brushstrokes. Leave some parts white to account for highlights. 

When your first layer is dry, repeat the process with a darker brown. Avoid overdoing it because the preserved whites are the highlights and the lighter brown is the primary colour. With the right touch, you'll get stunning realism.

Dog #3: Golden Retriever 

Though Allie painted this dog first, I saved it for last because it makes a nice finale.

Allie prefers to start a painting in the area where she's most confident. In this case, it is the dog's ears. In my case, it's all the shaded areas, so I added the neutral shadows first.

Because this Golden Retriever is a light colour, there's a lot of silveriness in the paint. 

I added more details, occasionally deviating from the reference but trying to keep the same overall vision. Allie used yellow ochre for the fur colour, but because my yellow ochre wasn't mixing correctly when I added it to my homemade grey, I ended up using a mix of vibrant yellow and orange.

If your grey has too much blue in it, a cool yellow will make it look green. By using orange, I let the blue-grey act as a complementary colour that toned it down to a creamy yellow. 

With more gradual layering, I darkened the dog's nose and muzzle to the correct value. Do not rush dark areas with tons of pigment all at once. Patient and gradual layering is the only way to achieve a realistic effect. 

My earlier shadows looked too weak as I deepened around the eyes, so I added more grey and yellow-orange to them. Shadows on light-coloured objects can be significantly darker than a beginner would think, the same way that highlights on black things are lighter than you think

Allie Royston's years of experience as a realist artist make her an excellent source from whom to learn. When you want great instruction in realism, or you just love dogs, I recommend her Mini Workshop. In the workshop, she paints a complete dog portrait from start to finish, so you'll see her entire process. Find out when more outstanding instructors will teach by subscribing to the Etchr newsletter.

Elsa Wahlstrom is an illustrator/writer living in the south Idaho hill country. She  loves to create cozy, homey pictures and populate them with funny little creatures  having surreal little adventures. Her biggest inspiration is the music and comedy that  came out of England in the late 60s. When she’s not busy making art, she goes for long  hikes, plays a few instruments, and collects vinyl.


  • Jacque said:

    Great examples! How about a bully type dog?

    June 01, 2022

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