Q: How do you turn all those pieces of fabric into a picture of my dog?
A: One step at a time, one step at a time.

Let me walk you through the process of the co-creation of a pet portrait, using a recent example of Cooper. First, here’s some background information. The woman who commissioned Cooper’s memorial portrait saved my business postcard for 2 years. When her daughter’s family lost their beloved furry companion, she knew this would be the perfect sympathy gift for the loss of such a devoted pet. She wanted a pet memorial pillow of “the sweetest boy ever.”

Step 1:  The pet’s photograph

A portrait piece or pet memorial is created from a photo, usually sent to me digitally. I will not create a portrait from another artist’s work or any copyrighted or trademarked design unless I have written permission from the artist/ photographer.

The sharper the picture is, the easier it is to recreate. Receiving several images is helpful as I look to see which of those matches up best with the pet’s personality as described to me. Frequently that comes forth in the eyes but sometimes I can see it in the ears, a tilt of the head, or the tongue.

Cooper on deck
Cooper in house
Cooper on leaves

Step 2:  Logistical Questions

What will the final product be? A pillow, an art piece mounted on canvas, a wall hanging, a matted picture or a finished piece that will be framed?

Will this be a headshot, full body or partial body portrait? For example, a full body would lose details in a 12×12 inch (31×31 cm) size.

What size will the final product be? The smallest custom size is canvas-mounted at 12×12 inches (31×31 cm); the largest portrait to date is 40×36 inches (102×91 cm). My largest work to date (view of mountains outside) was 9 feet by 9 feet. I can make any size! 

By when is it needed?  Knowing the date it needs to arrive at its destination allows me to fit each order into my schedule. If there are any potential conflicts, I send an email outlining when I could start, such as “The soonest I could begin your order would be 3 weeks from now. Does that work for you?”

Is this a gift? If so, I offer several options. 
1. I can create a finished piece.
2. I can work through a first draft, completing the process with the giftee.
3. With the purchase of a gift certificate, I can work directly with the giftee. 

Step 3:  Background for a dog or cat portrait

There are times when the existing photo background is just perfect and I translate that into fabric mountains, water, a deck or whatever is there. Other times folks tell me what they envision. “He accompanies me on so many walks in the Colorado hills, Can you do that?” It could just be a portrait background. The color choices are made by the customer. If a light blue is desired, I’ll send a photo with all the light blue fabrics I have so the client can choose.

boxer dog fabric pet portrait
fabric dog pet custom portrait orange background

Different backgrounds: Winky the Boxer and his Colorado hills, and Moxie in front of a perfect orange background.

The good part is that, until I start sewing, the background is only pinned and can be switched out further down the line.

Because Cooper was to be on a pillow, she chose to go with a head shot. I suggested we use the photo of him in the leaves as his expression spoke of his love of the outdoors and his “sweet nature.” She chose green fabric for the background as he would have been lost with the autumn tones of the original photo.    

Step 4:  First pet portrait draft – Flowered pins, Goldilocks questions, and tweaking

I have bins and bins of fabric. There are ones for medium and bigger sized fabric (fat quarters and yard lengths) and then there are drawers that just hold scraps. Before beginning, I will comb through all of these to find all the fabrics that are represented in the selected reference photo.

an array of different materials

Since Cooper’s fur looked different in each of the photos, I arranged four different hues from which she selected the initial fabrics.

Having enlarged the dog or cat’s portrait to a black and white photo of the appropriate size, I cut a muslin base of their face or body using that photo as my pattern. That helps me have a framework within which to place the body material.  It sometimes happens that the initial fabric choices are not correct. For Cooper, even though two of the three photos had him with darker, rusty fur, it became obvious that these fabric colors weren’t his.

making pattern for dog
draft of pet portrait

You can see the white base in the 2nd photo. The colors weren’t correct in the first cutting.

There are two different methods I use for cutting the fabric pieces. Let me call them “freestyling” and “traced.” Freestyling is where I cut out the pieces of the animal from the enlarged photo. This gives me the exact correct shape of a particular body part, i.e. ears. Then I eyeball the different colorations within that shape and cut fabric to represent those fur shades or colors.   This tends to give a more representative look, more feeling/soulful than photographic. The other method is where I trace each of the different color/shade changes in the enlarged photo onto paper. These then become a pattern piece. I used the freestyling method for Cooper.

The eyes, oh the eyes. I’ve learned over time to begin with the eyes. When a pet’s personality is captured in the eyes from the beginning, the viewer can see more of him/ her in each of the steps when I ask for feedback. The eye sparkle, that “twinkle in their eye” is done with thread. Eyes are currently created with fabric although I am learning to express eyes with acrylic paints.

up close eyes on fabric pet portrait

The dark brown eyes often blend in with the overall eye look, yet it’s there. The “twinkle” shown here was fabric so she could get the idea of what it would look like with thread. Eyebrows have not been added yet.  

Now it’s just a matter of auditioning the right fabric piece, cutting and placing, over and over again. I no longer pin at this stage unless the piece is very tiny. I go for the “overall at-a-squinty distance” look. Often I’ll take a photo to see if I’m even close to declaring it a first draft.

Next I send a first draft email with 1) a statement of the things I know I still have to fix, 2) a list of questions, and 3) several photos. I use pins with flower heads to refer to a particular piece of fabric. “Is the yellow flower pin too light, too dark, or just right?” These are the Goldilocks questions. I’ll also ask what else do I need to tweak?  Note, this isn’t a “Do I need to?” question; I know there are other things that could enfuse his/her personality into this pet art piece. 

Step 5:  Second draft and maybe more 

This is when the magic really happens. Usually this is filled with a number of photos/ emails/ responses going back and forth. A customer’s input is critical to this part of the portrait creation process so I can finesse the fabric details. 

fabric dog portrait first draft
fabric dog portrait second draft

The first picture is the 1st draft. Each of these flowered pins represented a question I had for her. The second picture is the 2nd draft. Notice that colors were changed around his snout.    

Step 6: The sewing begins 

Once I’ve received a stamp of approval, it’s time to sew it all down. Most of my work is sewn with a blanket stitch. In Cooper’s case, he was completely sewn except for his snout after his second draft. It took a few more tries before the snout was just right.

in progress sewing of custom dog pillow

Cooper’s chest getting sewn.  You can see his tongue sticking out.

Step 7: Finishing

Once I get a final thumb’s up, a pet portrait is ready for the finishing process. That could be sewing the back and hanging sleeve for a wall hanging, stapling it on and attaching the hanging wire for a canvas-mounted piece, or sewing the back of a pillow. In Cooper’s case, she chose a paw print fabric for the back with a memorial heart pocket for his collar.  

Step 8:  Homeward bound –  The photo shoot, wrapping, and trip to the post office

Each of my pet portraits gets their own official photo shoot (studio lights and all) since I want a good picture of each of these fabulous pets with whom I’ve spent some time. 

pet dog portrait green pillow
pocket on back of pillow

Then each is wrapped in paw print tissue paper, tied with paw print ribbon, and placed in a USPS Priority Mail box. It’s just a hop, skip and a jump to my local post office where the insured order is on its way. I then send an email with the expected delivery date.  

I always appreciate it when folks send me a photo of the portrait in its home.  And here, my friends, is Cooper watching over his family.

custom dog pillow displayed at home

I would be delighted to create a custom pet portrait or memorial for you or someone you know. Feel free to share my blog, and contact me at any time to start the conversation.