How to Draw Pet Portraits for Money and Start a Business

How to draw pet portraits for money header. A pencil drawing of a cat.

Most working artists have drawn people’s pets at some stage, I know I certainly have. It’s the obvious way to start earning some cash. This is how you can draw pet portraits for money too.

Assess the quality of the photo. Agree your terms. Upon acceptance, take a 10% deposit. Photocopy the photograph to the required size. Grid your photocopy. Grid your drawing paper to the same scale. Draw your pet portrait. Make a hi-res scan or photograph the results. Mount the drawing and wrap it in cellophane. When the customer pays, try to up-sell the image on other products from a print on demand company.

Let’s go into the detail. There is more to pet portraits than you think.

How to Get Started Drawing Pet Portraits

If you really want to get pet portrait commissions you really should have a portfolio of past work to act as examples. Obviously you cant advertise your services without some previous examples to show.

You’ll need half a dozen drawings. They have got to represent what you are capable of doing and more importantly, what your customer can expect to receive.

Siamese cat pet portrait a pencil drawing by Kevin Hayler

Don’t do what I’ve seen others do. Don’t advertise your best ever work that took you weeks and then fob your customers off with a sketch that looks nothing like it. Your aim is to surpass expectations and in that way, your customers will be so delighted they’ll act as your raving fans.

Remember that this business is all about emotions. Pets are members of the family and as such, they’re loved dearly. It may just be just another pet portrait to you but it’s far more to the owner. When they receive your work they should be so over-joyed they’ll want to show it off and spread the word on your behalf.

That’s the snowball effect. Your mission is to get the first few commissions under your belt and get repeat trade by word of mouth. This is how you turn a hobby into a business.

A ‘that will do’ approach is not good enough. You must always do the best you can.

How to Find and Draw Your First Pet Portrait Commission

In the beginning, you should use your friends and family to kickstart the business. Let them know what you are doing and actively ask them for help.

Your own personal network will be your best salesforce. You have a ready-made fanbase only too happy to promote you to their friends and colleagues. Do not under-estimate the power of these recommendations. They are the best testimonials you can possibly have.

Get at least 6 pet portraits under your belt. The best way of doing that, and get paid at the same time, is to offer ‘mates rates’ to get your first few commissions.

Let everyone know that you are heavily discounting your work on their behalf so when they show their friends they will be happy to promote your true prices.

When you have a small body of work, spend the money to get some good Giclee prints made, and make a good portfolio. If the price of high-end prints is prohibitive, take good quality photos of the artwork and print those, preferably alongside your happy customer.

Top Tip: Remove the glass before photographing framed artwork. If that’s not possible, use a polarizing filter. Never use a flash.

Don’t forget to have a bio in your portfolio. Write about yourself in an engaging way. Keep it short and snappy and write it as an artists journey. This is self-promotion and an advert combined.

Further Reading: How to Write an Artists Bio That People Want to Read

No one wants to know the nitty-gritty details. Edit, edit, and edit some more. Attention spans are short.

Advertise your prices. Don’t think people will blindly trust that your prices will be reasonable. State the size(es) with the price and any addons you are offering, such as framing.

Ask your friends/family to take your portfolio to work with them and try to drum up some trade on your behalf. Have a testimonial page with names and comments, and below that, have a contact form where they can leave their name and email and contact number.

Don’t assume that everyone who expresses interest will follow through. A business card and good intentions are not enough. It’s up to you to be pro-active. You must follow the leads. That’s business. Send emails and best of all, get them on the phone.

As soon as you make contact and they can hear your voice, a pet portrait stops being an abstract thought and becomes a reality. Get that photo sent to you, or even better, arrange a visit to photo their pet yourself.

When you get in touch with your prospect don’t forget to use their first name and name-drop whoever it was that introduced you. Something like,

‘Hi, is this Joan? Hello Joan, my Aunt Anne told me you were interested in having your pet dog drawn/painted.’

Simple psychology. They won’t want to offend your Aunt by rejecting you so they will hear you out. Don’t be pushy, just state how much you would like to draw their pet. If the price is too high for them, be prepared to offer a small discount as a gesture of goodwill (for being a friend of the family).

That’s how to get started from scratch.

What You’ll Learn at The Start of Your Pet Portraits Business

Use this opportunity to figure out how much time it really takes you to finish a drawing. Your family and friends will be forgiving if things take longer than expected. This is a learning process, after all, so use this time wisely. Now is the time to tackle the teething problems.

You will discover:

  • What kind of photos your customer is likely to provide
  • What size drawing works best for you
  • How long it takes to finish the job
  • How to present the work for maximum effect.
  • How to ship your work if it can’t be collected
  • How to frame the work cost-effectively should it be required
  • How to photograph/scan the work for your portfolio and print on demand products.

You will soon discover that your average customer will provide photos of their pet that they personally love, that’s not to be confused with photos that you can actually use. More often than not, the pose is appalling, often taken using a flash, too small, out of focus, and lacking in detail.

Many people expect artists to be able to ‘make up’ the missing information out of the ether or change a pose entirely with no references to go by. Do not agree with this type of request.

It’s up to you to set the parameters. State what you can do and keep it to that. Don’t try to second-guess what your customer is imagining, that’s a recipe for problems.

How Do You Copy a Photo and Draw a Pet Portrait Quickly?

The ideal photo is a three-quarter headshot taken from ground level. You will, however, seldom get offered classic poses for pet portraits. You may have to take it yourself.

Of course, that’s not always possible, not least because the majority of your commissions are likely to be of deceased pets. Most pets get memorialized as a work of art, sad but true.

So given that you can only work from the references available to you, the more photos you have, the merrier. You should choose the most suitable reference. The customer can’t be relied upon to see it for themselves.

After you have assessed the task you must be upfront with the customer. If the references are too poor to work from, say so. Better by far to decline a job than to get it rejected.

There are times when the pose is great but the image itself is too poor. Things can sometimes be rescued. There are workarounds.

If the form is present but the focus is lost, if the eyes are semi-closed, or the ears are back and you want them forward, a scroll through google images will usually come up with the missing detail.

All pet owners think their pets are unique, which they are emotionally, but a breed is a breed, and coat patterns apart, they won’t detect a difference. They will be delighted.

How to Approach and Draw a Pet Portrait Commission

I’m not going to cover drawing techniques in this post, it needs a post all to itself, and anyway I’m assuming you’re already proficient in drawing. This is how I approach pet portraits and other commission work.

Further Reading: How Do Artists Get Commissions Quickly?

I’m sent a digital file or given a physical photograph. I always make the file into a physical photo, I find it easier to reference than a screen. I will then enlarge some photocopies roughly to the given size that I’ve agreed to draw.

Let’s say, for argument’s sake, you agree to make a 10″ x 8″ drawing for a client. The simplest way to stick to that size is to cut a 10″ x 8″ aperture in some card and align the enlargement that fits best. Easy.

I grid up a black and white photocopy. How big the grid should be is up to you. It all depends on your confidence.

I prioritize speed, so I line a ruler to the vertical edge of the image and draw a line both sides. I have two parallel lines. I then use the width of my ruler as my guide for the remaining lines.

I do the same on the horizontal edge. Perfect every time.

I repeat the same very lightly onto the drawing paper. I now have an exact 1:1 scale. The image should now be easy to draw. If the grid is too large and it’s taking too long to place a feature, draw diagonals inside the box from each corner.

What About Tracing Your Photo?

Plenty of illustrators trace their work. It’s up to you. I discuss it in a different post.

Further Reading: Is it Cheating to Trace Your Art?

The easiest way to get an accurate image is to shade a 6B pencil over the back of a photocopy and tape the copy to your drawing paper. Use low tack framers acid-free masking tape to stop the paper moving.

Draw over the main image and you will leave clear lines. There is no need in invest in a lightbox.

How Much Should You Charge For Your Pet Portraits?

Only you can figure out the time you need to finish a drawing. You must calculate the costs you incur, and the profit you need to make your efforts worthwhile.

Be realistic. Not every job will go to plan and you don’t want to work all God’s hours. Leave yourself some breathing room. You might be able to make 5 pieces of work in a week in theory, but in reality, perhaps 3 would be more like it. Don’t take on too much, you might burn out.

Further Reading: How to Avoid Overwhelm For Artists Who Are Burning Out

Think about how much money do you need to earn? What is the minimum wage? That can be your base figure while you establish yourself.

Let’s say you can draw 3 pet portraits a week. Divide the minimum weekly wage by three and that’s the minimum profit you need. Not turnover.

That’s only a starting point. You must progressively increase your prices until it hurts your income. That’s your price point. Don’t compare yourself with others, it’s meaningless.

Further Reading: How Do Artists Price Their Work?

You have no idea about the lives of other artists, it’s a false comparison. You don’t know their costs, the demographic they serve, or even if it’s their full-time income.

There are too many variables to know what’s really going on, market research doesn’t mean much.

How to Present your Pet Portraits

It’s important to present your artwork as something extra special. This is a luxury bespoke work of art commissioned to celebrate a much loved pet ,and as such, it must be packaged to reflect it’s importance.

Always mount (mat) your work before you hand it over. It should never be an optional extra. Choose an off-white if you are unsure. I like to use black-core mount-board. It’s slightly more expensive than the standard white-core board, but the black bevel adds an extra borderline around the art and makes it look great.

Three puppies pet portrait, drawn in pencil by Kevin Hayler

Be generous with the size and make the borders wide. The artwork will appear much bigger, and psychologically, much more expensive.

Wrap it up neatly in clear cellophane. If the picture is small you can buy self-sealing cello bags, otherwise buy a heavy duty cellophane roll, the same stuff florists use.

A good tip is to use one more piece of card to face the drawing in transit. You must not allow anything to touch the paper surface, even through the cellophane.

Finally, you can wrap the whole item in gift wrap or buy some attractive looking carrier bags. The whole process should be like unwrapping a present.

Carry your drawing in a portfolio case, so you can open it up, upon delivery, in a grand gesture.

Sell Print-on-Demand Products as Addons

Your earnings potential doesn’t end at the final delivery of your pet portraits. You should scan or photograph your finished work, not only to add the image to your portfolio but to place it on merchandise. These are the addons you can upsell to your customer.

The variety of print on demand products these days is astounding. It’s gone far beyond mugs and coasters.

Some more ideas include:

  • Phone covers
  • Canvas and fine art prints
  • Cards
  • T-Shirts and Hoodies
  • Cushion covers
  • Scarves
  • Tote bags
  • Daypacks

And the list goes on. Too many to name here.

Checkout some of the more popular Print on Demand sites and see what’s available:

I’ve only experimented with Printful.com. I used them because every review I read commended their quality. I ordered a couple of samples, one print, and one t-shirt. The t-shirt was excellent. The fine art print was good but darker than I’d have hoped.

That said the quality was good. The solution would be to lighten my file and try again. Expensive but doable.

Addons are a potential goldmine. You already have the master scan, all you have to do is present the mock-ups, add your markup, and take the orders. The product will be delivered directly to your customer.

Even if they decide not to buy for themselves, they may well choose to buy something for other members of the family.

Do your research and check out a few companies before you commit your name and reputation to their services. Some companies will perform better than others.

If nothing else, include some flyers or cards with your order. Use the pet image to make some flyers specifically for your client. They will be happy to show off their new picture and promote you to their friends and work colleagues.

Conclusion

The pet business is huge. According to the American Pet Products Association, the industry was worth $95.7 BILLION in 2019. There are millions of customers and a limited supply of good reliable artists. The opportunity is there to draw pet portraits and make a good living.

Start small and your prices can rise as your order book begins to fill. As the opportunities arise, prioritize work coming in from more affluent customers. Think about pedigree dogs and cats and especially horse owners. The aim is to find a wealthy demographic who are happy to pay a premium for your talent.


If you want some extra help, consider these articles:


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