How To Create a Realistic Pet Portrait Sculpture

As an artist, I’m often asked to create Pet Portraits. These range from wall panel illustrations to busts to fullsize portraits of much-loved pets. As a pet owner I understand that when you commission a pet portrait, it can’t just look like any old dog or cat. It needs to look like YOUR pet and capture its personality. In this blog I explore what I do to ensure I create a realistic pet portrait sculpture for my clients. If you’re a potential client reading this, it will help you to help me create the best sculpture for you. And if you’re an artist, hopefully it has some tips for you too!

sculpture of a horse carved with chainsaws by simon o'rourke, included in the blog as an example of a realistic pet portrait sculpture
A pet portrait of a beloved equine friend

The Challenge of Creating a Perfect Pet Portrait Sculpture

When I create a portrait, the biggest challenge is that I don’t know the animal as well as the owner. The owner knows that pet REALLY well and wants me to create something that captures the way the pet looks, and something of its personality. If I get something slightly wrong then they will know, and it’s no longer their pet. A sculpture like this holds a lot of emotional and sentimental value so it’s important that I handle the commission with great respect and care.

two tree trunks stripped of their bark with chainsaws and gloves leaning on them - preparartion for a horse pet portrait by simon o'rourke
How the horse portrait began!

Research is Key!


As accuracy is so important, creating a portrait involves more in-depth research into the things that distinguish that particular animal compared with making a sculpture of any animal. I start by making a board with photos of the pet.

From there, I spend a lot of time making observations. I pay attention to

  • any distinguising features or markings
  • stance and posture
  • facial expressions

The more photos from different angles the better! That said though, sometimes I need to account for camera lens distortion as wide angle lenses can sometimes give a fish eye perspective and make a face look bigger than it is.

a realistic pet portrait sculpture of a horse in progress. artist simon o'rourke

Implying Colour in a Pet Portrait Sculpture

Obviously one of the most obvious features of any animal is its colouring. However, when I create a sculpture in wood, I don’t usually use colour. Instead, I create contrasting textures (find out more about how HERE) to create the sense of different colours. You can see this in the horse’s mane below and on its nose. On occasion I will use colour if it’s important to my client and they understand the maintenance involved. If you’re considering a chainsaw carved pet portrait but colour is an issue, still get in touch and we can chat about possibilities.

The horse below also shows how I’ve paid attention to the physicality of the animal. The angle and height of the head and ears and the facial expression are all consistent with the images the owner shared with me.

How Clients Can Help Me Create a Realistic Pet Portrait

There are some things clients can do to help me create the most realistic portrait I can that truly captures the essence of their pet.

As I mentioned, let me have lots of photos from different angles. It’s also good to have a conversation about what makes your pet special. That way, I can get a sense of personality beyond the pictures.

Realistically, some animals don’t have that many features that distinguish them from others of the same breed. If this is the case, then adding a prop like a favourite toy can work well to transform the sculpture from any animal into a specific pet. It can also help to place the sculpture somewhere relevant. For example, a favourite spot in the garden or, in the case of this horse, in its stable…

Commissioning a Pet Portrait

If you’re thinking about commissioning a pet portrait and you have a tree stump in your garden, it’s worth reading my blog about on-site carvings first. Just click HERE to read it. And if you don’t have timber, don’t worry – I can source it for you.

In both cases, simply fill out the form at www.treecarving.co.uk/contact where you can also upload some photos of your pet.

Prices vary based on so many different factors* so it’s important to get a personalised quote and to chat about budget as there are suggestions I may be able to make to help keep a sculpture within your range. As a guide though, wall panel illustrations start at £300. A head and shoulders bust like the German Shepherd would start around £1000 with full sized sculptures starting around £2000. Obviously that depends on size though – a life size hamster and a horse are not the same!!! Realistically, at the top end , a life size horse could be up to £20,000!

*Please note all prices are subject to VAT

Small wall panel illustrations of your pet start at £300
Busts of your pet start at £1000