Creating a Portrait

As the holiday season approaches and I start to get requests for portraits, I thought I’d share a little bit about what goes into making a portrait. Partly because I thought it would be an interesting subject, but also as a reminder that if you’re looking for a portrait as a gift, especially if you need it by a certain date, to book in early! A lot goes into making a portrait, as well as running Adlaya’s Art, so creating each piece takes quite a bit of time. 

So what goes into creating a portrait? Let’s start at the beginning, when someone sends me a portrait request. After I’m contacted by a client, I answer any questions they may have, confirm pricing, send over a contract for the commission, and get reference photos from the client. Often this takes a few days or sometimes a week or two, as life is busy and not everyone can respond to my emails right away. Once I have the signed contract and deposit for the commission, I add the client to my wait list, which can be anywhere from a few weeks to a few months long. 

While drawing the portrait takes a good chunk of time, there’s a lot more to it than that!

Before I start actually drawing a portrait, I crop the reference photos, and create a ‘mockup’ of the portrait, which is just how I’d like to frame the photo within the size of portrait ordered. I then send the mockup to the client for approval, and once everything is set, I can actually start drawing. 

Depending on the size and style of the portrait, a piece usually takes me between 10 and 30 hours to complete. Coloured pencil drawings require a lot of layers, and can’t be rushed! So I can generally finish a portrait in 1-2 weeks, depending on the complexity of the subject. 

When the portrait is finished, I photograph it so I have a digital file of the portrait I can share. I try and do this in natural lighting, which means waiting for the right time of day and weather so the picture looks as good as possible. When I have a perfect picture, I edit it on my computer to make it look as close to the original drawing as possible, and then send it off to the client to let them know their portrait is all finished! 

But the process doesn’t end there — after collecting the final payment for the portrait, I package the artwork, and either ship it to the client or arrange for pickup or delivery if they’re local. Once the client has the portrait I check when I’m able to post the finished piece on social media, as often portraits are gifts. 

So now you know exactly what goes into creating a portrait, and why it’s always a good idea to plan ahead when you’re looking for a pet portrait! There’s a lot of steps involved, and not all of them are under my controls (weather and shipping, for example). If you have any questions about my process, please let me know! 

Quick Tip: Overlay

When I’m working on a portrait and I can tell something isn’t quite right, but I’m not sure how to fix it, one of my best strategies is using Photoshop. I’ll scan or take a picture of my art, import it into Photoshop, and then overlay it on top of the original reference photo. By changing the opacity of the layers, I can see which parts of my drawing line up with the reference photo, and which parts don’t. 

Here’s a pastel drawing overlayed on top of the reference photo, with the drawing’s opacity lowered. You can see the differences, especially in the top ear and the shadow under the snout, but overall things line up pretty well.

It can be really frustrating when you’re trying to figure out why your portrait doesn’t look the way you want, and you just can’t see the little details that weren’t quite right. Overlaying the two pieces digitally is a really nice method for helping catch those errors. I recently used it to fix the shape of an eye on a dog portrait, and was so much happier with the adjusted piece. 

Another benefit of using this method is that I can check the colours and contrast. While colours in a piece are always going to be somewhat different from the reference photo, oftentimes I tend to lower the contrast in my drawings compared to the reference. By this I mean my dark areas aren’t as dark, and the light areas aren’t as light. 

I’ve gotten much, much better at this over the years, but importing a photo of my drawing is a nice way to check this. Once the photo of your drawing is on your computer, try changing the contrast. If the drawing looks much better with darker darks and lighter lights, you may need to adjust those areas in your drawing. 

I don’t always use this method when I’m working on a portrait, but if I’m really stuck it can be so helpful! Next time you’re stuck on a portrait, try taking a picture and comparing it with your reference photo!

Drafting Film

For the last few months I’ve been experimenting with a new type of paper called drafting film. Specifically I’ve been using Dura-Lar Grafix paper, which is a little different from true drafting film (from what I understand), but for simplicity’s sake I’ll just refer to it as drafting film. I wanted to write a post about this paper, because I’m going to be transitioning to using this paper for my coloured pencil portraits, and wanted to give you some information about it. 

My first drawing on drafting film, of a cute red beetle!

Grafix paper is VERY different from the paper I typically work on. The paper I’ve been using for coloured pencil portraits is Strathmore Mixed Media vellum paper, which has a fine tooth (tooth refers to how ‘bumpy’ or ‘ridged’ a paper is). This tooth grips the pigment in the pencil, allowing lots of layers and rich, deep colours on the paper. 

Drafting film doesn’t have a lot of tooth — it is very, very smooth. This means it can’t take a lot of layers, and requires a much more delicate touch than my regular paper. So why would I use drafting film instead of my regular paper? There’s a few reasons. 

The first is that the number of layers needed to get a crisp, solid drawing with none of the tooth showing through on my mixed media paper is quite a lot. I have to press fairly hard to blend the colours and this eats through my pencils like crazy. It’s also not particularly good for my wrist, which is not the strongest to begin with. So using a paper that takes a more delicate approach will save my pencils, but also my poor, weak arms. 

Another reason I prefer drafting film is that I can easily get very clear, crisp lines on this paper. I find my work on drafting film is not only more delicate and detailed, but has a bit of a softer look than my portraits on mixed media paper, and I really like this look (hopefully you do too!). 

The final reason I’m really enjoying working on drafting film is that it’s much easier to erase! I’m able to completely erase coloured pencil on drafting film, which is much, much more forgiving than mixed media paper. It’s a whole lot more relaxing drawing when you know you can fix any mistakes you make. 

A cat eye drawing I did on drafting film – I was really happy with the texture and detail I was able to get using this paper.

A final note about drafting film — it is translucent. So if you order a coloured pencil portrait from me, it will look VERY different if you hold up the paper to the light or put it on a different coloured background. But don’t worry, once you’re piece is mounted and framed the backing will show through and look amazing. This also means that you can draw on both sides of the paper, and the lines will show through. I’ve found that when I want really dark, deeper colours, drawing on the the back of the paper helps them stand out. So your portrait may have some colour on the back, which is normal and part of the portrait!

Hopefully this post was a useful introduction to drafting film and why I’m going to start to using it more and more going forward. If you’re interested in a portrait or are a returning client and have any concerns about having your portrait on drafting film, please do let me know! I’m happy to answer any questions you may have. 

Trying New Things

Mastering a skill tends to involve years of practice and effort. So it’s no surprise that many artists find a favourite medium, and specialize in it. I’m certainly one of those — now that I’m very comfortable with coloured pencils, that’s my go-to medium, and I rarely work in anything else. And there’s nothing wrong with finding a medium you like and sticking to it. 

That being said, I do think it’s important to try new things and experiment. Not only is there a possibility that you’ll discover a new medium that you really like, but it helps keep things fresh and spark creativity. At least, that’s my experience.

One of my first drawings with alcohol markers. It’s by no means perfect, but I’m quite happy with how it turned out and I’d love to do more work with markers.

I typically work in three different media: coloured pencil, pastel pencil, and ink pen. But I’ve tried a whole host of different media, including graphite, acrylic paint, oil pastels, and markers. Some I liked more than others (not a huge fan of acrylics, and oil pastels are terrible), and some I’d like to keep playing around with — when I have time. 

That, of course is the big challenge with experimenting. When you work full time as an artist and have a full commission book, it’s hard to find extra time to try new things. Especially when you aren’t getting paid to experiment, because although trying new things is fun, it doesn’t always pay the bills. 

My strategy for this is to set aside some time every week which is ‘free art’ time, where I’m not working on commissions but can draw whatever I feel like drawing. Sometimes it might be a wildlife piece in coloured pencil, or experimenting with new paper. Or it might be a fun little drawing in a medium I haven’t used in a while. I don’t have a lot of time for this, but I make sure to have at least one hour a week of free art time.

An experiment with coloured inks, which… did not turn out well. But I had fun, and that’s what counts!

Having ‘fun art’ time is really important for me, because when I’m working on commissioned pieces all week, I can sometimes get bogged down and forget that creating art is something I really love to do. Trying new things and playing around with tools I don’t normally use keeps things fresh and exciting, and reminds me that one of my favourite things is to learn and grow as an artist. 

The challenge, of course, is that when you’re just starting out in a medium, you probably won’t be very good at it. So although I’m used to being able to produce a certain level of work with coloured pencils and pastels, I have to remind myself that I’m not necessarily going to be able to do that when I work with graphite, or markers, and that’s okay. If I keep experimenting and find a medium I like, I’ll do more of that and then get better at it. 

So experiment, try new things, and remember that you do art because it’s fun! It’s okay to try and fail, and if it’s truly a horrible experiment you can just burn it and no one will ever know… 

Looking Back

One of the really challenging things about being an artist is self-doubt. It plagues us all, and often times that nagging voice that tells us we aren’t good enough is hard to silence. I’ve written posts that touch on this before (Am I Good Enough?, Staying Motivated), but today I wanted to focus on one very important part of trying to quiet that mental doubt. 

These two drawing are of the same horse, but you can see the improvement in detail between the two.

Especially when you’re working on a really challenging piece, it’s easy to forget how far you’ve come. One of the best pieces of advice I have is to save all of your old work, even if it’s just a scan or a picture. When you’re really stuck or feeling down, go back and look at those older pieces, and take a think about how far you’ve come. 

Another comparison: two lizards, one drawn when I was just starting out with coloured pencils, and one a few years later. Just a bit of a difference!

Because you will have improved, and when you’re struggling with your art or with comparing yourself to others, it’s so easy to forget that. It’s too easy to focus on the negatives, and that way of thinking can get you to stop drawing entirely. By taking a step back, reviewing your older works, you can see that you have improved. And if you’re not where you want to be yet, well, you’ll keep improving. I know that five years from now I’ll look at the art I’m doing currently and will be amazed at how much I’ve grown as an artist. 

So every so often, I go back through the folder on my computer titled ‘old art’ and just browse it, reminding myself how much better my skills have gotten, and knowing I still have a lot of room left for improvement. Sometimes we all need to take a look back and see how far we’ve come. 

Adlaya’s Art: Origins

Looking through the blog posts I’ve done on this page, I realized I’ve said very little about how I got started with art. So I thought I’d share a little bit of how I’ve developed as an artist, as well as how my business came to be. 

I’ve always loved to draw, and I have sketchbooks full of my drawings from when I was in high school. It was something I kept up, though not nearly as frequently, once I went to university. I certainly didn’t take any formal classes, just dabbled here and there with drawing things that I liked (animals and anime characters, mostly). Almost everything I did was in watercolour or graphite. Looking back at many of my early drawings, I also had a fascination with patterns and colour. 

My very first pet portrait. Of course, I’ve improved a ton since I first did this five years ago, but it wasn’t bad for a first effort!

When I started drawing more realism, I focused primarily on animals. It was actually at a job interview where I was first given the idea of doing commissions. I mentioned as one of my hobbies that I loved to draw, and the interviewer asked me whether I did commissioned pet portraits. Until that point, I had never considered that someone might pay me to draw. 

Shortly after that interview I talked to a friend who wanted a portrait of her two cats. I didn’t charge her, as it was the first commission I’d ever done and I had no idea how it would turn out. But she did offer to buy me lunch, and told me the restaurant we went to would reflect how good she thought the portrait was. 

Though I’ve improved a ton since then, the portrait turned out quite well, and from there I’ve developed and grown my business. Originally I worked in ink and watercolour, but in the last few years I’ve learned how to use coloured pencil and pastels, and now the majority of my work is done with these media. It’s been a ton of fun learning and growing, both as an artist and as a business owner, and I’m looking forward to what the future brings!

Coloured Pencil, Pastel, or Ink?

Did you know I offer pet and wildlife portraits in three distinct media? Each option showcases your pet a little differently, so I thought I’d share some details about each one, so you can pick the perfect style for your pet!

Coloured Pencil

This is my most popular style, and is a great way to showcase your pet in full colour and stunning detail. My coloured pencil portraits are highly realistic and I strive to capture your pet as accurately as possible. These portraits work best with a crisp reference photo, and are available on white, tan or grey paper. Of my three media options, coloured pencil portraits offer the most realism and detail.


Pastel portraits offer a highly realistic depiction of your pet, with a softer look than coloured pencil portraits. Though still detailed and realistic, pastel portraits do not have the same crisp look as coloured pencil pieces. If you’re looking to have a portrait done that includes a background, this is the style for you! Pastel portraits work best with a background, either a solid colour or one made from your reference photo. 

Ink and Watercolour

This unique style is a perfect choice for those looking for a fun twist that still captures a realistic rendition of their pet. I create a detailed portrait of your pet in high quality ink, and then pour watercolour overtop for a splash of colour. Most often the colour I pick is based on the coat colour of the animal I’m drawing, but any colour can be used. These portraits are fantastic for those who like a more unusual, stylistic piece.

If you have any questions about the different styles I offer, please don’t hesitate to ask! 

Tool Tip: Pencil Sharpeners

I’ve gotten a lot of questions recently on what kind of pencil sharpener I use for my coloured pencils. For a long time I was using a basic metal sharpener, which did the job just fine, until my pencils started getting really short. Once they were about half of their normal length, the majority of my pencils would break when I tried to get them to really sharp points, which was incredibly frustrating. 

I went looking for a solution, and realized it was definitely a fault of the sharpening process, not the cores of my pencils being broken. Apparently as you sharpen a pencil, if you aren’t holding it perfectly straight, you’ll start sharpening it off-centre from the core. This difference is very slight but gets worse as the pencil gets shorter, so hence why it only affected my short pencils. 

A selection of my current pencil sharpeners. I definitely don’t use the big electric one for my coloured pencils, but it’s cool so I included it.

I was browsing my local art store and came across the Bostich Twist and Sharp, a cheap sharpener that has a ratchet mechanism that holds the pencil in place. It was fairly cheap so I bought it and wow, what a difference! I haven’t had a single pencil break since I’ve been using it, even my very short stubby pencils. We’ll see how it holds up over time, but for under $3 I’m very impressed. 

Update: I still love these sharpeners, but as with any sharpener, the blade inside dulls over time. Once the blade is dull it’s very hard to get a nice sharp point from the Bostitch sharpener, and as of yet I haven’t figured out how to replace the blade. Most sharpeners have replacement blades that you can change by undoing a very small screw, and the Bostitch is no exception. The problem is I haven’t been able to find any replacement blades that will fit my trusty Bostitch sharpener! If anyone knows where to get some, please let me know. 

On the whole I’ve still found this to be one of the best sharpeners I’ve used, and I would absolutely recommend them if not for the problem of replacing the blades. Right now I’ve simply bought a new one, though it’s now dull as well. It seems so wasteful to keep buying a whole new sharpener, so I guess I’m still on the lookout for a better sharpener. If you have recommendations, please share them! 

Disclaimer: I am not affiliated with Bostitch or get any money from the sale of their products. I just like their sharpener a lot.  

Pollinators in Danger

My drawing of a Western Bumblebee. Reference photo by Stephen Ausmus

Last year I was approached over the Christmas holidays to produce some art centred around pollinators that are threatened by climate change and human activity. While I was aware that pollinators and bees in particular have been declining in numbers, I didn’t know which bees have been most affected. I assumed that honeybees, the most well known type of bee, were primarily the ones in trouble. 

A rusty-patched bumblebee. Isn’t he cute?? Reference photo by USFWS Midwest Region

It turns out there’s lots of different types of bees, and though honeybees are affected by climate change and pesticide use, their status as domestic bees means human intervention can help mitigate these factors. Wild bees are much more at risk, and I was asked to draw some bumblebees whose numbers have been declining to help call attention to the plight of less well-known species. 

The three bees are the Rusty-patched bumblebee (Bombus affinis), which is endangered, the Yellow banded bumblebee (Bombus terricola), which is listed as a species of special concern, and the Western bumblebee (Bombus occidentalis), which is listed as threatened.

And finally the yellow banded bumblebee! Reference photo by Kent McFarland

Drawing these three bees was a ton of fun, and something I have quite a bit of practice doing thanks to my work drawing for Guelph Bug Day. One tip I have for drawing bees in coloured pencil is to indent the paper for the thin hair lines. The coloured pencil won’t fill in the indents, giving the option of super fine hairs with minimal effort. I use the tip of a metal mechanical pencil for the indents, because that’s what I have available. 

I think the most challenging parts of these pieces were the flowers, as I don’t have a ton of practice doing floral art. But it is always a pleasure to work in colours that are different from the browns and blacks that I normally use in pet portrait art. And I’m very happy with how they turned out! Which bee is your favourite? 

You’re So Talented

When I share my work, in person or on social media, it’s always gratifying when someone tells me how much they like it. I put hours of careful work and detail into each piece, so I love getting positive feedback. One of the things I do hear about my work is ‘you’re so talented!’ While this is absolutely meant as a compliment, and I do appreciate the sentiment, I’m not a huge fan of that phrase. 

One of my first coloured pencil drawings. It’s not terrible, but I’ve certainly improved a lot.

‘Talent’ implies an innate level of skill, or natural aptitude for something. And perhaps I do have talent, but more importantly, I draw A LOT. When I first started my business five years ago, I was working multiple other jobs, and so I kept my drawing time to two hours a day. When I started growing my business, that time increased to three to four hours a day. 

When you practice a skill multiple hours a day, you’re going to get better at it. I did not pick up a pencil and start drawing highly realistic animals — it took time, and lots of crappy drawings, and many, many hours of practice. 

So when people tell me I’m very talented, I feel like it skips over the hard work and time I’ve spent developing and fine tuning my skills. I don’t take it personally — again, I know it’s meant as a compliment. But what really bothers me about the idea of talent, is that there’s an implication that if you don’t have talent, you can’t draw or can’t learn to draw. 

Just a bit more detailed and realistic! This is the result of hours and hours of practice.

I’m a firm believer that anyone can learn to draw realistic portraits, with enough time and practice. So if you want to learn to draw animals, or landscapes, or any kind of art, don’t worry if you have talent or not. Just start drawing! Take some classes or watch some online tutorials to learn techniques. If you put in the time and effort, you’ll improve and get to where you want to be. 

I follow a lot of artists on Instagram, and many of them are ‘better’ than me. They produce art that I look at and think, ‘Wow, I wish I could do that,’ and then I set that as my goal line. I work and practice until I can draw the way I wish I could. The danger of thinking in terms of talent is that you might look at another artist’s work and think that level is unachievable, because you don’t have innate talent. 

So please don’t give up, whether you’re an established artist or just beginning. If you have a goal in mind, you can get there, no matter where you’re starting from!