In portraits of humans, ears—like noses—are more about the proper placement of an individual’s features than they are about evoking a particular mood.
Like the one above from this portrait, an ear’s primary function is to give structure and depth to a painted head. The ears’ correct spacing in relation to other features is more important than their exact resemblance to the subject’s own flesh and blood pair.
In portraits of dogs though, the ears have a lot more to say.
Pet portraits are a highly underestimated genre. If portraiture is only interesting in the psychological insight it provides into the sitter’s identity, then the painting of an animal can end up being fairly boring. By that I don’t mean to say that a pet can’t have personality, but that, for the most part, the subtleties of a critter’s character aren’t easily discovered by asking the pet questions.
For this reason, I train my camera on the subject but focus my interview on the pet’s owner. I’ve found it’s important to learn about how the person who will be enjoying the painting sees the animal subject. Is the dog more of a worker, as with the Dachshund, Bridey, who’s the head dog at the Goodwood breeder? Or is she part pet, as with this Chihuahua named Pepsi? Is the dog more the obedient helper, the spoiled lovey, or somewhere in between?
Whatever the pet’s place in the human world, it’s the ears that say the most about who and how the dog is. Keeping my eye on the ears of an animal I may have only just met is key to making a successful pet portrait.