How I paint fur.

As you’ve probably noticed, I paint mostly animals. They’re just cuter, ya know? And they’re fuzzy.

Fur and fuzz are difficult to paint in watercolor; it’s not a very furry medium. When you’re approaching a difficult subject, it’s helpful to sit and analyze what the challenges will be. Here’s what you’re up against with fur:

  1. An animal’s coat is made up of gazillions of individual strands of fur. But it moves in cohesive sections, like solid objects. So you have to communicate its uniformity, without losing the fact that it’s an army of individual hairs.
  2. Often you’ll see a dark undercoat, with a frosted top coat. Which results in a layered effect, which is hard to communicate cleanly with watercolor. You have to plan out all the areas that will stay white, which is a strategic nightmare with some fuzzy animals.
  3. Fur has a direction to it. This is one of the things that makes animals so fun to draw, but it requires a lot of thinking ahead to paint. If you don’t observe and plan for directionality in fur, you just end up with a mushy looking animal. Direction creates form, and form makes your work convincing.

Those are the main issues I’ve found when painting furry animals. To demonstrate my approach to this, I picked a photo that I think demos all these pretty well:

RF- European grey wolf (Canis lupus) running through snow in birch forest, Tromso, Norway. Captive, April.

I found this through a Google search. I couldn’t find the name of the photographer. Hopefully they won’t mind me using this to demo. Looking at this picture, we can see all the challenges I mentioned:

  • This wolf has lots of fur that’s moving in sections. To identify the sections, think about the form underneath the fur first. The fur will form little sections that correspond with the underlying form. To identify form, focus on the larger shapes, and where the light and dark sides are. Here’s how I break things down in my mind’s eye:
  • This wolf has yellow/brown undercoat, with a white/grey topcoat and black accents. To communicate all this, I’ll need to leave some flickers of white poking through, which I’ll need to plan for. Here’s how I break that down in my mind before I reach for any paints:
  • This wolf’s fur is going in all different directions. We can tell a lot about his form, and how he’s moving based on the direction of his fur. Before I start drawing, I’ll be sure to sit and look at his fur for a few minutes and make a mental map of all the different directions his fur has. Looking something like this:

Once I’ve figured all this out, I have enough information to make a game plan and I’m ready to go:

Step one: draw out a basic structure to paint in. You can see some of the sections that I’d already mapped out in my mind, and a few lines that indicate form and fur direction.

Step two: block in areas where I see yellow. I have a few favorite yellows that I use: Winsor & Newton’s naples yellow, DaVinci’s yellow ochre, and Holbein’s imidazolone brown (similar to Indian red but a deeper red and more transparent).

Step three: brush in another few layers of fur, building up from the yellow. I like to use a combination of dry brush technique, and individual dabs made with a liner brush. I build up deeper and deeper layers by mixing blues, greens, and purples with the imidazolone brown to try and communicate all the different layers happening in his coat.

Step four: finally, I go in with black and tidy up. I use black very sparingly in my work, because it’s sort of the end of the road as far as color goes. It’s a ‘dead’ color, in that it lets nothing through. Black catches your attention, and it’s almost like a comma for your eyes. It holds your interest for a brief second and communicates importance or change. So it’s usually the last thing I reach for, to put the finishing touches on something.

That’s it! Now you know my fur-painting technique. I’m sure there are other ways to do it, this is just my style and what works for me.

Happy painting everyone!

UPDATE: Something I thought about after making this post is that (to me), there is a slightly different approach to take when painting all white or all black critters. Animals with white coats are a strategic nightmare to paint because they’re often puffy and don’t have many defining features besides eyes and toenails. And as beautiful as your dog’s glossy black coat may be, it’ll be hard to paint without turning him into a little lump of coal.
So I’ll have to make separate posts for those at some point, but in the meantime, this is a good start for painting the fuzzies.

3 thoughts on “How I paint fur.

    1. Right?! Totally a different game to paint stark black or white fur. I’ll write a longer post about it sometime, but usually the highlights in dark fur are blue/purple. And white fur isn’t so much about the individual hairs, because drawing them darkens the area. So you have to just hint at where the shadows are, and leave the rest alone. The whole process throws everything off if you’re used to painting brown or mottled fur.

      Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s