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.

Pigments vs. Dyes

This is a subtle point that doesn’t often come up in the classes I’ve taken, but nevertheless understanding it can save you a lot of grief at your art table.

Which is that while watercolors might all look similar in their tubes or pans, they are not. Some of them are pigments, and some of them are dyes.

So what’s the difference? A big one.

A pigment is basically dirt.
It is tiny particles of pigment, finely milled and suspended in a binder. When you get it wet, it becomes very fancy mud.

A dye is water soluble.
Unlike a pigment, which is particles of color suspended in a binder, a dye actually dissolves in the water. It’s been fixed with a mordant to make it lightfast on the paper, but it still dissolves real good. If a pigment is mud, a dye color is a glass of red wine.

They behave relatively similarly to paint with, but one is permanent and one is not. Dye colors are permanent. While pigments sit on top of the paper, dyes go in and effect the actual fiber of the paper. It’s the difference between getting mud on your shirt or spilling wine on it.

This makes a difference when you’re painting, because you cannot rewet and manipulate a dye color later. Once they touch the paper, the paper is that color now. They are the most unforgiving of the watercolor family.

But they’re not all bad. Dye colors are also generally appreciated for their vividness and transparency. Because a dye color fully dissolves in water, they are fully transparent. They aren’t something to avoid, but it’s helpful to know the difference.

Here’s a list of dye colors that I’m aware of and use (I’m sure there are many more):

Bright Red, Prussian Blue, Indigo, Cadmium Scarlet, Scarlet Lake, Vermilion Hue, Cadmium Red, Winsor Red, Rose Doré, Permanent Alizarin Crimson, Permanent Rose, Winsor Blues, Winsor Greens, Winsor Emerald, Hooker’s Green, Permanent Sap Green, Alizarin Crimson, Olive Green, Gold Ochre, Venetian Red

So if you’re painting along and you come across a color that won’t budge once it’s touched the paper, you’ve met a dye color.

Don’t panic. They’re here to help. A dye color is your best friend in creating that beautiful watercolor layered effect, because they are truly transparent. They are the perfect solution to wanting a tiny dab of color on top of 5 others, without making a mess. They’re the most watercolory of the watercolors. And, they’re permanent as heck.

So, what is watercolor?

Afterlife 2014

I remember on the first day of my first ever watercolor class, the teacher asked this question, and I decided right there that I was dealing with an idiot. Obviously, watercolor was what old people did and if the oil class hadn’t been canceled that semester I wouldn’t have been sitting through that lecture in the first place.

Cue my surprise when I discovered over the next four months that watercolor is a fascinating rubric cube of a medium, and now ten years later, I still haven’t moved on.

watercolor study 2014

For me, a helpful thing to learn at the outset was that watercolor, oil, and acrylic are all essentially made using the same pigments. It’s the binders that hold them together that makes them different mediums. That was helpful because when you first sit down to watercolor, if you’re coming from an oil or acrylic background, it feels like you just landed on art-Mars and nothing will ever be okay again. But it will be.

So really in watercolor, your foe is water, and how all the different pigments interact with water. For me, that realization was a big key that began to unlock watercolor.
Because, we all know a lot more about water than we realize:

We know that it’s attracted to itself. If you have two droplets of water right next to each other, they will begin to inch together. This happens on your paper all the time.
We know that gravity has a big effect on it. It always runs downhill, so the tilt of your paper is just as important as your brushes.
We know that water ‘climbs.’ We’ve all gotten the hems of our jeans wet and suddenly before we knew it, we were soaked up to the knees because the water climbed upwards. Anytime there’s a pool of water on your paper, it will start to creep upwards and take pigment with it.
We know that certain things float, and certain things don’t. The same is true in watercolor, some pigments have more buoyancy than others, which effects how they’ll layer and interact with other pigments when things get wet.
We know that water erodes things.Your painting might not be the Grand Canyon, but every time you add more water to the paper, the water is going to erode the pigments that are there. It’ll move things around and create little causeways for itself, just like it does in nature.

Field mouse study 2014

There are loads more watercolor/water observations, but I think you get the idea. All the things you know about water, you know about watercolor. It’s not as foreign as you think, or as it feels the first time you sit down to paint.

Each of those things can be broken down into techniques and become a separate post, but I just wanted to share a subtle mental shift that really helped me when I first sat down to watercolor. It’s not as unfamiliar as you might think.

How I draw animals that wear jeans.

I get questions now and then asking for tips on how to make animals appear more expressive in their paintings, or in some cases how to dress them up as people like I do with my samurai animals.

Disclaimer: people go to school for this kind of thing, and I am not one of those people.

Also, there are a lot of different styles to anthropomorphism in art. For me, I don’t want to change the structure of the animal too much, but I understand that to put a kangaroo in dungarees, compromises will have to be made. So that’s my general approach; realism, but not at all costs.

Skeletal Structure and function.
In my opinion, if you want to make an animal appear more human without obliterating the animal structure, you have to understand how they’re put together. One of my pet-peeves is when someone basically draws a human figure, and then just sticks an animal head on it. That’s called a minotaur and mankind is still upset about it.
I think if you’re clever about it, you can make just about anything believable, but generally something that has recognizable humanoid features is going to help you out (arms, legs, toes and fingers, visible eyeballs, etc.). Just something to keep in mind.
I usually draw a few very rough sketches like this, to map out the basic structure and posture I have in mind. I keep these drawings around as reference for more substantial projects in the future.

Weight placement.
Animals, even four legged ones, tend to carry their weight in focused regions. Dogs for example, carry most of their weight in their front legs. Their back legs are basically rudders and turbo boosters.
I find weight distribution helpful to ascertain early on because in drawing, weight is everything. Communicating weight effectively is what makes a drawing convincing or not.
If you’re going to change the structure of an animal so that they can stand up and hold a bazooka, think about where the animal’s weight normally is, and what changes you’ll have to make in order to make their new posture convincing.
I usually do a few sketches like these:

A hippo can become a ballerina, but you’ll have to stack their body convincingly so that their weight makes sense in this new posture. It’s not a perfect sketch, but it’s more convincing than if I’d just stacked them up carelessly.
Think of it like balancing rocks on the beach. If you put a lot of weight in one place, you need counteract it somewhere else in the figure.

Opposable thumbs are the worst.
Unless the animal you’re drawing is an ape of some kind, you’re going to run up against the issue of thumbs. There’s a reason we don’t see pandas opening jars, and it’s because they can’t.
Cartoonists have been solving this problem for years by just giving animals humanoid hands. I hate that.
It’s fine for the cartoons, I know Bugs Bunny needs his thumbs. But in my personal work, I like the challenge of trying to maintain as much structural integrity as I can.
But that still begs the question: how do you make a canine grip a sword handle?
Most terrestrial animals have a few digits to work with (you’re on your own with snakes and hoofed animals), that are laid out relatively similar to a human hand. Sort of.
I do a lot of side-by-side drawings of human hands and animal paws/claws/slimy-little-grippers/etc. I don’t focus on making it exactly accurate, I just like to try and keep the motions recognizable. Hands have attitude, transferring that ‘tude to the animal kingdom is fun.
Something like this:

I keep these little maps around for future reference.
If you want to see what I consider to be phenomenal “animal hands”, watch Zootopia, especially the Godfather scene:

I mean, look at this art. Incredible.

In all seriousness though, the art in that movie is my favorite and if you like this sort of thing, go watch it and keep your sketchbook handy. They’re the pros.

Facial expressions.
This is the fun part, I think. Just like with the figure and the hands, it’s helpful to do a lot of studies. I draw a lot of stuff like this:

These aren’t great, or even good, but I think you get the idea.
And it’s my experience that you can always tone it down once you ramp it up, but it’s hard to push the limits once you’re past the first or second draft. So start crazy. As you move through the iterations of your drawing, you can tone it down and find a facial expression that works for your project.

Alright, that’s it. I hope I didn’t break some sacred rules of cartooning over here. Just sharing some things I’ve figured out, and the fun challenges I’ve found on the way. Send me pictures of your animal drawings, I’d love to see them.

Unless you’re using this info to draw furries. Use this post however you like, but don’t e-mail me any furries. I’m not prepared for that.

Why all the papers??

If you’ve ever gone to Michael’s to get watercolor paper, you probably got overwhelmed and frustrated. There are so many varieties, and prices will range from 5 bucks a pad to over $100 for a big block. Watercolor paper has a lot of different varieties and qualities, and throughout your journey you’ll probably experiment with a lot of them and end up finding a favorite.

So what separates watercolor paper from other paper? Why can’t you just use regular drawing paper?
Watercolor paper is either made out of wood pulp and coated with a sizing that makes it water resistant, or it’s made out of cotton and is actually closer related to fabric than paper. Sometimes it’s a blend of the two. Either way, it’s designed to withstand water without breaking down. If you submerge good quality watercolor paper in the bath overnight, when you come back in the morning it’ll be good as new. If you put normal drawing paper in the same situation, it’ll disintegrate.
For learning, I recommend buying the sized wood-pulp: it’s cheaper and cheaper is better when you’re just getting off the ground.
There’s no point in stressing yourself out with the knowledge that every sheet was handcrafted in a paper mill that’s older than the United States when you’re still learning what a glaze is. That in mind, my favorite student grade brand is the Canson XL Series. It holds up well, isn’t a nightmare to paint on, and is cheap.
It looks like this and costs about 12 bucks:

This stuff is awesome because it lets you learn without wasting money. Eventually you’ll outgrow it and want to move up to cotton paper. Just keep in mind, once you start painting on cotton, you’ll never go back to anything else. Gotta just trust me on that one. After cotton paper, all other papers feel like painting on turds.

Another choice you’ll have to make is hot press versus cold press.
The name has to do with how it’s processed, but the end result is one is smooth and the other is bumpy. Hot press is smooth (it’s essentially ironed flat) and cold press is bumpy.
When you’re just getting going, I recommend cold press.
Why? Because watercolor travels quickly, and the bumps are tiny little speed bumps that slow things down and disperse pigment more evenly for you.
There are advantages to both, and I keep both around for different projects. You do achieve slightly different effects with each paper. For a comparison I did a quick little demo where you can see the differences:

The painting on the right is done on cold press, and the one on the left is done on hot press paper. For a quick rule of thumb, hot press is generally harder to paint on and will yield much harsher results. It is ideal for projects that are very detailed, as the rougher finish of cold press can make detail work difficult.
You may also see the rough option in the paper lineup. That’s just cold press paper on cocaine and is enjoyed by the texture enthusiasts of the watercolor world. I hate it, but to each their own.

You’ll also notice that watercolor paper comes in lots of different weights. The heavier the weight, the thicker the paper. In my opinion, anything under 140 lbs. isn’t worth your time. Anything heavier is unnecessary.

Watercolor paper also comes in a lot of different formats.
You have individual sheets, blocks, pads, and rolls. I’ve bought them all and they’re all great depending on your project.
When you’re just getting going, I recommend a pad of paper (I’ve never seen student grade paper in any other format).
Pads of paper are pretty straightforward.
Sheets are great for large paintings, or several smaller paintings if you need a size that isn’t standard.
Rolls are the only way to do gigantic paintings, if you’re inclined.
Blocks of paper are ingenious. They are glued down on all four sides instead of just one side like pads of paper. This keeps the paper taught and prevents buckling while you paint. After your painting is dry, remove the top page by carefully separating it from its’ flock with a pallet knife (back of a butter knife is fine too).
Because I’m a paper hoarder, I buy all of these formats with abandon. But you don’t need to do that. Just buy what works for you.
Whatever format you like, the brands I recommend are:
#1: Arches
#2: Fabriano
Learning/sketching: Canson

and I just started buying a brand called Fluid 100 that I’m very happy with*, but haven’t used enough to fully vouch for yet. But, it’s cheap and 100% cotton.

The takeaway for a first-timer should be: a pad of medium weight student grade cold press watercolor paper. Canson XL Series is my favorite for that. Have around 12 bucks ready.
As you grow, I think you’ll find that paper is just as interesting and variable as the paint and brushes.

*Update on Fluid 100: I really like it, but it does not hold up as well as Arches or Fabriano. It’s nice to draw and paint on, but things like tape or erasing will damage it much faster than the other brands I use. Still, it is easily half the price and I will keep buying it.

All about the bristles.

One of my first teachers had some of the absolute worst advice for me. She was a Russian woman who pronounced Vincent van Gogh like “Vincent van GOG” (rhymes with cog) and she would rant about how overrated ‘van GOG’ was all the time.
But when she wasn’t shit-talking van GOG or telling me about how her driving instructor in Russia would drink vodka in the passenger’s seat, she was passing along terrible art advice.
The particular advice I’m referring to here is this; buy the cheapest brushes you can and throw them away instead of wash them.

Being 17 and new to painting, I just accepted this as gospel and proceeded to try and watercolor with what were essentially Q-tips. Don’t be 2011 Janie. Buy the right brushes the first time around.

Because here’s the truth that I have since learned: you can learn to watercolor with less than ideal paper and paint, but you are limited by a terrible brush.
And here’s why: watercolor is about controlling water. If you don’t have a brush that holds and distributes water effectively, you will not learn how to watercolor.

So what makes a good brush?
There are lots of types of watercolor brushes, made of lots of different things. What you choose depends on budget and preference.

But bristles can be broken down into three basic categories:

Synthetic blend

Sable is made from real animal hair (usually the belly and tail hair of a red Russian weasel), synthetic is made from plastic, and synthetic blend is a mix of the two.
Sable is the undisputed best, and the price shows it. If you want a sable brush, be ready to spend upwards of $70. They are fairly priced, but they aren’t necessary.

My brushes are a motley crew that I have collected since I was 14. Here are some of them:

They all have their functions and purposes, and sometimes I’ll go through phases where I love certain ones and forget about others for awhile. Many are high-end sables that were gifted to me, but some of my favorite ones are blends or synthetics. Princeton is the main brand that I personally buy, and I like DaVinci too.
My secret weapon in my style (as I see it) are Chinese calligraphy brushes. I love the marks they leave. I got the ones I have when I was in China. When I tried to use Google Translate to decipher the sticker that came with them, it just said “wolf hairs.” So, possibly made from wolves, but I doubt it (looks and feels like weasel to me).

Whatever brush you decide to go with, a watercolor brush should have this basic anatomy:

The thing that sets watercolor brushes apart from other brushes is that they hold and control large amounts of water compared to other brushes. You should be able to load up a watercolor brush and make that paper your bitch for awhile, instead of having to re-dip your brush every 3 seconds. They also taper down to a point or an edge that you can use to control the flow of water with precision. And ideally, your brush won’t shed all over the place.

There are a couple different shapes that you’ll have to choose from as well. Basically you have round brushes, flat brushes, liners, and fans. They all have their merit (except fan brushes, Bob Ross popularized them and I have no idea why).

I use a combination of everything to get the job done. But they all perform the same basic function; holding lots of water and tapering down to a controllable point or edge. For starting out, I recommend round brushes. They’re just easier to learn with. Liners make it possible to draw very thin lines in long, smooth strokes. Fans are dumb.

So what do I recommend buying when you’re just getting off the ground?

Invest in a single high quality round brush, about the size of the end of your thumb. Don’t go too small. Again, watercolor is about water. Small brushes hold very little water and they are not your friend.

In my opinion, the Princeton 4050 series is a perfect place to start. It’s their synthetic sable series, and I have a ton of them. There are fancier brushes out there, but I think these are the most bang for your buck.
And, all cards on the table; while I have a lot of sable brushes, they aren’t my favorite to buy because there are a lot of ethical issues that have arisen around how the fur for these brushes is gathered. Still, I’m not going to raise a fuss over good brushes; buy what works for you.
Just if you ask me, I’ll tell you to start with a 16 round from the Princeton 4050 series. They cost around 15 bucks and mine has lasted me 6 years with almost daily use, and still going strong.

Whatever you decided to buy, for godssakes take care of the damn thing.
Here are the general rules for watercolor brush care:

Do not leave it sitting in water! I want to die every time I see someone do that. It curls the end of the brush and water-logs the handle (which makes it rot). Don’t do it even for five minutes. I’ll know and I’ll haunt your ass.

Do not store upright when wet! The water will run down into the handle and rot the wood and erode the glue the holds it all together. If you want to store your brushes upright, wait until they dry.

Don’t use any medium that’s not watercolor with your watercolor brush! Other mediums will stick to the hairs of the brush and make it difficult or impossible to use over time. Even if you rinse it out, over time it’ll build up and wreck your brush.

Those are the basic rules to make sure the brush you invest in serves you well for a long time. I still have the first watercolor brush I ever received. It was a gift from my grandmother when I was 14, and it’s still one of my go-to’s.

A good brush is a good friend. Buy good brushes and take care of them.

How to stop yellow from ruining your life.

I think anyone who has ever tried watercolor has had this experience: you’re painting along, maybe your painting looks like a super sweet rose and you know your mom is going to love it, and suddenly it looks like a cat puked on your paper. And the weirdest part? It happened fast. Rose one minute, cat vomit the next.

Even though I wasn’t there when it happened, I can almost guarantee I know what went wrong. And that is this: you weren’t aware of how watercolor yellow works.

I’ve known people that were watercoloring for years, totally mystified that certain paintings just didn’t work out. Because no one had explained this simple rule to them. Which is that yellow doesn’t play by the normal watercolor rules. I lucked out with an incredible watercolor teacher when I began painting, and this was one of the first things she taught me, thus saving me lots of ruined paintings.

One of the main battles people have in learning watercolor is that it’s hard to wrap your mind around a transparent medium. We aren’t used to looking at the world in layers, and it’s hard to retrain your brain how to break down what you’re seeing into transparent layers of color that you can replicate in a painting. And yellow really messes this process up, because it isn’t transparent like other watercolors are.


Basically, what happens in watercolor is this:

And basically, what yellow does is this:

So when you’re going along, painting your rose, and you think, “some yellow would look sweet right now.” But then you go and slap it down on top of 3 other transparent layers, and you interrupt the entire process of watercolor. Because unlike other watercolor pigments that allow light to pass right on through, yellow reflects light. It stops the light from reaching the other colors and creating that beautiful layered effect that we all love. The resulting mess is what we watercolorists affectionately refer to as “mud.”

So what’s to be done?

Put yellow down first.

It’s really that simple. When you’re planning out a painting, look closely at your subject and identify all the areas that will be warm. And go in with your yellow, and block it out.
Then, this can happen:

And, to continue this idea, different watercolor pigments do have differing degrees of transparency. In my experience, the majority of yellows, oranges, and warmer reds will present a similar issue.
So as a general rule of thumb, put all warm colors down before cold colors.

If you absolutely must put yellow down on top of other colors, don’t use watercolor. Use a dye (I like Higgins yellow dye ink for this). Dye is transparent by nature (blog post on dyes vs. pigments coming up for sure), and won’t have the same effect on your work.

To demonstrate this a little, I took a video last night of a portrait I’m working on so you can see my approach:

Working with a couple different yellows and my flat brushes, I block in the major areas where I see it peeking through. Tomorrow I’ll go in with the rest of my pallet and finish the painting.

So, there you have it. A simple, but very effective shortcut to help you out in your watercolor journey. There are lots of other sudden and mysterious ways to trash a painting, but this is one of the main pitfalls I see people fall into with this medium. In watercolor, it’s not enough to know about colors, you have to know what order to put them in to get the best results. And when in doubt, yellow goes first.