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.