It’s probably the scariest three-letter word out there if you are just starting out in drawing realistic animals. I remember looking at fur and thinking it couldn’t be too hard. Just a bunch of lines right?
There are myriad types of different fur – long, short, wiry, wavy, curly. The list seems endless and just when you think you have one type conquered, you get challenged by the next one. It’s also one of the parts of an animal where you can most easily get bored and lose the plot and end up with a flat-looking stripey blob that was supposed to be a lion.
So, for those avid wildlife-lovers like myself, here are some tips to get short fur looking a bit more realistic. For this tutorial, I used Caran D’Ache pastel pencils, Stabilo Carbothello Pastel Pencils and Faber Castell Pitt Pastels on Clairefontaine Pastelmat.
Start with a Solid Underpainting
In pastels, you will normally work from dark to light and I start by laying down a good solid foundation of colour. I call this my skin colour and it is usually slightly darker than one would think necessary. This is really important to create the perception of depth. Remember that fur consists of a couple of layers of hair – so your ‘skin’ will be in shadow. This also helps me to block colour in and get the general shapes and shadows in. In this cheetah, I had to also draw black spots of fur. I rarely use black on its own as it’s a very ‘dead’ colour – even black needs depth. Therefore, depending on my subject and whether the black bits of fur are in the sun or in the shadow, I will layer a very dark brown, blue or even reddish-purple first. In the case of the cheetahs, I used a dark brown on the sunny parts and indigo on the shady bits to create more depth in my blacks.
Pay attention to the Fur Direction
Once I have the underpainting done and blended into the grain with a paper stump, I start with my first layer of fur lines. It is incredibly important to really pay attention to the direction and length of the fur. In animals the fur direction implies the body shape. The accurate rendering of this is important to create a realistic body with recognisable features such as shoulders, rump and legs. The length is also very important as lines that are too long will make your horse look like a shaggy donkey or too short and your Golden Retriever will look like a shaven Labrador. Pay very, very close attention to your reference – in my first layer I usually look at my reference photo more than at my drawing. My first fur lines are a shade lighter than my underpainting, but still darker than the result I want. I pay close attention to the direction and fur length, careful not to create a ‘combed’ look. Even short hair is random, hardly every completely straight and overlaps slightly. Animals aren’t perfect – the secret in realism is to also capture the imperfections. Bits of fur standing up or growing in the direction of the onlooker might only be a dot. Draw what you see, not what you think you see.
Layer, Layer, Layer!
Fur is never ever only one colour and to create perceivable depth you need to layer, layer and layer! I don’t think I ever do fewer than four to five layers. Once you have done your first layer of fur lines, go over it again with a slightly lighter colour, moving closer in value to the end result you are aiming for. Allow some of your bottom layers to show through – these are your bits of fur in shadow. Remember to use a sharp pencil – turn the pencil as you draw to keep your point sharper for longer. Continue this process until you achieve the colour and depth you want. Be aware of how colours you apply over one another influences each other. If you have a very yellow underpainting it might not be necessary to use another yellow over it and the colour of your paper will also influence your drawing.
Highlights and Shadows
To finish off your fur you will need to accent the bits where the light glints on the fur. Don’t just jump to a white pencil for this – look at your reference image critically. If you have late afternoon light reflecting on the fur it might actually require a very light yellow or cream colour, and black fur might very well be highlighted in light blue or grey. It all depends on your subject. It might also be necessary to go back and darken some of your shadows. In this specific drawing, I lightly layered dark blue over the fur in shadow. In pastel pencils, you can ‘glaze’ very much like in oil painting. Apply your colour very lightly and allow the bottom colours to shine through and only be influenced by the shade you are applying.
Be critical of your work, but be kind to yourself. I always analyse a drawing afterwards and note what I am proud of and also what I think I can do better next time. Realism is a very unforgiving genre unfortunately, but also a very rewarding genre. There is no bigger compliment to me than when someone tells me my subject seems alive. In the end, my love for nature is conveyed in the attention to the tiny details of life, and the only way to get better is to put in the hours, slow down and learn to really see your subject.
I hope this will dispel some of your fur-fear and point you in the direction of fabulous fluff!
The Pencil Nerd – Henriëtte van Staden
Aside from fostering a financially-unhealthy pencil fascination, Henriëtte also loves all things feathered and furry and enjoys the challenge of capturing the minute details of animal-life in pencil and pastels. She is also a mom of two boys, laughaholic, dreamer and wannabe runner.