Tips for Drawing Animal Portraits

Tips for Drawing Animal Portraits

Today, I’d like to share a 5 tips for drawing animal portraits.

Tips for Drawing Animal Portraits

5 Tips for Drawing Animal Portraits

Let me tackle this like a step-by-step tutorial, and lets begin with the reference photo.

Step 1: Use Good Reference Materials

For most of us, our art is no better than the reference materials we use. I have completed portraits from poor reference materials and the client has been happy. But it was a struggle, and not much fun.

And lets face it; unless you know your subject inside and out, you simply cannot draw what you cannot see!

Tips for Drawing Animal Portraits

So the process begins with the best reference photos possible.

Step 2: Start Drawing Detail with the Line Drawing

One thing I learned early on was that I needed to develop details from the beginning. If I didn’t start developing the details with the line drawing, I got to the under drawing or color phase, and was completely lost. And often frustrated.

What held true for oil painting (where I could easily paint over or wipe off mistakes) was even more important with colored pencils.

So over the years, I developed a method of creating line drawings that shows as much detail as possible.

I use a strong, dark line to draw shapes. The outline of the horse, the eye, and the bridle, for example.

I use lighter lines to draw the shapes within those areas. I even mark highlights and some of the more obvious middle values using dotted or dashed lines. So my line drawings often look like complex road maps, as shown below.

Illustration from the Portrait of a Black Horse Tutorial.

I don’t always transfer all those lines, but I do transfer the more important ones. In some way, it helps just to have drawn all those details as a line drawing.

Something else that makes doing a detailed line drawing helpful is that it gives you the opportunity to work out shapes with simple lines. Getting size, shape, and position correct as a line drawing goes a long way toward creating a fabulous portrait.

Step 3: Establish the Most Important Elements Early

When you begin color work, start with the most important part of the portrait. Usually that’s going to be the eye, but not always.

Shadows are a good place to begin, too. They’re what give your portrait form and make it look real. Like your subject takes up space.

I use the umber under drawing method a lot for animal portraits because it allows me to work on the values separate from color.

But you don’t need to start with an under drawing like this one (below) in order to begin developing details early. So carefully place the most important details from the start, then gradually add additional details as needed.

Step 4: Draw Slowly and Carefully

Don’t rush! Nothing derails a portrait more quickly than rushing!

Study your reference photo carefully. Choose colors carefully and make those decisions based on the colors you see in the reference photo. No two animals have exactly the same skin tones or hair colors.

Lighting has as much to do with the colors you’ll draw as the actual skin tones or hair colors. So forget the idea that there’s a “basic set of colors” that works for all subjects.

After you’ve done a few portraits, you’ll no doubt discover that you use some colors for most of them. That’s okay. Those become your go-to colors.

Step 5: Pay Attention to the Details

It’s vital to get the overall shape of your subject correct. That means the proportions need to be correct, as does their position relative to the animal as a whole.

But the smaller details can transform a so-so portrait into a great portrait.

So what kind of details am I talking about?

The direction of hair growth is one key detail that is often overlooked. It may seem minor, but when you shade hair or fur as a solid, it can look flat. Even if the color and values are accurate.

Get the big shapes right, then continue adding smaller and smaller details until your animal portrait looks the way you want it to look.

Illustration from the Portrait of a Black Horse Tutorial.

And this goes back to the line drawing, as I mentioned above.

Those are My Basic Tips for Drawing Animal Portraits

Of all kinds.

These five steps are actually good steps for any subject from still life to complex landscapes.


  1. Patricia Wilson

    Wow, this was so informative. I really liked the drawing with the references to where to shade, etc. Oh, and now I know what my cat does when I’m not home as he looks just like the one in your article!

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