Realistic Wildlife Portraits for Anyone





Introduction: Realistic Wildlife Portraits for Anyone

Hello everyone! At long last, here it is: my tiger drawing instructable! Today, you won't only be learning how to draw this picture, but how to choose great reference photos, draw accurate sketches, render realistic, layered fur, create reflective eyes, wet noses, and so much more!

First off, wildlife art doesn't have to be of what you usually see at a glance. When I draw, I like to get up close and personal with the subject, be it a tiger or a tabby, a bear or a bunny. This way you can give the image a feeling of closeness that you wouldn't normally get when viewing wildlife. This technique is one that successful wildlife artists Leslie Harrison and Roby Baer use.

Sorry about the mixture of photograph quality. Some days I was too worn out or too lazy to set up my good camera.

This piece actually isn't finished yet, hence the design of the intro picture. It is just a big (and I mean BIG) something that I've been working on in my spare time. It isn't a commission, but I do plan on entering it in a contest at the end of the year, and maybe afterwards I'll sell it; though I must admit that I've grown quite attached to this less than par hunk of pigment and paper :).


Also, I have no idea how many of you are dedicated enough to read everything said in here, so I just wanted to let everyone know before-hand that if you have any wildlife art to share, please do click the "I Made It" button and show it off in the comments. I just love seeing other people's artwork!

Step 1: What You Will Need

To follow this instructable exactly, you will need a variety of tools. Here is a list of them.


Bristol Paper cut to be 13" x 18" (it doesn't matter what brand, but I recommend Strathmore®, which is presumably of a much higher quality than the generic brand I used)

Sketching Paper (again, any brand will do)


An HB (or no.2) Pencil (for sketching)

A Lightbox (optional, but highly recommended)

A Derwent® Colored Pencil Blender (optional)

A Q-tip™ or Cotton Swab (optional)

A Correctional Pen or White Oil-based Marker (optional, but a huge art saver)

A Pencil Sharpener (I use Derwent's® battery-powered one with multiple sizes)

A Faber-Castell® Pitt Artist's Pen™ (size SX)

Paint Thinner (optional, but highly recommended)

Colored Pencils (by brand):

Roseart® (optional) (Abbreviation: RA):


Faber-Castell® Polychromos™ (Abbreviation: FCP):
Schwarz Black

Chrome Oxide Green

Light Yellow Ocher


Derwent® Drawing Pencils™ (Abbreviation: DD):

Ivory Black

Mars Violet

Mars Red

Derwent® Coloursoft™ (Abbreviation: DC):

Cloud Blue

SARGENTART® (Abbreviation: SA):

Olive Green

Light Violet

Prismacolor® Verithins™ (Abbreviation: PV):

Apple Green

Grass Green

Olive Green



Pumpkin Orange


Deco Pink

Crimson Red

Crayola® (optional) (Abbreviation: Cr):


An Opaque White Colored Pencil (I recommend Caran D'ache® or Derwent® brand)

If you don't have this variety, feel free to play around with what you have. Just know that each brand and variety looks and feels a little different. For example, Verithins are very hard; SARGENT ART makes moderately hard, yet smooth, pencils; and Derwent's creamy pencils are softer and more opaque than anything else I've found. Each one does a specific job. That is why most professionals work with many different brands of pencils.

In my opinion, The Faber-Castell Polychromos, Derwent's pencils (in general), and the Caran D'Ache Luminances are the best quality pencils in my collection. If you can, I recommend buying a few of each brand. I also recommend that you choose the colors yourself, unless the sets just happen to have everything you need. Needless to say, all of the pencils in my collection seem to work together relatively well and layer just fine, so feel free to try out as many other brands as you wish. Be careful, though. I've heard that some varieties of pencil aren't as accepting of other varieties.

Buying colored pencils can get a little pricey. If you don't want to start out with everything listed here, I recommend purchasing a large box of SARGENT ART colored pencils, which is what I started out with, and going from there. They are affordable (about $22 USD for a box of 120 pencils) and relatively versatile.

While I am not sponsored by them, I highly recommend buying art supplies from DickBlick. They have unbeatable prices on pretty much any art supply you can imagine, and their customer service is almost legendary among artists!

Step 2: Choosing a Reference Photo

One of the first steps to drawing something (for many artists) is finding a good reference photograph to work from. It is always best to work from your own photographs (to avoid copyrights and attributions and such), but if you just can't get the right shot, thank goodness for places like Flickr! Be sure to turn on the creative commons filter when you search to make sure you don't accidentally use a copyrighted image.

An ideal reference photo should:

A: Be one you are allowed to use (i.e. creative commons-ed)

B: Be clear and large enough to see details like fur

C: Portray something that catches your eyes in a good way.

You might be surprised at the number of images that match up to these standards.

This reference photo was taken by Tambako the Jaguar, who is on Flickr. He has a TON of incredible stock images of wildlife (from parrots to wolves to snow leopards), as well as many other things (including pets and landscapes), and I just love pretty much every single one of them (and the ones that I don't love I really, really like). If you're going to look for good quality references for a wildlife portrait or European landscapes, he's the one I recommend looking up first, but be careful, as a few of his images are copyrighted.

Step 3: Editing the Reference Photo

You found a great reference picture, but the background isn't right or your subject's mouth is open. What do you do? Get out Photoshop or GIMP or whatever other image editing tool you use and get to work! I am using GIMP.

To change the background, I give the image a transparency (layer>transparency>add alpha channel), then I loosely select the tigers. Invert the selection using the command Ctl + I . Feather the selection using Select>feather. Use whatever radius you find that works. Now you can either mask this or delete it. Make a new layer under the first layer and add your background of choice. I used a blurred out version of one of my own pictures of some woods.

For the mouth, I simply selected and deleted it, then selected and filled another (sort of blocky), closed one.

Step 4: Sketching and Transferring

Sketching is often one of the hardest things to do when drawing. Your sketch is the foundation of your drawing.
Think of it as the foundation of a house. If your foundation isn't well made, no matter how good what you build on top of it is, the whole thing is ruined.
The same with sketches and art. You could draw the most furry looking fur in the world, but unless you sketch well, your art will never truly be realistic.

The key to realism is a keen ear. Yes, I said ear. I don't mean ear as in what you hear with, I mean ear as in your ability to perceive things. Your attention little details. Try to be as observant as possible when studying your reference image. Note or even measure the distances between things. A ruler can be a wonderful help. Blurring out or pixelating your reference can help you to better see the shapes and tones.

If you don't yet trust your ear, don't be afraid to use a grid or even trace some. Some people say making grids or tracing is cheating or being lazy, but really, both of these techniques (and they are techniques) can greatly help you and your ear to better understand your subject.

I started out with the basic outlines of the tigers, then gradually added details like fur direction, stripes, and tone maps.

Remember to always draw your sketch on a piece of paper other than what you want to draw your finished piece on. This will prevent irreversible sketch mistakes on expensive paper.

To transfer the image to the Bristol paper, I used my nifty LED lightbox. I highly recommend purchasing a lightbox. You will be surprised at how much it helps with your art, and it can be used to trace photographs with, but if you can't get one, or just don't feel like spending that kind of money, you can purchase graphite paper and indenting tools for a similar, but more messy, effect.

Step 5: Drawing the Background

For this step, you will need:

Prismacolor Verithin (PV):

Apple Green
Olive Green
Grass Green

Derwent (D):
White (Coloursoft) (DC)

Olive Green

Roseart (RA):
Green (optional)

Faber-Castell Polychromos (FCP):
Chrome Oxide Green (optional)

Lay down a light coat of apple green (PV), then go over the darker areas with olive green and grass green (also PV).

Blend the colors together using a colored pencil blender.

I then use Olive green (SA), Black (PV), Olive Green (PV), and a blender (D) to further darken the shadows.

Repeat for the top portion of the background.

Touch up using a Green (RA) or a Chrome Oxide Green (FCP).

At this point, I recommend going over the background with a paint thinner or putting down another layer with the blender. If you use paint thinner, try to avoid breathing in the fumes. Make sure you give the thinner plenty of time to dry before adding anything else.

This is also completely optional, but you can add little white highlights with a soft white colored pencil. I used a Derwent Coloursoft White, but a Caran D'ache or similarly opaque pencil will work just as well.


When making a background, try to avoid making it too flashy or detailed. Use broad strokes, preferably circular in motion, to lay down the tones.

Step 6: Black Fur (short)

You Will Need:

Prismacolor Verithin (PV):

Light Cerulean Blue

Faber-Castell Polychromos (FCP):
Dark Indigo
Schwarz Black

Faber-Castell Pitt Pen(SX) (Optional)

A lot of people have problems with drawing fur in general, but black fur seems to be many artists' nightmares. Well I'll show you a little trick I picked up that will get you dark black, blacks with a lot of depth, yet none of the hustle of pushing your black pencil through the paper and still not getting true black.

To start, lightly block in the blacks with a nice medium shade of blue (wait what?! I thought we were drawing black fur!). Trust me on this one, it will turn black really soon.

Go over this with a darker shade of blue. I used Dark Indigo (FCP). This time, flick your wrist to make the stripes look furry (remember to go in the direction the fur flows and to keep the pencil nice and sharp). Starting to look pretty dark, huh? Now, get out your black colored pencil (I recommend using a relatively soft black pencil, such as a Caran D'Ache black; I used a Faber-Castell Polychromos Schwartz Black) and darken where needed. Try to make the strokes as short as possible to convey the appearance of short fur.

For even deeper blacks, go back over it with the dark blue colored pencil, then again with the black. You can even use a Faber-Castell artist's Pitt pen to deepen the darks. Just remember that the 'tooth' (texture and pigment capacity) of the paper can only hold so many layers of pencil/pen, so try not to overdo anything or push too hard. If you're seeing little white flecks where the paper is still showing through, going over the image with a paint thinner should fill them in, but be careful that you don't smudge the drawing, and try to avoid breathing in the fumes.

Please note that this is the technique for SHORT, black fur. The method of layering is a bit different with long fur.

Step 7: Orange Fur (short)

For the orange fur, I experimented quite a bit with colors and techniques. These are the two ways that I found to be the easiest to draw this kind of fur. Feel free to tweak it to your liking.

For the First Method, You Will Need:

Faber-Castell Polychromos (FCP):
Light Yellow Ochre
Dark Sepia

Derwent Coloursoft (DC):

To give you a clearer idea of how I did the fur on the mother tiger, I drew a random sketch and gave it some fur. I was kind of all over the place when working on the original piece.

Block in the orange with a light coat of Light Yellow Ochre (FCP). Go over this with Terracotta (FCP). Try to go in the direction of the fur flow.

Hint: For more vivid colors, try doing Terracotta first and overlaying it with Light Yellow Ochre.

Using what I like to call the 'spike method', outline clumps of fur with Dark Sepia (FCP). The spike method is actually kind of fun and very easy. Simply draw small, thin, curved "v"s going in the direction of the fur. Go over this with White (CDL or DC or DD) and Terracotta (FCP). Basically, just repeat the process, adding details with Dark Sepia, lightening with White, and toning with Terracotta.

Hint: Try using different shades of Orange, Yellow, and Brown to tone the fur in different areas. Don't do this randomly, though. Yellow (good for highlights) lightens and brightens, while brown (good for shadows) will likely dull and darken (results can vary with the shades used). Other colors I used to tone the tiger include: Light Yellow Ochre (FCP), Mars Violet (DD), Mars Red (DD), Taupe (Cr), and Pumpkin Orange (PV).

Method Two:

You Will Need:

Faber-Castell Polychromos (FCP):

Dark Sepia


Schwarz Black

Prismacolor Verithin (PV):


An Opaque White Colored Pencil

Use Dark Sepia (FCP) to start the fur. Go over this with White and Terracotta (FCP). Add more detail with Schwarz Black (FCP) and White, then overlay the fur with Orange. Repeat the process as many times as needed. I added more Black and White. This method is better for the cub to enhance her fluffiness.

Step 8: White Fur and Whiskers

Here are two different methods for drawing white fur, which can be even more challenging than black fur.

Method 1:

You will need:

A correctional pen or a white oil based marker

Faber-Castell Polychromos (FCP):

Dark Indigo

Schwarz Black

Add shadow detail using Dark Indigo (FCP) and Schwarz Black (FCP). Go over this with the correctional pen or marker. Make sure you test out the pen or marker on a piece of scrap paper before using in your artwork to get a feel for the flow and how much pressure you need. Repeat the process as often as needed.

Unfortunately, the pictures for this method seem to have disappeared off of the face of the earth. If I ever find them, I'll add them. Anyways, this way of drawing white fur is mostly for when you darken the shadows too much and cannot lighten them any other way. It is not recommended that you try this on your first piece.

Method 2:

You Will Need:

SARGENTART (any brand of hard colored pencil should do):

Light Violet

Faber-Castell Polychromos (FCP):

Chrome Oxide Green

Light Yellow Ochre

Schwarz Black

Derwent Coloursoft (DC):

Cloud Blue

And an Opaque White Pencil of any Brand (I recommend Derwent or Caran D'ache Luminance brand)

Add faint details with Light Violet (SA). Make your strokes short and try to place them where the shadows are more evident. Again, pay attention to the direction of the fur. This is so important and I cannot stress it enough! Add more detail using your Cloud Blue (DC) and Chrome Oxide Green (FCP). Go over this with White (DC, DD, or CL). Further tone the shadows with Light Yellow Ochre (FCP) and Schwarz Black (FCP). Go over it one more time with White and you're done!

I personally prefer the results of method two, simply because it is much smoother, softer and realistic. If you can, though, I still suggest trying out both methods, as the first one can actually build up the paper instead of pushing it in or accidentally tearing it from overuse.

For the whiskers, I used A Pentel® Presto™ Correctional Pen to draw them over the areas I'd already completed. Most of the whiskers still have yet to be added. I usually save them for last.

Step 9: Eyes and Nose (wet Textures)

For the eye, I drew a separate picture of a tiger eye to better show you the steps. It is just a quick drawing done without a reference, but the process is pretty much the same.

You will need:

Prismacolor Verithin (PV):
Light Cerulean
Apple Green

Faber-Castell Polychromos (FCP):
Light Yellow Ochre
Chrome Oxide Green
Dark Indigo
Schwarz Black

Faber-Castell Pitt Pen (SX)

Derwent Coloursoft (DC):

Start by blocking the blacks in with Light Cerulean (PV) and the greens with Light Yellow Ochre (FCP). Go over the darkest areas with Dark Indigo (FCP) and overlay the iris with Apple Green (PV). Add a light coat of Schwarz Black (FCP) to the blacks and add details to the iris with Chrome Oxide Green (FCP). Don't forget the vein! Deepen the blacks with the Pitt Pen and another layer of Schwarz Black. Add some details with White and the green of your choice and you are done!

For the Nose, You Will Need:

Prismacolor Verithin (PV):
Deco Pink
Crimson Red
Pumpkin Orange

Faber-Castell Polychromos (FCP):
Dark Indigo
Schwarz Black

Additional Pencils/Tools:
White (Derwent or Caran D'Ache)
Derwent Blender
Light Violet (any brand)
Taupe (any brand)
Indenting Tool

Block in the nose with Deco Pink (PV). Use an indenting tool to impress little dots into the upper portion of the nose. Draw in little circles with Pumpkin Orange (PV) to add faint detail to the nose near the nostril. Add more detail (same method) using Crimson Red (PV) and Taupe. Overlay another layer of Deco Pink and use Dark Inigo (FCP) and Schwarz Black (FCP) to fill in the nostril. Use Crimson Red and Terracotta (FCP) to add more detail to the nose. Put down another coat of Deco Pink and blend. You can add a little fur around the nose, too, starting with a coat of Light Violet (SA) and Schwarz Black details. The reason for the violet undercoat is that, in the reference, you can kind of see a little hint of purple around the cub's nose. Go over this with White, Orange (PV), and Taupe. Add details to the nostril with White.

Step 10: Getting and Using an Artistic License

An artistic license is your ability to make changes to your art that are not present in your reference(s). Examples include changing light direction and quality, fur color, eye color, or markings/patterns to make the image more visually interesting.

How I Used My Artistic License:

As you can probably tell, the color of the orange fur isn't as intense in the drawing as it is in the reference. I toned it down to make the image easier on the eyes and to give the drawing more of a sense of closeness.

The lighting has been dimmed and is much smoother and softer to make the tigers appear softer.

Some of the stripes are also a little different or off. Some of this was intentional, but some it was by accident from going over-board with the black.

Getting an artistic license takes time. I recommend sticking with the reference photos when you first start out and slowly make yourself become more independent as you go along. When you're ready to strike out on your own, start with changing something simple, like making the fur a different, but similar, color.

Step 11: When You Feel Like Giving Up...

...Draw more! All artists go though a point when they feel as though a drawing just simply can't be finished. Sometimes you might want to rip your art to shreds and start over... or maybe stop drawing all together! I can't tell you how often I've wanted to do that with this piece! There are certain steps that just, by nature, seem hopelessly horrible. This is especially true of fur and backgrounds. If and when you feel this way, I advise trying to work with it more. If all else fails (and even if it doesn't) taking a step back and asking yourself "what can I do to make this better?" can really help. Try looking at your art through a mirror, viewing it under a different kind of lighting, taking a picture and blurring it out, or even getting someone else to take a look at it to see if they can find a problem with it. Whatever you do, don't give up!

Step 12: That's It for Now!

Because this piece is so big, this is all that I've completed so far. When it is done, I'll update the image. Like I said, it's just a project I've been working on in my free time for a while now. I've been trying to divide my free time into this and illustrations for books. It should be finished before November, when I plan on entering this picture in an art contest.



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    Alright, I've got some bad news everyone... I won't be finishing this piece...

    I know that I said not to give up, but sometimes you don't really have a choice. All I can say is: don't buy Hobby Lobby's generic brand bristol paper if you plan to use it for colored pencil. I pushed its limits a bit too far and the paper began to tear. I kept trying to work over it, even reconstructing the paper with my whiteout, but it only got worse.

    When it comes to art supplies, you get what you pay for. Don't buy paper for the price. Buy it for the durability and good reviews. Same with everything else having to do with drawing.

    I don't consider this piece a failure. Learning from your own shortcomings can make you a better artist.

    As for the contest, I drew a cheetah (my favorite large cat, even though it's not technically a "big cat") headshot in colored pencil and entered that instead.

    I'm not getting rid of this instructable, even though it won't actually ever be finished, because I believe people can still benefit from it and from my mistakes.

    Love the drawing/images so far. Can't wait to see the finished drawing!

    This also reminds me of a professional's massive drawing of an Amur tiger I saw in the North Korean embassy (the one in London) when it was open for an art exhibition. And most great works of art took ages to finish...

    This looks beautiful, you are a great artist.

    Thanks, Edbed! Though I should probably push myself a little harder, seems how I've been working on this thing for about three months now and it's only halfway finished! I'd never make it as a full-time artist lol :).