Top 10 Tips for Painting Black Fur

Tips on how to paint an animal with black fur.

Painted Zebras
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The fur of one of my cats is so black my digital camera often refuses to focus -- it simple doesn't see enough detail in his black fur. Or his black fur just comes out as a black hole with a pair of eyes staring at you! The same applies to painting him, at first glance there just doesn't seem to be enough detail to capture. So how do you overcome the problems of painting black fur? Here are some tips.

Plan Your Tonal Values

Paint a tonal scale with five or seven tones (values), from light to dark, with the blacks/greys you're going to use in the painting. Then be quite formulaic or systematic in using the middle tones for most of the animal, the lights for the highlights, and darks for the shadows. If you can't decide what tone an area should be, place your scale next to it to judge. (With practise, you'll be to judge instinctively.)

Mix Your Own Black

Instead of using a tube of black paint, mix your own black from burnt umber and ultramarine blue. Where the fur is warm, increase the proportion of burnt umber. And where the fur is cool, increase the ultramarine blue.

Check the Colours

The fur of a black cat whose spent a lot of time lying in the sun is often quite brown where it's been 'faded' by the sun e.g. on their back and head. Highlights can be charcoal grey to purple-blue to brown. Are there any underlying tabby markings (stripes) showing in the fur? Are there any colours reflected in the highlighted sheen of the black fur from the background or foreground e.g. green from grass or colour from a blanket the animal is lying on?

Create Highlights

Try an pose a cat or dog with black fur in bright light so you get strong highlights that help give definition or shape e.g. on a shoulder, ear, rump.

Leave Some Areas Undefined

Don't be afraid to have areas that are undefined, your eye will take in the elements that are in the painting and "fill in" what's missing. For example, putting claws at the end of a elongated black shape will push your eye to reading it as a leg. Or if one side of a cat's face is defined and the other melds or disappears into a dark background, your eye will add in what's missing, it won't interpret the painting as a half a face.

Follow the Direction of the Fur Growth 

An animal's fur grows in very specific directions on different parts of the body. Following these growth patterns is essential. Mark the direction of fur growth on a photo to guide and remind you (see this Cat Fur Map as an example). Note where the fur breaks open (spreads) or clumps together (e.g. over a shoulder) where are likely to be dark shadows between the clumps of hair.

Don't Paint Every Single Hair

If you painted every single hair individually, you could be working at a single painting for months. Fine if you've the time (and patience), but few of us do. Instead, use a flat brush, fanning out the bristles and flicking it across the surface in the direction the fur grows. Use a narrower brush for smaller areas.

Paint in Single Strokes

Each hair is continuous, it's not a series of segments, so paint in single strokes, short for short hairs and longer for long hairs. Don't "add on" a bit if a bit of fur is too short. Paint over it instead.

The intention of these tips on painting black fur is not to provide a quick-fix or formula to painting black fur; there is no such thing. But rather to provide some ideas to try and to refuel your motivation to pursue the challenge.

Don't Despair 

Don't kid yourself, painting black fur is tricky -- it's much easier to paint a tabby with wonderful stripes in browns and whites. So don't despair, doubt your ability, and give up. It's something that takes perseverance and persistence. Take a look at how "the experts" have dealt with black fur, ideally by seeing actual paintings but realistically through books such as Painting Wildlife with John Seerey-Lester which includes panthers and gorillas. (Just remember that the paintings are reproduced much smaller than their actual size, which tightens up the detail considerably.)

Try Glazes

If you're simply not getting the results you want, try building up the fur in a series of glazes using the theory that regardless of which colour you start with, by applying 10 others on top you'll end with a rich dark (it's colour mixing on the canvas, rather than colour mixing on a palette). Start by putting down a few broad, very fluid (watery) glazes following the form of the animal and direction of fur growth -- make sure each is dry before you apply the next. Then start glazing with a thinner brush, working more precisely and with less fluid paint. Each glaze will darken what's already there. Finish by applying one uniform glaze over the whole painting, then adding in a few final lines of fur in the deepest shadow areas with paint straight from the tube.