painting fur and hair

Here's a way of painting hair or fur in watercolour, specifically lighter hair falling over darker hair (a few more demos, step-by-steps and videos can also be found on my website here). I get asked about this a lot, and this article originally appeared on my old blog where it was viewed so many hundreds of thousands of times that I thought I had better transfer it to my website when the blog came to an end so folk could still find it! One of these days I'll update it and do a much better example - this one was done very quickly it's a bit embarrassing, but hopefully it offers some ideas.

Watercolour is a fantastic medium and far more versatile than many believe; I use both transparent and opaque paints to create the effects I want in the same painting. It is the way I like to work but if you prefer not to use opaque colours I recommend trying the Masque Pen with a Superfine nib as it does make fine lines much easier.

After blocking in your base colour, let it dry. Then begin to add the darker hair strokes, working up into the lighter colour. You can soften the edges a little as you work with some clean water if you need to. Always work in the direction of the hair growth.

Continue with progressively darker mixes, leaving some of the earlier layers showing through each time as you gradually build up the depth, working up into the lighter area and beginning to add some strokes down into the edge of the darker colour.

I frequently turn the painting on the easel as I work on hairs which makes working in the direction of the hair easier. You can spend as long as you wish on this stage, varying your mixes as much as you like. For the sake of this quick demo that isn't really necessary though.

Adding a little white to make it opaque, mix up a colour to match your main lighter area (titanium white is more useful for this than chinese white as it is more opaque). Don't overdo the white - a little goes a long way! Add a few strands here and there covering the darker colour below. 

You can vary this opaque mix to suit yourself to add more depth, for example you may like to add more white to give progressively lighter hairs as you build up the layers. You can also add glazes over the top to push areas back, unify colours or blend in sharp edges in the wrong places. Experiment until you get an effect you like. (Let the underlying layer dry completely before glazing over the top and then work lightly - if you scrub at all you will reactivate the opaque paint below and it will run). You can continue building up the layers until you are happy with the result.

Points to remember are:

  • Don't over do it - restraint is the key (I got a bit carried away with this example as I was having a conversation at the same time and forgot what I was doing!)
  • Go easy with the white watercolour - if you use too much the result will be chalky.
  • Get the consistency right - too much water and it will be milky rather than opaque, too little and it will drag on the paper and not create clean fine lines.
  • Keep your brushstrokes as light and positive 'flicks' or the hair begins to look a bit laboured, spikey or contrived.
  • Think about the kind of hair or fur you are trying to recreate - short, clumpy, long, silky, etc, and tailor your brushwork accordingly.
  • Experiment!

some questions and answers

Could you tell my what watercolor brush you would suggest for painting fur? Im a beginner in watercolor and I am attempting a friends cat. Thank you.
I don't use any special brushes for fur or hair, just lots of layers. I use series 33 kolinsky sables from Rosemary and Co. Hope that helps and good luck.

Do you use not or hp paper ?
I use hot pressed paper all the time because it suits the way I paint and is perfect for detail. Best to try both and see which suits you.

I saw that you use rag board? I've never heard of that. Where do you purchase it? All he paper I've used always warps. It's frustrating! I was thinking maybe the rag board doesn't do that?? Thanks for your help (:
You would need to stretch your paper or use a 'block' pad to avoid the warping - or use the 'rag board', also called 'watercolour board' (which is just watercolour paper pre-mounted onto board).

What did you use to get such a bright effect for the lighter fur on top. With the watercolor paints i use the white is no-where near vibrant enough to leave a mark like that on top of a brown. It can only really be used for mixing to lighten colors. 
It may be the brand of paint you are using, I'm not sure. I used Winsor & Newton artists watercolours for this. Perhaps check also that you are using titanium white rather than chinese white. Apart from that, I think it just takes a lot of practice.

I hope that answers some recent questions and has been useful. Although it may look long winded, you are not actually painting each hair but creating an illusion and it doesn't take that long once you get into a rhythm. Some of us actually enjoy it :) I did this rather quickly during my tea break but if you spend a little more time it will pay off...whether you think it is worth it is up to you and the effect you are after!