8 Tips for Drawing Realistic Animals

by Wendi OBrien
Long and Short Hair Cat

Supplies Used

Strathmore Bristol Vellum Paper

Pencil Sharpener

Xacto Knife



103 Ivory, 104 Light Yellow Glaze, 172 Earth Green, 205 Cadmium Yellow Lemon, 251 Cold Grey II


001 White, 002 Silver Grey, 004 Steel Grey, 009 Black, 025 Green Ochre, 037 Brown Ochre, 039 Olive Brown, 046 Cassel Earth, 093 Violet Grey, 181 Light Malachite Green, 182 Cobalt Green, 242 Primrose, 504 Payne’s Grey 30%, 661 Light Cobalt Blue, 732 Olive Brown 10%, 736 Olive Brown 50%, 755 Grey Blue, 801 Buff Titanium, 802 French Grey 10%, 803 French Grey 30%, 808 French Grey, 821 Naples Ochre, 832 Brown Ochre 10%, 836 Brown Ochre 50%, 842 Raw Umber 10%, 846 Raw Umber 50%, 866 Burnt Sienna 50%, 872 Burnt Ochre 10%, 902 Sepia 10%, 906 Sepia 50%

8 Tips For Drawing Realistic Animals

Today, I want to give you my top tips for drawing animals.  

Animals are such a popular subject to draw and paint, I thought it would be a good idea to put together a list of tips on creating realistic animal portraits.

Tip 1

My first tip is where most of us start and that is with the reference photo.  It is so important to have a good, clear, in focus, well lighted, high quality reference photo when working in realism. 

Rendering realism is about what you see and not what you think you see or think you know.  In order to do that, you have to be able to see the details in your subject clearly.  Fur, feathers, eyes….anything that you are going to be rendering in detail should be clear and in focus.

You need to be able to zoom in without pixilation to see and render details and good lighting is essential for choosing the most accurate colors.

Tip 2

My 2nd tip is Planning.  This step is often overlooked or not given the time it deserves.  By planning, I mean thinking about what layout, materials and techniques you will be using throughout your piece.

What medium will you use to render your subject?   Are you creating a photo realistic piece or a more looser realism piece?  What paper will you be using?  Do you want paper texture to show or do you want a completely smooth final piece?  Would using toned paper be a better option than white?  Are you going to add a background? And the list goes on….There are so many things to consider before even thinking about putting pencil, pen or brush to paper.

A very well done piece can be a complete fail with a poor composition.  Making small adjustments or moving your subject around could make a difference between a stagnant piece or a dynamic piece.  This doesn’t have to be big adjustments…even something so small as a bit of a tilt in the subject will have a big impact so make sure to consider this and not just stick your subject in the middle of the paper all the time.

The techniques you will be using affects the overall outcome of the piece.  How are you going to be blending? Do you need additional tools or supplies?  Do you have all or enough of the supplies?  There is nothing more frustrating than being in the middle of your project and you run out of the color you need part way through.

If you decide to render a background, choose one that compliments the subject in color and composition.  Usually a blurry background is best so it doesn’t compete with and the focus remains on the subject.  Also, consider the color scheme

Tip 3

Tip number three could go into planning, but it is important enough to stand on its own and that is choosing your color palette.  It is so important to plan ahead so you don’t have to worry about figuring it out as you go.  Trying to mix colors on your final piece without experimenting on a scratch piece of paper first is a huge risk and could cost you hours of work you already completed. 

To where if you already had your colors chosen and notes as to the colors to mix for the correct tones, the hard part is done.  You can now start your piece with the confidence knowing exactly the colors you will be using and no question as to how to get that color.  And believe it or not it really does save time in the long run.

Tip 4

Next up is tip number 4.  Besides the high quality reference photo, this is probably one of the most if not the most important part of rendering realism.  Start with an accurate sketch.  I can not stress how important this step is in realism.  If your sketch is not spot on then it will throw your piece completely off. 

Do your sketching on a separate piece of paper and then transfer it to your final surface.  This will give you a clean line drawing to work from and many mediums don’t adhere well to areas that have been erased several times not to mention the possibility of damaging the paper.

There are many methods you can use to transfer your subject to your working surface, but whatever method you decide, don’t start rendering until you are sure you have an accurate sketch.

Tip 5

Now it is finally time to start to render which brings us to Tip number 5.  There is so much to think about when you render a subject…value, contrast, shading to list a few.  In realism it is important to get these right.  Remember you are creating a 3d object in a 2d space so you need to have this trifecta working together to get that appearance.

You need to have enough value and contrast in your piece to give it dimension and not appear flat.  Your shading needs to be in the correct areas and consistent with the light source.  If your light source on your subject is say to the left, but you have shading indicating it to the right or in front, it really confuses the viewer and throws your entire piece off so be consistent.

Tip 6

Tip number 6 is rendering the fur or feathers.  There is no need to draw every little strand of fur.  Instead, you should create fur in clumps.  Think of each clump as an abstract shape.  And don’t fret about it being completely exact, you just need it close.  Fur moves and changes, as long as you have the markings, shadows, contrast and values correct a slight movement in a clump will not be noticeable. 

Feathers grow in layers and as such it is important to convey that in your pieces. So make sure they have the layered appearance and not just sitting on top of the bird.

Tip 7

Tip 7… don’t forget the details.  Realism is all about those final details.  In many cases those details will take longer than the rest of the piece, but those details is what  delineates a piece from realism to semi realism not to mention having a finished appearance.  So many times artists stop too soon giving their piece that unfinished appearance.

Tip 8

Which brings us to the last and final tip….number 8 … take your time and take breaks often.  There is no need to rush the piece.  Take your time with it.  Quality is often times better when we start and the excitement is fresh and new.  Once we work on a piece for a bit our excitement fades and our quality suffers.

So take breaks often.  Go for a walk or do something else.  Even if it needs to be a day or so to get a break and come back with fresh eyes.  

Remember the excitement and look forward to the accomplishment that you will have completing such a detailed realistic piece.  

Enjoy the process and don’t worry so much about when its going to get done.  If you take on a project and have a deadline, leave enough time to factor in the breaks so you can produce the best work you can.

Do you have any tips for drawing animals?  Be sure to leave them in the comments below.

Until next time….Keep On Arting!


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