How to Paint Fur Patterns – Again

One of my first posts on this blog was a look at how to paint animal fur patterns. This is helpful to know not only for painting animal figures, but also for painting clothing or scenic elements made from fur. I recently finished painting another personified tabby cat figure, and I took some in progress pictures to talk a little more about the process I used for painting the fur.

Korben front view

Korben back view

The warrior cat above is an anthropomorphic imagining of one of my own cats, Korben. It is one of a line of terrific anthropomorphic animal figures from Dark Sword Miniatures. Korben is a large and beefy cat and a deadly hunter, so he was envisioned as a burly, but mischievous, fighter character. Once the concept artist and sculptor finished their fantastic work, it became my job to bring my orange tabby goofball to life. One important part of that was to study photos of the real Korben to determine good colours to use, where there were variations in his fur colour, and where to place the stripes.

Korben looking innocent. He's not.

One thing that’s apparent from these photographs is that the lighting conditions can have a significant appearance on the colour of objects. The fur appears more red/auburn in the first picture than the one below. I aimed for something in between the two in the painted version of Korben.

Korben profile2

I tend to start by painting the lighter colour(s) on an animal with patterning. It’s usually easier to paint a darker colour over a lighter colour than vice versa. Let’s study the lighter areas of the fur on my reference cat. One important element to note is that the lighter areas of fur are not uniform in colour. The variations are affected by several factors:

Natural Variation
The fur is a lighter colour in some areas than others. Most notably, the lower jaw, the tip of the tail, and narrow stripes under the eyes. The fur is almost white in places. It is very common for animals to have lighter coloured fur on their bellies than they do on their sides and backs.

Skin Showing Through
The number of fur strands is much less dense in the areas in front of the ears and above the eyes. More white skin shows through, which makes the fur appear lighter in colour here.

Light and Shadow
The way that light falls on the animal creates shadows depending on the shape of its body and limbs. Areas of fur will appear lighter where they are facing towards the light, and darker where the forms of the animal curve away from the light and create shadows. On the full body picture of Korben, you can see a dark ridge of shadow on the lower side of his flank above the tail, and quite a dark shadow under his jaw. 

His chest fur appears darker where it curves down towards his belly. This can create one of the challenges of painting animals. As mentioned above, fur is often lighter coloured on the underside of an animal. But in most poses this is also an area that is facing away from the light and thus shadowed. Where this occurs you need to paint the fur the shadow colour of your lighter belly fur colour. You might have belly fur that would appear pure white if it were viewed in good lighting, but you will need to paint it more of a tan or grey because it should appear as if it’s in shadow.

It can be difficult to depict both the natural variation of fur AND the play of light and shadow over the fur simultaneously in a way that makes sense on a small miniature figure. Sometimes you need to make choices about which aspect is most important to your vision for that figure.

In the case of Korben the miniature, my thinking was along the following lines. The lighter areas of fur on his face are part of what makes Korben look like Korben, so they are important to include to capture the likeness, even if I have to sacrifice creating the three dimensional form a little. Luckily those areas are mostly in the light, apart from the lower jaw. The colour shift of his tail from light to near white is interesting and also a distinctive feature of his appearance, so I wanted to capture that, but still add some shading throughout the tail to make it look round.

On the arms, the emphasis of the sculpt is on Korben’s muscular strength. (He is a mighty hunter!) In terms of capturing the vision for the figure, accuracy of the fur patterning or even whether the stripes are very visually apparent is less important than bringing out the rounded curves of the muscles so those are very visible to the viewer.

For the purposes of painting a more effective miniature, I increased the level of contrast between his light and dark colours of fur. Miniatures are small (even though this one is super sized compared to the other anthropomorphic cats in the Dark Sword line!), and a lot more of the body area is covered than in an unclothed cat. So it seemed like a good idea to exaggerate the contrast a little to ensure that the tabby patterning would be easy for the viewer to see in the display case at a busy convention, since that will be the function of this miniature.

I did a quick test of some colour options on another figure. Doing tests like these might seem like wasted time. But it is more efficient to spend a few minutes working out my colour choices on a test figure than to it would be to try something, discover it doesn’t work, and then have to spend a lot more time repainting the main figure. If I were not already practiced at painting stripes from painting anthropomorphic Archer and Ella, I might also have spent a little time practicing the techniques I planned to use to make the stripes look less painted on. The one downside of this test is that now I’m trying to resist the urge to paint this as a Pippi Longstocking wolf…

Korb wolf test photoI love the Bones figures from Reaper for quick tests like this. No prep or primer needed, just grab the fig and start testing. 

The following is a picture of what the Korben figure looked like after I finished painting the areas of light coloured fur, including the shading and highlighting as well as the areas that appear lighter due to other factors. Normally I would have finished painting all of the fur areas before painting his gear and weapons. In this instance I circled back to the fur later when I had time to take photos for this article.

Korben light fur before patterning

Now it was time for the stripes. How did I approach painting those, and how did I make them look more like natural fur stripes rather than painted on? I discussed some of this in the previous fur post, but it’s worth talking about again with some additional examples.

Manmade pattern examplesExamples of painting insignia and other manmade patterns.

If you think of the symbols on traffic signs, or many clothing designs, or other examples of patterns of that type, the edges of the elements are crisp and well-defined. (There are a few softer spots on the punk rocker’s t-shirt above, but I was trying to create the impression that it was stained and worn.) These symbols and designs are painted with hard edges in traditional drawing terminology. In your mind you might think of the stripes of a tiger or spots of a leopard as being pretty similar, since the patterns are well-defined, but if you take a closer look, you’ll see that is not the case.

Tiger and Leopard larger viewTiger photo by William Low. Leopard photo by Uriel Soberanes. Both courtesy of Unsplash.

In the photographs of a lion and a leopard above, you can see that their stripe and spot markings are very clearly defined. But even at this distant size/scale, the edges do not have the same kind of sharp definition as you would see on most printed or painted designs like signs and logos. Let’s take an even closer look at these animal markings.

Tiger and leopard markings close upTiger photo by William Low. Leopard photo by Uriel Soberanes. Both courtesy of Unsplash.

In a close up, it’s easy to see that the edges of the markings are not really sharply defined. There are light hairs that poke into the areas of dark fur, and dark hairs that push into the light fur sections. The overall shape of the stripe or spot is well established, but the edges of them are more diffuse. In traditional art terminology this is a firm rather than a sharp edge. That’s the end result we want in a miniature, but how do we get there?

I think sometimes we can make our lives as painters more difficult by trying to accomplish the end result immediately in as few steps as possible. A lot of effects and techniques actually benefit from breaking things up into steps, and that is what I did with the fur pattern here. 

My first step was to start laying in the darker stripes. My goal here was to focus on the placement of the stripes. I studied photos of his face very closely to determine where to place the stripes, and the same with his tail. I got a little more creative with placement on the arms since the anatomical structure of the limbs between the actual cat and the anthropomorphic cat is fairly different. When I say my focus was on placement I mean that my aim was to paint a stripe of roughly the correct width and length in the correct location. I didn’t worry if I had excessively sharp edges or even if the paint was streaky, I didn’t worry about highlights and shadows. Step one was just looking at my reference and placing stripes as accurately as I could. Mostly I used one colour of paint for this stage, but there were a few shadow areas where I used a slightly darker mix to make sure I could see where I put the stripes.

Korben stripes layin frontInitial lay-in of the stripes.

Korb back wip2 700h

You can see from the above photos that my stripes are a little rough. Some have edges that are way too defined. Some are wobbly. Some don’t have full coverage of colour. My next step was to correct any placement issues, clean up the wobbly lines, and make sure that the centres of the stripes have a solid coat of colour. I also added some shading and highlighting to the stripes, and made them a little darker in the centres. 

The next step in my process was to work on softening and diffusing the edges of the stripes so they looked more like natural fur and less like something I painted on. I mixed a colour in between the light fur colour and the darker stripe colour. Using a small brush with a very fine point, I painted tiny lines and dots along the edge transition to blur it. In essence, I’m making strokes to create the light bits of fur on the close-up photo of the tiger stripes above. There were times when I overdid it and needed to tidy a little with either the darker stripe colour or lighter background fur colour, so I kept both those paint colours to hand on my palette.

Striped tail painting process

The above photos demonstrate the three stages of the process I used to paint the stripes. The top photo is what the tail looked like after the initial stripe lay-in. In the middle of the tail on the bottom, you can see where I painted in some extra coats of paint on the stripes to build up the colour coverage. I have started the process of diffusing the harsh edges of the stripes on both ends of the tail in the bottom photo so you can see what that looks like in areas of higher and lower contrast between stripes and background colour. 

Korben face stripes work in progress

The photos above give you an idea of how the process worked on the smaller stripes on the face. The picture of the face on the left is the initial lay-in of the stripes. In the picture on the right, I have corrected the placement of the stripes on top of the head. I also realized that I had made the area of lightness above his eyes too large and dramatic, and I toned that down a bit, as well as painting the ears to better match my reference photos. The picture on the right was taken mid-way through the process – I still had a bit of work to do on softening the stripes on the cheeks and chin. 

This is just one method for painting fur patterns! If you’re not painting a larger figure or one intended for display, you might be more interested in one of the other methods I described in my original post about painting fur patterns.

Thank You Dark Sword Miniatures!

I would like to say thank you very much to Dark Sword Miniatures for adding our third furry goofball to the anthropomorphic critters line up! Now he definitely feels like he’s a part of the family. We only planned to have two cats, but when we realized that the friendly orange cat that had been hanging around the neighbourhood was a stray, how could we resist? Little did we know what we were getting ourselves into!

Archer bl front 500Our tyrannical overlord, Archer, depicted as a grumpy warlock. He’s a lot skinner now that he’s quite an old man cat. We think he’s working on becoming a lich.

Ella front 450Our second cat, sweet Elasund or Ella, depicted as a rogue. She could also have made a good cleric, she’s the only creature in the house with a high Wisdom score. (But very low Int.)

Korben family 1000The whole furry family. You can see that Dark Sword went the extra mile to capture the true scale of Korben the Warrior.

Korben v archer1Real life size comparison of Korben and Archer.

Figures Featured in this Post

Korben the Fighter is available from Dark Sword Miniatures

The test warg is available in Bones plastic, or in metal

Inspector #3 from Heresy Miniatures

Inspector #2 from Heresy Miniatures

Sid the Rock Star from Reaper Miniatures

2 thoughts on “How to Paint Fur Patterns – Again”

  1. What an excellent insight, thanks for posting, I can’t wait to try some of this out for myself.
    I’ve recently painted a Tiger and thought I’d done a pretty good job – Now I feel rather inadequate, lol!

    Like

    1. I imagine it’s just a case of a few things you didn’t think about! I hope you find it helpful for next time you paint an animal, or if you want to go back and revise your tiger a little!

      Liked by 1 person

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