The Fundamentals of Fur

Wildlife has always been a favorite subject for many artists. But you won’t get much variety in your wildlife without learning to portray the countless fur-covered species in all their fuzziness, shagginess and hairiness. Here are some basic tips for understanding what makes fur appear convincing, and some techniques for drawing fur that will make your subjects look as if they’ve come straight from the wild.

Observation Counts
It may seem like the length, texture, size and color of the fur of different animals varies enormously, from the shaggy layers of the musk ox to the fine coat of a tiny mouse. But, in general, they’re quite similar in structure. When you’re starting out with drawing fur, it’s best to stick with some general rules that can be applied to most common species. The first rule—as in almost any drawing project—is careful observation.

Depending on your subject, such observation may lead you to the local zoo or wildlife preserve, or simply to your own backyard. The first thing to note is that the visual effect of an animal’s fur is affected by how close it lies to the animal’s skin. Think of the difference between the ultrasleek look of a wet animal, such as an otter, and the voluminous, matted look of the head and shoulders of the American buffalo. Try to gauge how thickly the animal’s fur lies and how closely it conforms to the construction of the animal’s body.

Follow up your observations by sketching your impressions of what different furs look like and by taking reference photos, if possible, carefully noting the basic forms and masses associated with your subjects. Make special note of the direction of the fur growth as well as the pattern of growth. Does most of the fur seem to take root at a few particular spots on the animal’s coat? Does it grow consistently from all over the skin, as hair grows on the top of the human forearm? How thick is the fur? Is it thick because of the individual strands or because the strands are matted together and appear coarse? Again, careful observation is essential.

Draw What You See
When you begin drawing an image, strive for a middle value as the basis for fur, then try to record the darker areas over this foundation. It’s important to apply your middle and dark tones with care since it’s always easier to make your strokes darker, but it’s often difficult to lighten or erase strokes that have been applied with too much pressure. I generally find a 2B or 3B pencil useful for this procedure in small areas, while for especially broad areas I use a 4B or 6B sketching pencil.

Remember that the strokes of the pencil should replicate the direction and pattern of the fur growth. If you’ve drawn human hair you’re probably familiar with this procedure, and the fundamental skills are the same. Particularly dark areas can be rendered either with broad strokes or multiple strokes, and you don’t have to draw every single strand to make the fur (or hair) look full. Selective shading beneath your lines can create the illusion of volume and add an important darker value.

If you need to make corrections or lighten areas you’ve made too dark, a kneaded eraser used in conjunction with an erasing shield (available in most art supply stores) lets you lift off or soften previous strokes, but it should be used carefully and sparingly. Also, if you’re working in black and white you can enhance the look of individual bits of fur, even in your darker areas, by selectively applying some quality white paint (such as Dr. Martin’s Bleed Proof White) with a fine brush. But remember to continue following the direction of fur growth.

Realistically rendering fur requires careful observation and patient application of your strokes. The more realistic you intend your drawing to be, the more care is required. There’s a great deal to learn by exploring the differences in the fur among a wide variety of creatures, but a strong foundation of skills and a keen eye for the similarities will help you master the differences. Good technique is an essential part of a strong drawing that clearly identifies your subject. It takes study, practice and an understanding of nature, but it can make your drawings nearly leap off the page.

Catherine Anderson teaches workshops all around the world. Please visit her Web site for a schedule of her workshops at

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