Essential Tips for Painting a Black Animal

One of the most common conversations I have with other artists is how tricky it can be to render the fur of black animals. I think this difficultly stems from the need to strike the right balance of colour and contrast within the subject.

If there are too little reflected colours the animal can appear dull, but if the colours are too saturated you risk losing the realism and the sense of the animal actually being black! 

I find myself painting black animals quite often- particularly panthers – and find them to be a really enjoyable subject. I’ve just got to keep the following points in mind:

The Basic Rules:

To paint a black animal it helps to keep in mind the following ‘rules’- especially if you are trying to paint realistically.

  • Choose a well lit reference photo.
  • Ensure the tones of the underpainting are accurate before trying to capture the colours.
  • In the wildlife world, there is no such thing as pure black!
  • Keep in mind the texture of your subject, this will affect how much light (and therefore colours) are reflected.

Choosing the Right Reference Photo

Picking a good reference photo is half the battle when it comes to painting a black animal. It helps to choose one with plenty of light to help distinguish the form of the animal and to create interest.

Badly lit photographs will ultimately lead to flat looking artwork if used as an exact reference.  If taken in poor lighting and/or with a low quality camera, it is quite likely that a black animal’s form will, more than any other colour, be completely indistinguishable.

On the flip side, it is possible to have a photo that is too bright and saturated, often making the subject appear bluer than it is in real life.

If you would like to read about this in a bit more detail, we have written a comprehensive guide for choosing the perfect reference photo.


As an example, here is a photograph of my Labrador, Lottie! If I was working from the original, unedited photo on the left, this would most likely result in a painting that lacks contrast and is a little too blue in comparison to how she appears in person.

To compensate for this, I have increased the shadows and de-saturated the image slightly in the version on the right, which is aiming for realism would make a much more accurate reference photo.

The Underpainting

When painting any subject, I always initially create a block in to establish the tones in the animal. At this stage, it will be of no detriment to keep the painting monochrome, as the colours can be established in the next layers.

Ensuring that you have build the correct tones from the offset is crucial to creating an accurate sense of anatomical structure, so before moving onto colour ensure that you are happy that everything is positioned in the right place.

Creating Rich and Realistic Black Tones

One of the most common pitfalls an artist can make when painting a black animal is using too much black paint straight from the tube.

A photograph can deceive you into thinking that areas of the subject are pure black, but mixing other colours into the paint will make even the darkest shadows appear richer and deeper.

The reflected colours within the black fur will depend on the animal’s surroundings, in addition to the weather and the time of day. I have found that the most commonly reflected colours are:

  • Purple
  •  Blue
  •  Green
  •  Yellow

To help when it comes to choosing the right colours of paint for your own work, I will go through a few example reference images and share my approach to colour selection:

Example One:

Photo credit: katerinavulcova @ Pixabay

This photo perfectly illustrates the variety of colours that can be found within a black jaguar. This is one of the reasons why I love to paint them!

 The brown fur between the spots could be achieved with Burnt Umber, and a hint of White/Yellow Ochre mix for the flecked highlights on the cheeks and ears.

For the highlights, particularly around the right-hand side of the face and the nose, it would help to add a little Ultramarine blue to the grey to add vibrancy to these areas.

When you look closely at even in the darkest regions, there is a slight blue hint to the shadowed areas. If I were painting this image, I would mix some Prussian blue and Ultramarine blue into the black paint to deepen the shadows and to create harmony with the highlights.

TOP TIP: Have a black and white copy of your reference next to your colour one. Having them side by side will make identifying the subtle colours reflected in the fur easier.

Photo credit: katerinavulcova @ Pixabay
Photo credit: katerinavulcova @ Pixabay

Example Two:

Photo credit: Alexas_Fotos @ Pixabay
Photo credit: Alexas_Fotos @ Pixabay

Here we can see how the time of day can make such a huge difference to the colours reflected in a black animal.

The warm evening sunlight is casting a golden glow to a large proportion of this raven. When we compare this to the black and white version, we can pick out the brown mid-tones and the yellow highlights very clearly.

For these areas I would use mostly a combination of Burnt Umber , Yellow Ochre and Primary Yellow, mixing with Titanium White and Black until I’m happy that I have an accurate match for the tone and saturation.

You can also pick out a faint bluish cast to the top of the head, so a hint of Ultramarine Blue when mixing your grey in this area should be just enough. 

Example Three:

Photo credit: rcannon992 @ Pixabay

In this photo, we can see that the greenery surrounding the macaque is reflected in the fur.

This is giving an almost turquoise cast to the highlights and midtones particularly.

When mixing the basic colour for these areas, I would add some Cerulean Blue and Sap Green to saturate my grey tones slightly.

Even if you do not wish to include the landscape within your paintings, paying attention to how the colours of the environment affect the hues within your subject is a great way to add realism to your work. 


There are two main influences to keep in mind when painting black animals, and they are the strength of light and the texture of your subject.

Of course, the brighter the light is on your subject the lighter the highlights there will be. On a dull day, the mid-tones and shadows will be more prominent.

When it comes to texture, the smoother the fur or feathers, the more colours will be reflected by the light. When you compare the below photos of the panda and the panther, you can see that the denser and fluffier hair of the panda is absorbing much more light than the sleek fur of the panther.

For this reason, I would use far less additional colours such as blue and green when capturing the highlights and mid-tones of panda fur.

Photo credit: katerinavulcova @ Pixabay
Photo credit: skeeze @ Pixabay

Final Thoughts

When you have nearly completed your painting, if you find that that you are not quite happy with the colours or contrast in your work it is possible to tweak this using glazes.

I just add water to my acrylics, and use a soft brush to create a very thin wash over the areas that need adjusting.

Sometimes this is all that is needed to help balance and refine your painting, meaning there is no need to go back and paint a particular area again from scratch.

Once you have completed your painting, a satin or gloss varnish will really help to saturate and deepen the colours, pushing the contrasting tones even further.

A matt varnish is likely to make the black tones in particular look a little flat, so I would avoid this type of varnish for a dark subject.

I hope this helps when you next come to paint a black animal. Make sure to share your paintings with us by tagging our Instagram page @StudioWildlife_art and let us know if you found this helpful!