How to Paint a Deer Like an Artist

In this blog I will share my top tips for painting a deer in acrylic or oils paints. I have many deer paintings in my portfolio so far and they always make very interesting subjects. I think there’s a very mystical quality to them which makes them very popular for artists and collectors alike!

Species of deer that I have painted so far have been Red deer and Fallow Deer, so these are the ones that I will focus on in this blog. However, I hope many of these ideas will be of use when painting any deer species.

Red and Fallow deer are common species in the UK and are fairly easy to photograph for references – if you know the right places to visit!

Dunham Massey is a National Trust park close to where I live, and it always makes a great place to visit whenever I am in need of fallow deer reference material. I am also lucky to have roe deer living practically on my doorstep which I must paint one day!

Of course, there are also alternative places to find references if you are unable to take your own. We have a full blog on finding and choosing references here if you need any help with your search.

How to Paint a Deer in Acrylics or Oils:

  1. Draw the outline
  2. Block in the basic colours of the body and antlers
  3. Add shadows and highlights
  4. Begin to add fur
  5. Refine the antlers
  6. Add the facial detail
  7. Adjust the colours if needed by glazing
  8. Add the finishing fur details/highlights

To break things down a little I will split this blog into five main sections:

  • Basic Deer Anatomy
  • Choosing your colours
  • Painting deer fur
  • Painting the Head
  • Painting the Antlers

Deer Anatomy

Red Deer

Image by Blackmask from Pixabay

Red deer are a large and muscular species- making them the largest native mammal in the UK. They have a short tail and a patch of lighter fur centred around their rump. Their summer coat is a distinctive deep red colour that gradually appears browner towards winter. Unlike Fallow deer, they have no spotted markings in adulthood.

What distinguish red deer are the stag’s impressive, highly-branched antlers, which develop further as they mature.

There are particular terms for stags which refer to the number of points (or tines) on his antlers:

Royal Stag-  12 tines

Imperial Stag – 14 tines

Monarch – 16 tines.

Fallow Deer

Image by hashan from Pixabay

In comparison to red deer, fallow deer are generally smaller in both size and stature.

Fallow deer have four main colour varieties:

  • Common – tan with white spotted markings on their flanks, with a white patch on their rump.
  • Menil – A paler version of the common variety.
  • White – white to light tan, becoming gradually lighter with age.
  • Melanistic – They are much darker, they can be entirely black or dark brown.

The shape of fallow deer antlers is also much different to the red deer. They have ‘palmate’ antlers, which mean that their shape is similar to that of a hand with fingers. They form a much broader and flatter shape with more curved points, as opposed to the red deer’s branched shape.

Choosing your Colour Palette

Here are some of the most common colours that I use when painting red and fallow deer in acrylics:

-Burnt Umber

– Raw Umber

– Burnt Sienna

– Titanitum White

– Carbon Black

– Buff Titanium

The basic colours that I use for both species are very similar, it is how they are mixed that varies. For instance, I would add more Buff Titanium and Titanium to the mix when painting the base coat for a lighter-coloured fallow deer as I would when painting a red deer.

 When mixing the base coat for a red deer, I would use a much greater amount of burnt umber and raw umber to bring out the darker, rich tones to the fur.

When painting the lighter markings on a fallow deer, if you are aiming for a realistic effect try to avoid painting them a bright white. Toning down the white with a small amount of buff titanium will give the markings a much more natural appearance.  The same goes for the lighter areas of fur underneath the neck and stomach.

Painting the Fur

Generally speaking, deer fur is coarse and of a relatively short length. The fur around a mature stag’s neck can appear a little longer and more dense in comparison to the rest of the body.

I would begin painting the fur the same way that I would do with any wildlife subject, by blocking in all of the basic tones of the animal to build a sense of form. I do this by picking out the darkest areas of colour that I can see within that particular area. I don’t worry about blending or texture at this point, this stage is just about building a base that the lighter fur can be built on top of.

‘Call of the Wild’ by Amber Tyldesley

For short fur like this I usually take an angle brush and start building short, overlapping hairs following the direction of the fur. There will be natural colour shifts within the hair itself, in addition to colour variation due to light and shade, so if aiming for a realistic result make sure to pay close attention to these subtle colour changes within the fur.

Painting the Head

When drawing or painting the shape of a deer’s head in your art, you might want to keep a number of basic anatomical points in mind. Generally speaking, deer have broad skulls with widely spaced eyes, tapering to a short, petite muzzle.

Being a prey animal, their eyes are positioned slightly forwards of the side of their heads, giving them excellent peripheral vision to identify predators.  Their large ears also make another distinguishing feature!

Image by Insa Osterhagen from Pixabay

Aside from the basic structure of the head, when painting a deer it is important to pick out the various lighter points and subtle shifts in colour that can be found within the fur.

For example, within the ears, around the eyes and around the muzzle, the fur tends to be lighter. I often mix a little titanium white and buff titanium into my colour scheme when painting these areas.

Also, the hair around the eyes and muzzle is shorter than that found on the rest of the head, so I use a smaller round or angle brush on these areas when painting the individual hair detail. 

Painting the Antlers

Antlers are made from true bone and extend from the top of the deer’s skull. Deer usually shed their antlers annually in late winter, after which new antlers begin to grow. Antlers are unique to the male deer only, with the exception of reindeer.

How you approach painting the antlers will depend on the individual subject you are painting. If a deer’s antlers are covered in ‘velvet’ – the pre-calcified growth stage of the antler- this will greatly affect the texture you are aiming to achieve in your artwork.

To check if your subject has velvet antlers, have a look to see if the antler points or ‘tines’ appear rounded and covered in tiny hairs. If so, the deer’s antlers are still developing and have the velvet membrane deliver nutrients and to aid their growth.

Image by eunice vera from Pixabay

When painting these types of antlers on a close-up subject, I would suggest using a slightly frayed round brush and lightly dabbing your paint to acheive a sense of texture. Before adding the texture however, make sure to have a blended base coat underneath. This means you can just dab on a lighter layer of texture over the top rather than trying to acheive this textured effect in a single step.

If your subject is quite small or is positioned at quite a distance in your painting, painting this texture may not be necessary.

When painting a mature deer’s antlers, the process will be a little different. I would still begin by painting a blended base coat to build up the basic colours of the antlers, paying attention to the various gradients of colour. For instance the tines are usually slightly paler than the rest of the antlers.

When painting the texture of mature antlers, my process is fairly similar to how I would approach painting wood. There is a grain and direction to them that I would aim to include if painting a large scale or close-up portrait.

Image by 5598375 from Pixabay

To do this, I would mix a colour a shade darker than the rest of the antlers and make some light brush strokes using a round brush following the direction that I could see in my reference. I would then incorporate a lighter shade to add some final highlights and build a more three dimensional shape to the anters.

Close up of ‘The Hollow Crown’ by Amber Tyldesley

Thank you for reading and I hope you find this useful for your next deer painting. If you have any questions please leave a comment below and we will get back to you!

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