The Ultimate Colour Guide for Painting Tigers

One of my absolute favourite animals to paint is a tiger; I’ve made so many tiger pieces that I’ve lost count.

When I first started out painting wildlife, tigers were my go to animal and I have learned (mostly through much trial and error) some simple ways to improve your tiger paintings.

One of the biggest challenges I come up against in the majority of my work is choosing which colours to use in order to create a realistic piece of art. Here are the top five essential colours that can always be found on my palette when painting tigers:

Colours to use for Painting Tigers

Acrylic Tiger by Daniel Wilson
  1. Burnt Umber
  2. Burnt Sienna
  3. Yellow Ochre
  4. Black
  5. White

These colours are a must have when painting tigers in either acrylics or oils. I am going to share with you some simple tips on how and where I use these colours to try and help you improve your tiger paintings.

What Colour are Tigers?

Let’s start off with the basic colours found within the most recognisable tiger.

We all recognise tigers as the big cats with orange fur and black stripes running down their bodies.

The fur colour of these cats actually depends on the individual, and the shades of orange found within the fur can vary from dark orange to golden yellow, so bare this in mind when selecting colours for your painting.

Tigers also hove lots of white fur around their face, ears, legs and underbelly, so don’t forget this when picking up your paints.

The species that comes closest to the most conventional orange and black tiger is the Bengal tiger. The Siberian (or Amur) tiger is a slightly darker orange. There are also the Sumatran tigers which appear much darker and more brown in comparison to the other two. 

This is guide will cover the colours to use for any of these three sub species, but your approach to colour mixing will have to vary depending on which one you choose.

The reason for the tiger’s bold black stripes is ultimately to help them hunt. Although they may look quite distinctive and easy for us to see, when we see these amazing animals in photographs or at the zoo, in their natural habitat their fur camouflages them so well they are almost impossible to spot.

This camouflage enables the tiger to hide in long grasses and the shade of the trees. The black stripes act to break up the form of the tiger, allowing it to sneak up on its prey.

Black with orange stripes or Orange with black Stripes?

Unlike most striped animals, a tiger’s skin is also striped underneath all of that fur and they are in fact orange with black stripes. Every individual tiger has its own pattern of stripes, and it is these patterns that allow us to recognise each tiger.

A tiger is born with a full set of stripes, baby tigers appear to have thicker black stripes but as they mature and grow the stripes spread around their bodies and the gaps between each stripe get wider. So the further apart the stripes the older the tiger.

The basic colours to use:

‘Inseparable’ by Amber Tyldesley
Shortlisted DSWF ‘Wildlife Artist of the Year’ 2016

So which colours should always be on your palette? It is always better to have lots of variation when you are painting tigers; if you look closely they are not just one block shade of orange there are many different shades and tones showing through the fur. Here are the top colours that I use when painting tigers and where I use them within the painting.

Brown

Starting off with the browns I always have Burnt Umber and Burnt Sienna on my palette the umber is great for a base coat giving a very rich brown that can be worked on top of.

The sienna is an orangey brown and I use this when building up the initial layers of fur. Mixing this with little bits of some different colours such as red and yellow can really add the variation that you are looking for when trying to paint realistic fur.

Personally I always use a third brown called Raw umber when I am painting this is slightly darker than the burnt umber, less saturated (more grey) and has a slight hint of green that I find perfect for glazing in the shadowy areas of the tiger.

Yellow

I will always have Yellow ochre and Naples yellow to hand when painting tigers, yellow ochre is an earthy yellow that when mixed in with a little bit of burnt sienna creates a brilliant orange perfect for the more detailed regions of fur.

The Naples yellow is a much brighter yellow that I save for only the very brightest highlights of the fur in the regions being lit by a warm sunlight.

White

When you look at a tiger closely you can see that a lot of its fur is actually white. I never use pure white straight from the tube I always mix my white with varying colours, giving those subtle variations that reflect real life.

The white can be used for regions on the face, the fur under the belly and the distinctive white spots that can be found on the ears of all tigers. These spots are believed to be false ‘eyes’ that fool other animals.

They are supposed to deter other predators from attacking the tiger from behind. It has also been theorised that tiger’s use their ears during aggressive display, rotating their ears so the spots face forward potentially acting as a visual warning for other animals.

Black

I use black when painting tigers for the base layers, blocking in those bold black stripes. In the final layers very little of the true black actually shows through, usually only around the eyes and the regions of darkest shadow.

When studying the animals in real life you notice that there really isn’t much true black in their stripes I have picked up some very simple tricks that will help you achieve realistic looking fur by removing that pure black from your finished pieces.

How should I mix my colours?

‘Survivor’ by Amber Tyldesley

Accurate colour mixing will always depend on the individual subject in front of you.

However, there are some basic colour mixes that crop up frequently in my work that can be tweaked and adapted to suit a specific tiger. These are:

Raw/Burnt Umber and Black– When you look closely at a tigers stripes, you will notice that several shades of brown can also be found within them.

I often use a mix of Burnt umber and black to capture the richest browns found when the tiger is in strong sunlight.

 When the tiger is in shadow, I find that the slightly green tint to the Raw Umber makes it a more complementary mix with the black. 

Yellow Ochre and Burnt Sienna– This combination is brilliant for mixing a shade of orange that looks natural as opposed to too bright and artificial. The ratio of each colour will depend on which sub-species of tiger you are painting.

 For a Bengal or Siberian tiger you are likely to find that fairly equal amounts of each colour will achieve a close match, whereas for a Sumatran tiger you may find that more Burnt Sienna is needed.

Burnt Sienna and Burnt Umber– A mix of these two colours is perfect for the darker orange areas within the fur. Particularly around the nose area, which often appears a little darker in comparison to the rest of the face, this can be a great base coat where the highlights can be built on top.

Yellow Ochre, Burnt Sienna and White– This mixture is ideal for building the highlights. The exact amount of white added to this combination will depend on how bright the highlights are on your subject, but as a general rule only a little should be needed to achieve a subtle and realistic result.

The areas most likely to need some lighter strokes are around the edge of the face, the chest, underbelly and the legs.

Rare colour variations

Obviously, our palette and colour mixes would be much different if painting a white or golden tiger.

© Amber Tyldesley

White Tigers

White tigers are variants of the Bengal tiger. They are white with black stripes instead of the characteristically orange fur of regular tigers. This is due to a genetic mutation which results in the fur having no colour pigment.

When choosing colours to paint these white tigers, it is not just as simple as black and white. There are still the brown colours found in the lighter regions of black stripes. The stripes themselves appear slightly more brown than black with much paler brown strands than regular tigers.

‘Icy Stare’ by Daniel Wilson

I would also add some greens and yellow to use as thin colour washes over the regions of fur that pick up the reflections of the environment that the tiger lives in.

If you want to achieve a realistic finish to your painting and give the animals life, you must paint them so that they are interacting with the environment and the space around them in some way.

This does not necessarily have to be a physical interaction with the background, such as the tiger sat on a tree with all of the leaves and branches painted in complete detail. It could just be reflections of these colours found in areas of the tiger’s white fur.

Golden Tigers

Golden tigers are another variation caused by genetics. Unlike the white tigers, the golden tigers are only found and bred in captivity; they do not exist in the wild. Golden tigers are much lighter than regular tigers and instead of black stripes theirs are a light brown colour.

There is significantly more white around the face and underbelly of the golden tigers, so again think of the environment around them and include the reflections of colours that would appear in that white fur.

Summary

Thanks for reading this post; we hope you have found it helpful. Here are the five key points to keep in mind:

  • The top five colours are Burnt Umber, Burnt Sienna, Yellow Ochre, Black, White.
  • There are a variety of tiger subspecies and each has slightly different colours.
  • Within each tiger, there are a variety of different oranges and browns they are not just one block colour.
  • Use pure black and pure white very little if you are aiming for a realistic look.
  • Add brown fur strands to the black stripes to give them a more realistic feel.

Please check out our Instagram page @StudioWildlife_Art and share with us your thoughts and artwork.

Head to our Studio Wildlife Pinterest page to find inspiration from various wildlife art – created by you!

Thanks again,

Daniel and Amber

5 Replies to “The Ultimate Colour Guide for Painting Tigers

  1. Very helpful. Thank you. Never thought of brown hair over black stripes. I usually use grey or a blue but on second thoughts the brown would be more true to life

    1. Thank you Robyn! Hints of blue and grey can work in the highlighted black fur too. We find that brown can help lift the mid-tones especially. Please share your work with us on Instagram if you can @StudioWildlife_Art!

  2. This guide is fantastic! I love painting tigers but always have trouble getting the black and white parts to look real instead of like a cartoon. Thank you for going into such depth on the color mixes you use. I really appreciate you explaining the different colors you use for different environments as well as species. Can’t wait to try them!

    1. Hi Peter, I run the Studio Wildlife Patreon and have tutorial videos up but Amber is currently not contributing to the Patreon page. sorry for the delayed response

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