Tiger Stripes to Leopard Spots – Top Tips for Painting Big Cat Markings

Big cats make one of the most popular subjects for wildlife artists, with one of the main reasons being their striking colours and markings.

With the exception of the lion, big cats have very distinctive coat patterns that make very attractive and interesting subjects.

Each type of marking is unique, and requires various different approaches depending on the chosen subject. In this blog,

I will share some of the techniques I use when aiming to capture a realistic sense of texture and colour within a striped or spotted animal.

Tips for painting Fur

  • Vary size, Shape and Frequency
  • Overlap regular fur with the markings
  • Paint the markings in the same direction as the rest of the fur
  • Add touches of blue/ grey to the dark markings
  • Use the placement of the markings to shape the form of the animal

Tiger Stripes

Recommended Colours: Yellow ochre, Burnt Sienna, Burnt Umber, Black.

Tigers are the only species of big cat with striped markings. Although they seem striking to us, the purpose of these stripes is to make them inconspicuous to their prey, helping to camouflage their bodies against long grasses. 

I_Love_Bull_Terriers.jpg
Photo by I_Love_Bull_Terriers at Pixabay

Every tiger’s stripes are unique; varying is shape, size and frequency. When painting tiger stripes, it is important to pay attention to the direction in which the stripes lie, as these will help build a three dimensional form to your subject.

If you keep a tiger’s stripes too vertical and straight rather than following the contours of the tiger’s body, your painting is likely to appear flat.

Another thing to consider is the definition of the stripes. When painting realistic fur, you will want to overlap some of the orangy-brown fur over the edge of the stripes, following the direction of the fur growth. 

There is a fine line between making the stripes look defined and making them appear too blunt, and softening the edges will help the fur in your painting appear more convincing.

When painting these areas myself, I find that an angle brush is ideal for creating a soft blend between the main base coat and the tiger’s stripes.

Leopards and Jaguars

What is the difference between a leopard and a jaguar?

Aside from the slight difference in markings, there are a number of distinguishing features between the two species. Some of the main differences in appearance are:

  • Size– Leopards are much smaller than jaguars, which are the third largest big cat species in the World.
  • Stature– Jaguars are much more muscular in body shape, with leopards appearing leaner by comparison.
  • Head shape– Jaguars have broader and larger heads than leopards, with a wider jaw.
  • Tail– Jaguars tend to have shorter tails than leopards.

Leopard and Jaguar Spots

Recommended Colours: Yellow ochre, Buff Titanium, Burnt Umber, Black

‘Out on a Limb’ by Daniel Wilson (Jaguar)

Leopards have ‘rosette’ shaped dark spots against buff coloured fur, with a slightly darker shade of fur in the centre.

Jaguars also share this characteristic-the key difference between them is that jaguars have a spot in the centre of each rosette, whereas leopards do not.

The size of each individual rosette is also typically larger on a jaguar than on a leopard.

Leopard painting by Amber Tyldesley

When painting leopard and jaguar spots, I find that when used flat, a filbert brush is ideal for rendering the initial rounded shapes of the rosettes.

When blending the markings into the rest of the surrounding fur, I will also use a filbert brush, but this time on its edge, creating soft sweeping strokes following the direction of the fur to make an almost seamless edge.

The fur length on leopards and jaguars is fairly short, so unless painting a close up or a large detailed piece, individual hair strokes are not required to achieve a realistic end result. 

If you do want to add individual hairs however, using an angle brush for the final hair strokes would be ideal in this case.

If you’d like to learn more about my techniques, here are my top five brushes for painting fur. 

What about black panthers?

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‘Enigma’ by Amber Tyldesley (Jaguar)

A black panther is a generic term used to refer to the melanistic varieties of the leopard and jaguar- it is not a species in itself.

Close inspection of both black leopards and jaguars will show that they are not truly black, as their spotted markings can still be seen in certain lighting.

When painting the markings of a black panther, the process would be very similar to when painting the more typical leopards and jaguars. However, it is worth keeping in mind that the colour and tone variation will be much more subtle.

Snow Leopard Spots

Recommended Colours: Titanium White, Buff Titanium, Yellow Ochre, Black.

Like the leopard, snow leopards have dark rosette shaped markings against a lighter base colour. Snow leopard fur is typically grey to beige in colour, making them lighter than African leopards to camouflage themselves against their snow-covered surroundings.

The cold climate of their habitat also means that snow leopard fur is much longer and denser than the African leopard. This means that despite their similarities in the shape, the way of painting the markings will be very different.

Whilst I would start with a flat filbert brush to create a base coat (in a similar way to how I would paint a leopard), more layers of colour would be needed to achieve a sense of depth in the coat, working from dark to light.

Pixel_Mixer snow leopard.jpg
Photo by Pixel_Mixer at Pixabay

The longer length of fur means that the spots appear less regular in a snow leopard, meaning that more overlapping hairs will be visible.  

As you can see in this image, the shape of the rosettes on the mid-section of the snow leopard are almost completely obscured by the overlapping lighter hairs.

When painting these wispy overlapping hairs, I will thin my paint to make the hairs appear almost translucent. When painting in acrylics I will use a small amount of water to do this, but there are also acrylic mediums available.

Cheetah Spots

Technically speaking, cheetahs aren’t considered one of the ‘big cat’ genus given their inability to roar. However, considering their similar markings it could be useful to compare them here.

 Unlike the leopard, cheetahs have regular round spots as opposed to rosette shaped. They also have black tear lines underneath their eyes to protect them from the strong sunlight, since they hunt during the day.

Recommended Colours: Yellow ochre, Raw Umber, Burnt Umber, Burnt Sienna

As you can see from this photo, there can be a great variation in the colours of cheetah spots! Whilst it can be tempting, it’s important to not reach straight for the black paint if you want to capture all of the subtle colours and variations within the fur.

Photo by PatternPictures at Pixabay

 If I were to paint this image, on the left side I would use a Burnt Sienna and Burnt Umber mix to render the lighter brown spots.

 For the darker brown markings towards the right side, a combination of Raw Umber and Burnt Umber would be used to capture the variations in tone within these spots.

The type of brushes you will use to paint the fur will most likely depend on the size and scale of your artwork.

If painting a full-body study on a fairly small canvas, painting individual strokes of hair would be unnecessary even if you are aiming for a detailed piece. In this case, a small round brush would be ideal for painting the individual spots.

If painting a close-up or a large scale piece, I would use a small angle brush to mark the direction of the fur, allowing strands of the lighter base coat to overlap the spots slightly.

My Final Thoughts:

Here are the top five things to keep in mind when painting any big cat markings:

  • Regardless of the type of markings, always pay attention to the direction of fur growth.
  • The length of fur will impact the uniformity of the markings. The longer the fur, the more overlapping strokes will be needed to create a sense of depth in the coat.
  • When choosing your colours, keep in mind that these will vary throughout the subject depending on the play of light and shadow.
  • Pay close attention to the distribution and placement of the markings. These will help establish the form of your subject.
  • Adapt your choice of brushes to the scale of your piece

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

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