Top 10 Tips for Drawing a Realistic Tiger in Charcoal

My absolute favourite animal to draw is a tiger! I have spent 1000’s of hours drawing them and I want to share my thoughts and process so that you can avoid the mistakes that I made in the beginning.

Top ten tips for drawing a realistic tiger in charcoal

  1. Start loosely and block in the basic shapes
  2. Lightly draw in the eyes, nose and mouth
  3. Proportions- make sure everything is the correct size
  4. Perspective- make sure everything is level
  5. Lightly draw in the shape of the head, save the stripes until last
  6. Loosely draw in the stripes
  7. Use a putty eraser to bring out the highlights and fur details
  8. Seal the drawing at the stage
  9. Add the dark fur and details using charcoal pencil, vine charcoal and an eraser
  10. Seal your finished drawing with a fixative spray.
‘Hunter’s Gaze’ by Daniel Wilson

Before you start drawing a realistic tiger in charcoal using this process you should have this equipment to hand:

  • Vine charcoal
  • Charcoal Pencils
  • Paper
  • Putty eraser
  • Charcoal powder
  • Blending stump

This is the equipment that I personally use when creating my charcoal drawings.

You do not have to use the equipment listed here for your work and all of the techniques I will be talking about will apply to any drawing medium such as graphite and pastel.

This post will be focussing on using charcoal to produce a finished drawing that is black and white. For coloured drawings or paintings I have written a colour guide for painting tigers that can be found here.

You can watch the process of this drawing being created at our Studio Wildlife Youtube Channel. Please like and subscribe!

Choosing the right paper

The first thing to consider when drawing with charcoal is which paper to use. Charcoal works the best on a very fine toothed / fine grain paper.

This is because the grain of the paper allows the charcoal to stick to the surface as you apply pressure with the charcoal stick. The harder you press the darker the mark and the harder it is to erase.

I actually use a Smooth Bristol board for my pieces. As the name suggests it is a very smooth paper.

I strongly recommend using a paper with more tooth when you are starting out with charcoal drawings as it is much easier to work with and produce high quality finished results.

For beginners any dedicated charcoal paper from any brand is perfect. At these beginning stages you are not looking for high quality archival papers you are just looking to practice, and get a feel for the medium.

A good paper to use at this stage is newsprint. It is cheap, and comes in a variety of sizes.

It is a very thin paper which means it can tear and buckle under pressure. So this should be solely used for sketching and practicing rather than for pieces that you intend to sell or exhibit.

Toning your paper

Charcoal is a very dusty medium so make sure you use it in a well ventilated space. The benefit of charcoal is that it is a very forgiving medium.

As long as you don’t press too hard and there aren’t too many layers it is relatively easy to erase the charcoal from the surface.

We can use this to our advantage.

Personally when I start my tiger drawings I begin with a layer of charcoal powder applied loosely over the paper.

I do this for two reasons:

  1. To roughly block in areas where there will be shadows, highlights and mid tones.
  2. To tone the surface with a faint layer of charcoal that can be added to with more charcoal or removed with an eraser.

You can buy paper that is ready toned but I much prefer to work on white paper that I tone myself. It adds more variation and therefore more interest to my drawings.

Toning the paper enables me to better judge the values so that I can place darker darks, and highlights to create a more dramatic drawing.

Blocking in

You should start very loosely blocking in the basic shapes and rough structure of the tiger.

For this step you could use vine charcoal, making sure to press very lightly.

Personally I use charcoal powder for this step using a combination of brushes and a sock filled with rice to apply the charcoal.

Initial block in stage of ‘Hunter’s Gaze’ by Daniel Wilson

It is important to realise that the layer you are putting down now is most likely going to be the same value as the mid tones of the finished drawing.

You are going to be adding darker marks and removing charcoal to establish highlights.

Here you can see that I have used the charcoal powder to block in the initial shapes of the tiger. Starting with the eyes and moving on to the stripes.

Refining the drawing

For this step I use a blending stump and more charcoal powder but the same outcome can be achieved using a stick of vine charcoal.

I always start with the eyes. I use the blending stump to draw in the shapes. I follow this with the nose and then the mouth.

This is where proportions are vital, make sure the eyes are the same size and the eyes, nose and mouth are all level.

Refining the drawing using charcoal powder and a blending stump. Drawing by Daniel Wilson

I then move on to the basic shape of the face ignoring the stripes and patterns of the fur as these details should be saved until last.

Once the initial structures are placed down you can then move on and begin to add the first layers of stripes.

Top tip

Remember to stay relatively loose at the point and use light strokes. You still want to be able to erase some of the marks that you are making.

Adding the fur

Using a putty eraser to add fur

Next up is adding the fur. To do this I like to use a putty eraser to remove the toned charcoal powder from the surface of the paper.

I prefer to use a putty eraser because you can mould it into any shape that you need, whether that be a fine point for small details or a larger shape for the fur that has grouped together.

I usually have a few different types of eraser to hand when doing my charcoal drawings, the putty eraser is a great all-rounder and if I only had one to choose from it would be the putty every time.

Using a sharp, clean eraser to add the whiskers

I also use a normal rubber that I cut into smaller pieces. I do this to make sure that there is a clean, sharp edge that picks up as much charcoal as possible.

I use this for the brightest highlights and the whiskers as this is where I want the white of the paper to show through the most.

The newest addition to my collection (Thank you Amber) is an eraser pencil which I am only just starting to use but I am finding it really helpful when trying to create very small detailed strands of fur.

Top tip

  1. If you want sharp lines in the highlighted areas make sure your eraser is clean, work the putty eraser in your hands or clean a regular eraser on a scrap piece of paper before using it on your drawing.
  2. Sometimes I like to use a dirty putty eraser, this removes some of the charcoal but not all of it giving more variation to your drawing. This is especially useful in picking out the fur in the areas of shadow.

Adding the shadows

When I reach this point I seal the drawing with a fixative spray.

 Make sure you are happy with the highlights and areas of white fur as once sealed it is extremely difficult to remove the charcoal with an eraser.

I use a thick stick of vine charcoal to add darker marks to the shadow areas then use a brush to fade the edges of these new marks back into the fur.

I am able to use the brush without disturbing the original drawing because it has been fixed.

Adding the details

This is the final step before the drawing is finished and this is where the drawing comes alive!

Using a dark charcoal pencil I draw in the details of the eyes. I use the pencil then blur it away using the blending stump building up layers of detail and varying shades of grey/black.

I will then use the pencil eraser to bring out the final couple of highlights in the eyes.

Next up is adding the stripes, I use the charcoal pencil to add the fine strands of hair found in the black stripes. Again I use the blending stump to blend the edges of the stripes back in to the rest of the fur.

I make sure to leave some sharp black lines to add variation to the drawing and give it a more realistic look.

I then go over some of these darker areas with the pencil eraser adding in a few lighter marks to show stray strands of fur or fur that is catching the light.

Finally I will add the finishing touches by adding some darker marks to the lighter fur using the charcoal pencil, this helps to define the fur and give a sense that there is skin underneath the hair making your drawing much more true to life.

Top tip

When adding fur whether it is using the charcoal pencil or the eraser you should always vary the direction and length of the marks that you are making.

If all of the hairs go in the same direction and are all essential straight lines all the same length, the drawing tends to appear quite cartoonish and flat, it loses a lot of the depth required for a realistic outcome.

Finishing the drawing

This applies to all of my charcoal drawings and not just tigers, I always finish my pieces by fixing them with a pastel fixative spray to protect them from smudging.

 Hairspray can be used as a cheap alternative but it is not very archival and can lead to yellowing of your drawing.

It is much better to splash out on some proper fixative spray to make sure the quality of your drawing lasts especially if you intend to sell or exhibit your work.

Thank you for reading

Remember this is not a complete guide to drawing every tiger, this is just the basics to get you started when using charcoal to draw tigers.

The most important thing that you can do is practice, the more that you draw the better you will get.

I hope the information about my process is useful and you can use it as a starting point on your way to creating incredible drawings in your own style.

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