Painting fur is one of the main reasons I love depicting wildlife; it is so easy to get lost in building up the textures and colours that can be found there.
However, it can at first seem quite overwhelming if you don’t know where to start. If you’re struggling to achieve the realistic fur look that you’ve been aiming for, part of the problem may be that you’re not using quite the right tools for the job.
Brushes I use most often for wildlife paintings
Choosing the right brushes (and using them at the right time), is key if you want to create a genuine sense of texture in your artwork. Of course, the textures found within fur vary enormously throughout the animal kingdom.
Hair lengths also vary so much within the subject itself, and selecting the right brushes can really assist with capturing the fine details that will bring your painting to life. To help when it comes to your own work, I have put together a brief guide on the brushes that I use most often within my wildlife acrylic paintings:
Before I even think about painting the fur, I have to make sure that I have the right base coat in place. This is where the flat brushes come in.
Looking at my reference, I block in the darkest shade I can see within the different areas of my subject.
It doesn’t need to be perfectly blended at this stage, as the next layers of the painting will mean that only a hint of the initial base coat will show through. The main idea at this early stage is to simply block in the darkest shadows, so that the details and highlights can be built on top.
I find that a large flat brush is the best way to create a block-in quickly and effectively, and if you are aiming to have a smooth texture to your final painting, the flat brushes will allow you to manoeuvre the paint very evenly.
After the flat brush, the next brush I move on to is the filbert. This is an oval shaped brush that, when used flat, I find is perfect for creating soft marks to mark the direction of the fur.
When used on its side, filbert brushes are also great for establishing the long, sweeping hairs such as those found in a lion’s mane.
I usually reserve these brushes for creating the mind-tones, leaving the highlights for the next stage.
Round brushes consist of densely arranged bristles shaped into a pointed tip. Once the fur direction has been established with the filbert, I find that the round brushes can be used with greater precision which is needed to start building the highlights.
They hold much more paint than the detail brushes that I will come back to later, which mean that it is easier to create more gestural marks that the brightest highlights can then be built on top of.
Whilst it is tempting to reach for the detail brushes straight from the offset- building softer layers with a round brush initially can help create more depth to your work.
Angle brushes are shaped similarly to the flat brushes, but the ends of the bristles are slanted at a 45 degree angle.
In comparison to the round, I find angle brushes create slightly sharper and more definitive marks. Since they hold less paint, they are ideal for shorter-haired animals, but if the paint is thinned sufficiently they can also be used to create the final loose strands on a longer haired subject.
The shape of this brush allows for a high level of control, which is ideal for creating precise curved lines found so often within the fur.
Even in my largest works, I will use a size 1 or 0 detail brush to pick out the lightest hairs on my subject, which I find really brings out the depth and contrast within the fur.
It is also worth keeping in mind the condition of these brushes in particular; as once they lose their point they can definitely compromise the scale and shape of the individual hairs.
It is not unusual for me to retire this type of brush to less detailed work after using it on just one painting, as even the slightest amount of fraying can make achieving a realistic fur effect far more difficult.
A detail brush that has become blunt can still be useful for other areas where softer blending is required, such as when painting eyes and noses.
What types of bristle are there?
Perhaps the most commonly used bristle types for acrylic and oil painting are hog and synthetic. Hog brushes are made up of coarse, thick bristles that are ideal for applying an even coat of paint over large areas.
They are most commonly used in oil painting due to their stiffness and durability, but I have found that they can also be useful in the blocking-in stage of an acrylic painting too.
Depending on the quality, I have also found synthetic brushes to be very durable, but the real advantage of this types of brushes is their softness.
You do not want the brush to be so soft that you cannot make a definitive mark, but when aiming for blended areas, their smoother bristles can leave less obvious brushstrokes in comparison to the hog.
I have no real preference between the two bristle types, when choosing a brush this simply comes down to the particular section or stage of the painting I’m working on. If you paint in both oils and acrylics, it is generally advised to keep separate sets of brushes in order to keep the brushes in the best possible condition for that particular medium.
Which bristle type should you use?
I have both hog and synthetic varieties of most of the brushes that I own. I find that the hog brushes are ideal for covering large areas in the earlier stages of the piece, as the split ends (known as flags) hold more paint and allow for more fluid application.
I reserve the synthetic versions for creating softer brush strokes on the final layers, as this way the strokes are far easier to blend. For the fine details I use only synthetic brushes, as they can hold a finer point and allow me to position the hairs more precisely.
For the same reason I also use synthetic detail brushes to complete the whiskers, or alternatively a rigger brush for longer continuous strokes on a larger piece.
Taking care of your brushes
To maintain my brushes for as long as possible, I make sure to wash them in warm soapy water after each painting session, very gently rubbing the bristles so that they retain their shape.
This is more than enough to clean the brushes when working with acrylics. If I have been working in oils then the cleaning process takes a little longer. I firstly remove as much excess oil paint as possible using my paint thinner and wipe them with a paper towel.
After rinsing them in warm water, I then use soap to work deeper within the bristles, rinsing and repeating until no evidence of paint is left when wiped on a paper towel.
If you’re aiming for realism, recreating authentic fur texture can really make or break your artwork, and I hope that this guide gives you more confidence when choosing the right brushes for your work.
Of course, there are no hard and fast rules when it comes to creating art, and you may find that your technique is best suited to one brush type over another. The most important thing is to keep experimenting and finding out what works best for you and your style!
Make sure to share your paintings with us by tagging our Instagram page @StudioWildlife_art and let us know if you found this useful.