Top 5 Colours to Choose When Painting a Lion in Acrylics & Oils

I don’t know about you, but I find it quite difficult selecting the colours to use when I start a wildlife painting. One of the animals I struggled with most was a lion. I always ended up making it look too orange or too yellow.

After many hours of research and hundreds of hours of painting I have come up with some top tips to help you with choosing the right colours when painting a lion. Here are the first 5 most obvious colours to use when painting a lion in either acrylics or oil paintings:

Colours for painting a lion

Acrylic Painting by Amber
  1. Burnt umber
  2. Burnt Sienna
  3. Yellow ochre
  4. Raw Umber
  5. White

These colours are fine and you can actually do quite a lot with this combination. If you want to create beautifully realistic fur and add life to your paintings then read on, and I’ll share with you my top tips for which colours to use when painting lions with acrylics.

What colour are Lions?

First of all what colours are lions actually? Generally lions tend to be a yellow gold colour with a brown mane, however there is a lot of variation in the fur colour of lions. Some can have tan fur and some can have more orangey-brown fur.

The colour of a lion’s mane can also vary greatly ranging from golden blonde, red, brown, black and everywhere in-between. This makes it incredibly difficult when choosing what colours to use as those massive variations in colour can completely alter the paints that you need.

Other than making life difficult for us artists, why do lions have such massive variation in colours?

It’s quite simple really. The darker the mane the healthier, the more powerful and the better fed the lion. In the wild this does two things, firstly it shows the female lions who is the strongest, healthiest and the best potential mate who will pass on the most advantageous genes and give their offspring the best chance at survival.

The second reason is to indicate which lion is in charge, the one with the darkest mane is the most powerful lion, the darker mane will deter the other, less powerful male lions from challenging the pride leader.

The basic colours to use:

So which colours should you always have to hand when painting lions?

This is not a perfect answer, but from my personal experience these are the colours that you will always find on my palette when painting lions.


Let’s start off with the browns; no matter what the colour of the lion or the colour of its mane I will always have Burnt Umber, Raw Umber and Burnt Sienna on hand. These are perfect for the deep orange-brown hues found within all of that thick mane and glossy coat.


Next up is the yellow, always found on my palette are Yellow Ochre and Naples Yellow, as these work perfectly for the yellow sheen of the fur- especially when your lion is in warm sunlight.


I will always have a white on my palette. I’m not picky with which white I use when I am painting with acrylics, as for me it doesn’t really make that much of a difference whether I am using Zinc white or Titanium White.

These are the two most common types of artist whites and probably the ones you are most used to seeing in art shops. Zinc white is made using a substance known as Zinc oxide and Titanium white is, as you have probably guessed, made using titanium compounds.

You probably don’t care about the chemistry behind mixing paint so let me tell you how these two different whites differ from an artist’s perspective. Zinc White is a very cool white, which means colours mixed using this white tends to appear closer to the blue side of the spectrum than the red.

It is a much thinner paint which results in a more transparent white perfect for mixing with other colours to for making lighter colour washes when glazing.

Titanium White is known as the opaque white, this is the paint you would use when trying to achieve the whitest white possible, which when painting realistic lions you should never try to do.

  It doesn’t really matter which white I use, because with my painting style I tend to use thin washes of colour that are transparent and layer on top of each other. I never try to use pure white in my paintings and try to mix it with other colours.

Even in the areas that look white on your reference photos they are never actually pure white, they only look that bright because of the darker colours around them. It’s a cruel trick that our brain plays on us when we look at images.


Finally I will use a very tiny bit of black paint. Again it doesn’t really matter which black you use as you should never ever use pure black in your work. Very similarly to the white I will only ever use the black to darken and de-saturate a colour (make it more grey).

If you actually look at animals in real life there isn’t actually any true black on them, there will always be some reflected light causing interesting colours within the darker areas.

Can you use the colours straight from the tube?

Acrylic Painting by Daniel

I mean you can but you really, really shouldn’t. What you should be doing is mixing these colours together to create even better intermediate colours!

But how do you do this I hear you ask? I will walk you through some basic colour mixes that I use when painting lions:

  1. Raw Umber mixed with Yellow Ochre gives you a fantastic greenish brown perfect for some of the darker shadowy regions, and as a base coat for the under layers of the lion’s fur.
  2. White and Yellow Ochre is another mix that you can use. I use this for the fur and mane; it’s an excellent combination for painting the highlights and brighter spots lit by sunlight.
  3. Burnt sienna with Yellow Ochre is ideal for glazing orange hues and painting those rich mid-tones of the mane and fur.
  4. Black and Burnt umber is the combination I always use for the dark colours in the mane, the eyes and nose contours and the shadows of the face. I never use the black on its own as this combination gives a more vibrant realistic result.
  5.  White, Naples yellow and a tiny amount of black paint mixed together are ideal for painting the whiter areas of the lion such as the chin, the area under the eye and the whiskers. The slight yellow grey hint to the white makes a much more realistic colour than pure white on its own.

Which colours to use to paint realistic lion fur:

It is definitely possible to paint a realistic lion using the colours I have just mentioned, and I strongly advise you master that palette before moving on to the next step.

After tens of thousands of hours of painting between us, myself and Amber have adapted this colour palette adding more colours to better match the varying tones found within the basic lion colours.

The next step in progressing your paintings to create truly realistic wildlife paintings is to add an Ultramarine blue, Buff titanium and the newest colour that we have recently added to our arsenal, Raw Sienna.

‘All He Surveys’ by Amber

The Blue is used to add cooler tones to the shadows of the lion truly bringing out the shape and form of those darker regions.

The Buff titanium is a sort of Beige-yellow colour that we predominantly use as a more neutral alternative to yellow ochre.

When used in combination with brush strokes of varying yellows, this creates a much more balanced and authentic appearance to the fur that more accurately represents real life.

The Raw Sienna has only been added to our palettes in the last week or so. It’s a darker version of yellow ochre landing somewhere between the Ochre and burnt umber. This is such a new colour to us and we haven’t yet explored its full capabilities. Stay tuned for future blogs where no doubt this colour will make an appearance!

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