5 Realistic Wildlife Painting Techniques for Beginners
Written by  Daisie Team
Published on 6 min read


  1. Paint with layers
  2. Use reference photos
  3. Create detailed textures
  4. Capture the animal's personality
  5. Paint the background first

Stepping into the world of realistic wildlife painting can be as thrilling as embarking on a jungle safari. Just as you'd need a good guide for the latter, some handy painting tips can be your compass to navigate this exciting artistic terrain. Whether you're just starting out or looking to enhance your skills, these five realistic wildlife painting techniques for beginners will help you bring the wilderness to your canvas.

Paint with Layers

One of the first things you'll want to learn in your wildlife painting journey is the technique of painting in layers. This approach gives depth and dimension to your art, making it appear more lifelike.

Starting with an Underpainting

Begin by creating an underpainting. This acts as a base, helping you plan your artwork without diving straight into the details. It's like sketching your route on a map before you start your journey.

  • Start with larger brushes and paint the general shapes and colors of your subject. You don’t need to be precise; just get the general feel of your animal and its surroundings.
  • Let this layer dry completely before moving to the next. Patience is key here, just like waiting for the perfect moment to capture a wild animal on camera.

Building up the Details

Now that your base is set, it's time to add the layers that will bring your painting to life. This is similar to spotting the intricate patterns on a leopard's coat or the detailed markings on a bird's feather.

  1. Start with mid-tones and gradually build up to the darker and lighter areas. This gives your painting a three-dimensional look.
  2. Focus on one small area at a time. This can be time-consuming, but as with any good wildlife expedition, the results are worth the wait.
  3. Remember to let each layer dry before adding the next. This prevents the colors from blending and maintains the crispness of your details.

This layered approach not only adds depth to your painting but also gives you the freedom to tweak and adjust as you go along. So, embrace the process, and remember—the journey is as rewarding as the final masterpiece!

Use Reference Photos

While our minds are amazing, it's nearly impossible to remember every small detail of an animal's appearance or its natural habitat. That's where reference photos come in. They are like your field guide, providing you with accurate and specific details to incorporate into your painting.

Choosing Your Reference Photos

Just like planning your wildlife adventure, selecting the right reference photos is a crucial step in your painting process.

  • Opt for high-quality images that show clear details. This will give you a better understanding of the animal's features, its fur or feather patterns, and the way light plays on its body.
  • Consider the animal's posture and attitude. Every creature has its unique character, and your aim should be to capture this essence in your painting. Whether it's a prowling tiger or a playful squirrel, the right reference photo can make all the difference.

Using Your Reference Photos

Now that you have your field guide, it's time to put it to good use.

  1. Study your reference photos closely. Notice the intricate details—the way the fur lays, the texture of the skin, the glint in the eyes. These are the details that will bring a touch of realism to your painting.
  2. Don't be afraid to use multiple reference photos. Different images can provide different perspectives and details, giving you a more comprehensive understanding of your subject.

Remember, reference photos are just a guide, not a blueprint. They're there to support your creativity, not limit it. So, while you should strive for accuracy, don't forget to let your artistic flair shine through!

Create Detailed Textures

The natural world is a treasure trove of textures—from the rugged bark of an old oak tree to the soft, velvety feathers of a sparrow. Being able to capture these textures in your painting can add depth and realism, making your wildlife painting come alive.

Building Textures with Brush Strokes

Believe it or not, the secret to creating realistic textures lies in your brush strokes. With a bit of practice, you can use them to mimic the texture of fur, feathers, and more.

  • For fur: Short, quick strokes can help you create the illusion of fur. Try to follow the direction in which the fur naturally grows for the most realistic effect.
  • For feathers: Longer, smooth strokes work best. Remember to pay attention to the direction and pattern of the feathers.

Using Different Painting Tools

Widening your painting tool repertoire can also help you add more texture to your painting. Don't limit yourself to just brushes—palette knives, sponges, and even your fingers can be used to create different effects.

  • Palette knives: These are great for creating thick, textured strokes, especially for elements like tree bark or rocky landscapes.
  • Sponges: A sponge can be used to create interesting patterns and textures, like the dappled effect of light filtering through leaves.

Remember, the key to mastering textures is practice. The more you experiment and play with different techniques, the more adept you'll become at creating realistic textures in your wildlife paintings.

Capture the Animal's Personality

Have you ever watched a bird or a squirrel and noticed how they each have their own unique quirks and behaviors? Capturing these little details in your painting can make it feel more real and alive. Here are a few realistic wildlife painting tips to help you bring out the personality of your animal subjects.

Study Animal Behavior

Before you can capture an animal's personality, you need to understand its behavior. Spend some time observing your subject in its natural habitat. Watch how it moves, how it interacts with its environment, and even how it reacts to other animals or humans. These observations can provide valuable insights that you can later incorporate into your painting.

Express Emotion Through The Eyes

One of the most effective ways to convey personality and emotion is through the eyes. They're often called the windows to the soul for a reason! Pay close attention to the eyes of your animal subject. Make a note of their shape, color, and the emotions they seem to express. These details can breathe life into your painting and make your animal subject more relatable.

Choose a Dynamic Pose

No two animals move or behave in exactly the same way. A bear might lumber slowly, while a cheetah would be sleek and fast. Choosing dynamic poses that reflect these behaviors can add a sense of movement and character to your paintings.

Remember, capturing the personality of an animal in a painting is just as much about observation as it is about painting skills. The more time you spend getting to know your subject, the better your chances of creating a truly realistic and expressive animal portrait.

Paint the Background First

When it comes to realistic wildlife painting, the environment plays a critical role. It's not just about the animal—it's also about where they live, what surrounds them, and how they interact with their habitat. That's why one of the best realistic wildlife painting tips is to start with the background.

Establish the Mood

Backgrounds can set the mood for your entire painting. Is your subject in a calm, serene forest or a vibrant, bustling jungle? By painting the background first, you can dictate the overall vibe and atmosphere of your piece right from the start.

Ensure Consistent Lighting

Lighting can make or break a painting. It's what gives your subject depth and dimension. By painting the background first, you can ensure consistent lighting across the scene. It helps you decide where the light is coming from and how it interacts with your subject.

Define the Setting

Your animal subject doesn't exist in a vacuum—they are part of a larger ecosystem. The background gives context to that ecosystem. It helps the viewer understand where your animal fits in the grand scheme of things. Whether it's a bird in the sky or a fish in the sea, the setting can add depth and meaning to your painting.

So next time you're ready to start a new painting, try painting the background first. It might feel a little strange at first, but you'll quickly see how it can improve the realism and depth of your work.

If you're just getting started with wildlife painting and want to learn more techniques, don't miss the 'Follow Along: Realism Paint Workshop' by David Shepherd. This workshop will provide you with step-by-step guidance on how to create stunning, realistic wildlife paintings, perfect for beginners looking to improve their skills.