How to Paint Realistic Animals

Updated: 03 Mar 2019

How to paint realistic animals


It is recommended to read The 8 Key Factors for Painting Realism before reading this article.

Key Factors for Painting Animals

Painting the animal kingdom is a complex subject that includes all the characteristics of painting in a realistic style.

For painting animal/s as part of the background, there are a few topics to take into consideration:

Drawing Animals as Part of the Background


In order to reach a high level of likeness, it is crucial to get the proportions right. Meaning, to be precise in the initial drawing stage and to pay attention to the anatomical structure.

Linear Perspective

For realism, linear perspective should be used in order to define the size of animals in relation to the surrounding, depending on their location in space.

Atmospheric Perspective

Animals, or any object for that matter, should blend in the landscape according to their distance from the observer. The atmosphere will have a greater effect as objects are farther away.

Light Source

It is important to pay attention to where the light is coming from and then to illuminate the objects accordingly. Cast shadows should be painted in the opposite direction to the light source and with consideration to foreshortening.

For an in-depth article about perspective, follow this link: How to Draw in Linear and Atmospheric Perspective.

Drawing Animal Portraiture

When painting an animal as the main subject of a painting, the painting can be regarded as a portrait:

Every animal of the same species has unique features and facial structure. As mentioned above, accuracy is the key.

Camouflage stripes or texture marks will also be unique to each animal.

Facial expression, body language and even the "personality" of each animal should be captured.

Giraffe oil painting Giraffe oil painting

How to Draw Animals on a Large Canvas

There are two issues with painting on a large canvas:

  1. The whole painting cannot be seen, unless backing up from it.
  2. The large canvas will hide the reference object or image.

When using an image as a reference, it is possible to draw a grid on both the image and the canvas.

That means to divide the image and canvas to several smaller rectangles. The extra guidelines can help with the initial drawing stage, leading to an accurate drawing.


When using a reference image, the image and the canvas should have the same ratio between width and height. The image should be cropped if needed.

Oryx drawing on a big canvas Oryx drawing on a big canvas

After the initial sketch is done, the background can be painted.

When painting the background, it is recommended to take extra care NOT to completely hide the pencil drawing with paint.

On the other hand, leaving space between the background and the initial sketch is not recommended too.

Painting the background Painting the background


Oryx in the desert oil painting Oryx in the desert oil painting

For drawing in a realistic style with a pencil, go to Beginners Guide: Realistic Pencil Drawing.

How to Draw a Grid

The center of a reference image is the point where the two diagonals meet.

When the position of the midpoint is known, a horizontal line and a vertical line can be drawn in order to divide the image into four rectangles.

Each rectangle can be divided repeatedly for a large and complex image.

Two diagonals to find the midpoint Finding the midpoint
Horizontal and vertical lines Horizontal and vertical lines

Creating a grid on a canvas is done in the same way.

Now it is possible to draw inside each rectangle separately. Consequently, the drawing process becomes easier and more precise.

Drawing inside a small square Drawing inside a rectangle
Pencil drawing of an elephant Completing the drawing

A paintbrush can be used instead of a pencil.

Now the canvas is ready to be painted with oil paints.

Additional Resources

Painters who master animal and pet portraiture: Professional Pet Portrait Painters.

How to draw space and 3-dimentions on a 2-dimentions surface: 15 Proven Ways to Create the Illusion of Depth.

For online tutorials for ALL levels, check the Best Drawing & Painting Channels on YouTube.