Elephant Watercolor Tutorial

See how to paint this loose elephant watercolor in this step-by-step tutorial with real-time video. Complete with reference images.

I was thinking the other day that I’d never painted elephants before so why not remedy that and make a new tutorial at the same time? They have such wonderful shapes (those ears! tusks!) that I was reallly keen to dive in and have a go.

I picked the reference image from Pixabay and chose one that had some really strong lights and darks. This allows us to paint loosely but also use those strong darks to define the form. I think they came out really well. I learned a lot about elephants and will definitely paint them again at some point.

Watercolor Materials Needed

My full materials list is here but these are the main things used in this tutorial.

  • 100% cotton watercolor paper. I mainly use Fabriano Artistico.
  • Scrap/student paper for color swatches (I like the Fabriano ‘Fat Pad’).
  • A couple of 10 or 12 round watercolor brushes (sable or a good synthetic)
  • Palette
  • Spray bottle
  • Mechanical Pencil
  • Masking tape if you’re not using watercolor blocks or you want a crisp edge to your painting.
  • Colors: yellow ochre, burnt sienna, ultramarine, black

Full Elephant Watercolor Video

The full video recording for this painting. It has all the gory details and my thought processes and decisions as I go along. Apologies for the sound quality towards the end – my ceiling fan got very noisy and cuts in now and again.

Elephant Watercolor Reference Image

elephants reference image with grid
Elephant watercolor reference image with grid

This is the reference I chose. I’ve overlaid a grid onto the photo to make it easier for people to get the proportions right. For this type of painting the drawing is *really* important so if you need to use a grid go right ahead.

Elephant Watercolor Pencil Drawing

Elephant outline drawing
Elephant outline drawing

Use a Mechanical Pencil for Watercolor Drawing

I’m working on a 11″x15″ piece of Fabriano Artistico 140lb cold press watercolor paper. I usually buy large 22″x30″ sheets and tear them into quarters. It’s a little more work but it is the most cost effective way to buy good quality watercolor paper. Using standard hardware store masking tape I tape a piece of paper to a lightweight drawing board. I also use a mechanical pencil for all my watercolor drawing. I don’t want to put any shading in here as it will show through when we start to paint. A mechanical pencil is ideal as it always has an even width line and never needs sharpening.

Work out the Height to Width Ratio First!

For the drawing itself I started by carefully working out the height to width ratio for the elephants. I found that elephants are actually a lot taller than you’d think and it’s really easy to make them too stumpy in the leg. In fact, even after I did some careful measuring, you can see that my elephants’ legs are still a little too short but I don’t think this matters in the end result.

Once the height and width are worked out we have good reference points to put in the main drawing. I concentrate on the angles and making sure each end point of each line is in the right place with regard to everything around it. For instance that little left knobble of the eye in the right hand elephant is almost level with the point of the ear. Another one might be that the vertical of the left leg is also hits that eye if I extend it upwards. Checking a couple of reference points every time you put a line in can ‘magically’ make the drawing work.

Finished pink carnation watercolor painting tutorials

I have many more step-by-step tutorials and videos!

A Couple of Useful Painting Tools to Help Us

Before we start to paint we’re going to work out our main values and colors. Ideally we’d be doing this as we go and purely using our eyes and color perception. And if you do this enough over a period of years you can probably train yourselves eventually to do that 🙂 But it will be a hit and miss experience and using a couple of tools can accelerate the process of improving our visual perception enormously.

The first tool is an accurate value scale. I really like the Paul Centore value scale (recommend by Paul Foxton and others). It has 20 Munsell neutral accurate steps and a wipe clean surface (more important than you’d think). We can use it on a printed reference and on our paintings themselves to check results.

The second tool is fancily called a ‘color isolator’ (hat tip again to Paul Foxton). This is just a piece of gray card (mid value 5) with a half inch square cut out of it. We can use this on a reference to cut out any distracting surrounding colors to check what it actually there. It can be really surprising how surroundings affect our color perception. You can make one of these yourselves by downloading the image above and printing it on an inkjet or laser printer. Cut out the middle square and you’re good to go.

Planning our Painting – The Values

If you have a printed reference and a value scale we can check the values directly on the reference. We have a strong set of lights and darks so we’re first going to estimate the rough value of the light side of the elephants. I always first have a guess as to the value before bringing in the value scale to check. When you start doing this you’ll be wildly wrong but it’s amazing how quickly you can get surprisingly close to the correct value. I estimated the value on the head of the right elephant to be around a mid value 5 with the left hand one to be a little lighter. And when I brought in the value scale the values were indeed a 5 and a 6. So this is what we’ll aim for on the light side of the elephants.

The shadow side of the elephants is really dark. It’s pretty much as close to black as we can get. We’ll probably not go quite that dark but it’s good to know we need a few value steps difference between the light and shadow side.

The ChromaMagic tool can show use value AND color

Now here is a shameless plug for my ChromaMagic tool. It is really useful if you don’t have a printed reference and also helps use hone our color perception. If you load up a reference image and click anywhere on it it will tell you the value, the hue (orange,red,green), and the chroma (how intense the color is). If you use it the same way as the value scale i.e. by having a guess first and then clicking on the photo to check it can help to teach us to recognize the values in front of us.

ChromaMagic for Still Life Watercolor

Use ChromaMagic now

Fabulous tool to find the color and value in *any* reference photo. Basic version is free to use.

Planning our Painting – The Colors

A color isolator is useful in identifying colors
A color isolator is useful in identifying colors

Ok so we know our main values. We only really need two main ones – the light and the dark. Let’s now think about our colors. Again we only really need two – one for the light side of the elephants and one for the dark. The dark is almost black and we’ll mix this with a combination of ultramarine and burnt sienna. The lighter one is a little trickier so we’ll do some practice swatches first on our student paper to work out the best mix.

Use ChromaMagic or a Color Isolator to Nail the Colors

Our color isolator can help us here to identify the color. We know it’s a mid value and when isolating the color we can see it’s quite a gray brown. ChromaMagic can also tell us this and the nice thing about ChromaMagic is that it can tell us exactly what kind of brown it is.

ChromaMagic can show you the exact color
ChromaMagic can show you the exact color

If we look at the highlighted color in the bottom right panel we can see it’s a value 5 (which we knew already). We can see it’s a kind of orange (5YR means a mid Yellow-Red i.e. orange) but it’s not a bright orange. The color is mid way between gray (on the left hand side) and bright orange/brown (on the right). So we know it’s a pretty grayed out brown.

Use Ultramarine Blue and Burnt Sienna for a Grayish Brown

We can mix this color a couple of ways. First we could take an existing brown like burnt sienna. Out of the tube it’s too bright and orangey. We can mix in a little black to gray it out and it will bring our color to the exact one we want. Be careful to balance the amount of water and black you add in. We want enough water to keep the value at a five but not too much that we make it too light.

We can get to this color another way but using burnt sienna and ultramarine blue. Mixed together in roughly equal parts they make a pretty neutral gray. But if we lean the mix towards burnt sienna we get a nice grayed out brown.

Elephant Watercolor – Paint the First Layer Really Loosely

The first layer of color
The first layer of color

With this value 5 mix we’re going paint the light parts of the elephant really loosely. I find it easiest to put the color on with one brush and then soften the edges with another clean, damp brush. I first put on the color roughly in the area of the elephant. The only care I take is to keep away from the tusks as they are lighter than everything else.

Soften the Edges with a Damp Brush and Water

Soften the edges with a damp brush
Soften the edges with a damp brush

Use Splatter and Water Spray for Texture

While the paint is still wet I come in with my clean, damp, brush and soften the edges and pull the color out into the background a little. Mostly of the color is where the elephant should be but some makes its way through the edges. It will feel really odd but don’t worry – it can look really messy at this stage and still be ok.

Drop some paint in to vary the color
Drop some paint in to vary the color

Before the paper dries I put some texture and value variation in. I drop in some blue gray color and also maybe use a water spray bottle to add in some texture. Again don’t worry that the edges are soft – when we put in the shadows everything will come into focus.

Repeat for the left hand elephant
Repeat for the right hand elephant

I repeat the process for the right hand elephant. At the end of it you should have a couple of very blurry edged elephants that are all roughly the same value. Let this stage dry thoroughly. We need the next layer to have some sharp edges so the paper needs to be dry.

Stage 2 – Putting in the Dark Watercolor Values

Start putting in the darks for the elephants
Start putting in the darks for the elephants

This is where the magic happens. We’re now going to mix up a dark (probably value 2 or 3) brownish gray and put in the darks. Using a fairly thick mix of ultramarine and burnt sienna I take a look at the reference and identify where the major darkest shapes are. I start with the right hand elephant and that big, dark shadow on the left. Most of the edges are hard here but some are soft where the form is rounded (around the eye and on the ear). I soften the transition from light to dark by, again, using a clean damp brush to graduate the pigment. It won’t look like much to start with but as you move through the dark shapes the elephant will begin to appear.

You can see in these two screenshots the elephant’s face beginning to appear. There are only a few dabs of dark on the right hand side to just suggest the shadows around the eye and ear.

Some parts of the elephant are slightly darker than the lightest parts and I adjust the values a little here. In particular the legs and bottom of the trunk are slightly darker. A wash of the same brown over these areas will shift that value slightly darker. The only thing to be careful of here is to keep those darkest values really dark and separate from everything else.

I repeat the process for the left hand elephant and we’re pretty much done!

Finish with a few subtle value changes
Finish with a few subtle value changes

Elephant Watercolor Final Touches

At the very end I step back and take a look. The overall pattern of lights and darks is fine and I make a few very slight value changes around the eyes and face. These subtle marks can make all the difference but only if the major value shapes are right.

Watercolor Fox Tutorial

See how to make a watercolor fox easy with this step by step watercolor tutorial and video. Complete with reference image and color tips.

Why Paint a Watercolor Fox?

It’s been a number of years since I’ve done a red fox watercolor painting and I thought ‘why not have another go?’ Watercolor animals can be tricky to paint and I’ve discovered that making a good drawing helps enormously. If you want to have a go at this painting I recommend using the grid reference to give you the best shot at getting the proportions right.

Materials Needed

  • 100% cotton watercolor paper. I mainly use Fabriano Artistico.
  • Scrap/student paper for color swatches (I like the Fabriano ‘Fat Pad’).
  • A couple of 10 or 12 round watercolor brushes (sable or a good synthetic)
  • Palette
  • Spray bottle
  • Mechanical Pencil
  • Masking tape if you’re using watercolor blocks or you want a crisp edge to your painting.

Watercolor Fox – Reference Image

Watercolor fox reference image with grid
Watercolor fox reference image with grid

Full YouTube Watercolor Fox Video

The screenshots below are taken from the full youtube video. This takes you through the whole process in real time and should allow you to paint along.

Pencil Drawing for the Watercolor Fox

Watercolor Fox Pencil Drawing
Watercolor Fox Pencil Drawing

Let’s get started. I first started with a pencil outline drawing. There’s no shading in here as we’re going to put all the light and shadows in with paint. I did try and get the shape of the snout and ears right. These are important to convey the character of the animal and are quite subtle. Any small discrepancies can change the whole feel of the painting. I also put in the position of the eye and a lighter line separating the light part of the snout from the shadow. This will be an important part of the painting which will give the fox three dimensionality and also give a feeling of sunlight. If you’re looking for an easy way paint a fox getting the drawing right can be half the battle.

Finished pink carnation watercolor painting tutorials

I have many more step-by-step tutorials and videos!

First Plan the Main Values

Watercolor Fox Values
Watercolor Fox Values

A little planning helps enormously when painting in watercolor. Everything goes so fast once you start putting paint to paper. If you can work out some wrinkles ahead of time your paintings will benefit hugely. Figuring out the main values in your subject is one of the the first things to do. an accurate value scale is invaluable here and I recommend the Paul Centore scale available from eBay

Paul Centore Value Scale
Paul Centore Value Scale

The other tool (which you can make yourself) is a ‘color isolator’. This is just a piece of card or paper colored a mid-value gray. It has a 1/2 inch square cut out of the middle. The gray helps us separate the color we’re looking at from it’s surroundings (hence isolator!!!) and the mid value helps us estimate how light or dark our color is. If you have a printer you can download the image below and print it out and make one yourself.

gray color isolator
gray color isolator
Fox fur values
Fox fur values

Now we can estimate the main values of our red fox. At the very minimum we need to know a value for the light side of the head a value for the shadow side of the head. If we get these two values right then we’ll be in great shape to make our fox look three dimensional. Our fox has a value 8 on the snout, a 6 on the head, a 3-4 in the shadow part of the snout and around a 5-6 on the shadow part of the white fur. Let’s keep these in mind as we do our painting.

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Start the Fox Watercolor with the Light Values

Watercolor Fox First Layer
Watercolor Fox First Layer

We’re going to start the painting with the light orange values on the head. We know the lightest value is an 8 and it goes to a 6 on the top part. This color is very close to burnt sienna and adding in a little of our orangey-red makes it bang on.

Orange fox color
Orange fox color

We put the color on the head and make it slightly lighter on the snout. I use a second, clean, damp, brush to soften the edges where it transitions into the white fur. The top of the head is a little too light at this stage but we can always come back and darken that later.

Vermont farm watercolor landscape by Michele Clamp

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Add a Light Gray for the White Fur of your Watercolor Fox

Fox fur value
Fox fur value

We now mix a light gray for the white fur of the fox. Most of the white fur is in shadow so it’s going to be a blue-gray and we know it’s around a mid-value. I mix up a gray with ultramarine blue and burnt sienna and add just enough water to make it a value 6 on our value scale.

Fox watercolor fur painting
Fox watercolor fur painting

I paint in the gray over all the shadow part of the white fur and, again, soften the edges with a damp brush.

Add the Shadows to Your Fox Painting

Watercolor Fox Painting the Shadows
Watercolor Fox Painting the Shadows

When the light colors are dry we can start to put in the shadows. The shadow size of the snout is quite dark – around a 3. I mix up a value 3 with burnt sienna and a little ultramarine blue and paint it onto the shadow side of the snout. Beware! It will look really dark and it will feel wrong!! If you’ve measure and mixed things carefully, however, it will all work out in the end. One thing we do have to take care with however, is to use our damp brush to soften the transition between the light and the shadow areas. We don’t want this to be too harsh a transition. A little softness here will make things look a lot more believable.

A similar dark brown value gets put onto the nose and the lineof the mouth. Again the edges are softened to make the transitions less harsh. A little dark color is also put around the eye to make it recede.

Owl Watercolor Demo Video

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Paint the Eye on Your Fox

This next piece usually brings the whole thing alive. We’re going to paint the eye. In this reference this is quite tricky. The surround of the eye is really dark but the eye itself is only a little lighter. Here is a close up to show you.

watercolor fox eye close up
watercolor fox eye close up

You can see that only part of the eye is very dark (at the top where the pupil likely is) and the rest is the same value as the surrounding fur.

Paint the Ears In a Dark Value

The ears are now painted in a similar dark brown (burnt sienna and ultramarine) value. At this point I thought the top of the head was too light (it should have been a value 6 and was more like an 8). I mixed up some more burnt sienna/vermillion paint and made that area darker. The extra paint also allowed me to add in a few stripes on the fur to show few of the modulations on the head.

Correct the Value on the White Fur

We’re almost finished now. Things were looking pretty good but the white fur looked a little light in value. This is always a scary bit as correcting this can look too dark when the paint first goes on. I mixed up some neutral gray (around a value 5 or so) and painted over the whole area of the white fur. While the paint was wet I dropped in some darker paint where the fur was darker and used my spray bottle to add some texture. Thankfully this all worked out and it definitely improved the painting.

The final changes were just to darken inside the right ear a little and the whole thing was finished.

fox watercolor by Michele Clamp
fox watercolor by Michele Clamp

Final Thoughts

Well I think it came out pretty well in the end. Shadows on white fur are always a little scary as the paint we have to use always looks darker than we thing we need. But some careful measurements and observation and all turns out well.

I hope you enjoyed the demo. If you try it or have any questions I’d love to see what you do. It’s been a lot of fun painting this cute fox watercolor and I think a wolf watercolor will be on the cards in the coming weeks.

Dog Watercolor Painting – Spaniel

This is a demo dog watercolor painting of the wonderful spaniel Leo. I’m working with someone who wants to do a series of 3 paintings of Leo and this is the first. It’s great fun and I’m especially pleased with that bow tie.

Dog Paintings are Rare for me

I don’t do a lot of dog paintings. If I owned a dog I would probably do more but I don’t. This means I’m pretty reliant on other people’s reference photos. Of course I could paint dogs from life but I’m not sure I’m quick enough for that kind of thing. I leave that to the pros like James Gurney who, if you don’t already know about him, does a lot of fabulous work of all kinds.

Pet Photos can Vary in Quality

So if I’m reliant on other people’s photos that is usually a problem unless they’ve got a really good eye. You need really good lighting and a good pose to make a decent painting. And a lot of phone snaps (and I include myself in this) aren’t taken in great conditions. A lot of photos of pets are taken from above by a person standing. The lens distortion results in the poor dog’s nose looking 5 times as big as it is in real life which can be quite disconcerting. This is so common that some painters make a whole series of these paintings. They can be quite striking but it’s not for me. My advice if you’re going to do a pet portrait is to try and take some photos yourself. They don’t have to be fantastic but you’ll have more control over the viewpoint, lighting and angle and that can make all the difference.

But Leo Looks Wonderful Here

But the photo for this dog watercolor painting was wonderful. Leo belongs to a student of mine and she wanted to paint him in all his finery. As luck would have it he has wonderful fur to paint. I dread painting a black dog in low light. No form! No shadows! This photo was great and he has a combination of black and white fur which is always a good combination. In fact one of my favorite dog watercolor paintings of mine is this basset hound. It has the same pattern of fur and some decent lighting.

While I’m Here…

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Basset Hound Watercolor Painting – Yay!

I don’t paint a lot of dogs. Dogs are tricky and I’ve shied away from them. But yesterday I was feeling in the mood for something different and a picture of a basset hound took my fancy.

I started him yesterday. Here’s the end of day 1.


Now this may not look like much but I was actually really happy at this stage. I’d managed to both get the white fur the right value and the shiny parts of the ears the right value. Once that was done the rest of it pretty much painted itself.