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.

Elephant watercolor painting by Michele Clamp
Elephant watercolor painting by Michele Clamp

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.

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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

YouTube player

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

Elephant watercolor demo reference image
Elephant watercolor demo reference image

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.

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 đŸ™‚ 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 left 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.