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I find that drawing realistic fur is almost like problem solving with every reference photo, figuring out how to best illustrate the relevant layers and textures on paper. Creating the appearance of realistic fur on a 2D surface can be difficult, but I hope this blog post gives you a clear insight into my method of how I draw fur using soft pastels. I’ll give a little back story into my journey with pastels but if you’re easily bored and want to just get straight to the point, scroll right down for my method.
During the beginning stages of my portrait art business, I found myself being commissioned to draw animals / pets much more often than humans, which I was more used to. I quickly realised people love their pets more than anything! I had already built my skill up to draw people for years so I was used to drawing smooth skin. Drawing the texture of fur was a whole different skill that I realised I had to quickly learn and improve on. I noticed I wasn’t able to produce as high quality of work compared to my smooth skin portraits. This turned into frustration and which definitely showed in my quality of work.
I began drawing fur by simply using pastel pencils alone and this created multiple problems for me. When using pastel pencils on their own, overall it can be very time consuming and you’ll likely be left with white gaps in your drawing where the paper shows through if you’re not careful. Pastel pencils alone don’t carry much pigment so you will also likely miss out on vibrancy.
I first improved by realising the need to create a base layer of colour using soft pastel sticks initially where the detailed pencil strokes of fur will go, instead of trying to create the base colour with just pencils alone. I first started to create base layers of colour with PanPastels which are a condensed form of pastel that you apply to the paper using sponges. I then began using pastel sticks instead as I found them quicker, they contaiend more pigment and it was easier for me to control how much got deposited. but beware, using these can be very dusty! Have a hoover handy and make sure not to blow it everywhere as you will inevitability breathe in the dust.
You also have to be careful with both pastel sticks and PanPastels to not deposit too much on the paper, doing this can clog up the tooth of the paper – not allowing for additional pencil details on top. I will explain further a bit later on.
Paper choice may be the most important factor in my improvement of fur drawing. I previously used a high quality, expensive paper called BFK Rives which did in fact work well with smooth pastel pencil textures, however I found myself only able to build up 1 or 2 layers when using it. I also wanted to use PanPastels on it but the paper didn’t allow for detailed strokes on top of layers which was an issue when it came to illustrating fur. This is again due to there being a small tooth on the paper.
I started looking around for an alternative and Pastelmat by Clairefontaine became an obvious winner. For my pastel portraits, I typically draw on either Grey Pastelmat or White Pastelmat paper. When I first tried this paper, I was completely blown away. Its specifically made for pastels so I felt as though I had been missing out this whole time! It even excelled in drawing smooth skin textures because I could incorporate more layers into the paper but most importantly it allowed for detailed pastel pencil strokes on top of pastel layers. The surface of Pastelmat has velvety / sandy surface, this is because its made from a fine coating of cellulose fibres. This gives it the ability to grab and hold many layers of pastels which is exactly what I was after for drawing fur.
It all comes down to the tooth of the paper. You may have experienced for yourself that the paper you work on can only handle a small amount of pastel before you’re unable to work more layers on top. The tooth refers to the peaks and valleys within paper, the smoother the paper means less peaks and valleys, the rougher the paper equates to greater peaks and valleys.
I hope you enjoy my badly drawn example, the lines in between peaks and valleys represent different layers of pastel. I had previously worked with rough paper but I tried to avoid it as I wanted my drawings to be as smooth as possible. Because of this, I avoided rough paper altogether but this was what was keeping my pastel ability from excelling. This is where PastelMat performs above the rest as it feels and appears smooth yet the fine coating of cellulose fibres allow for many layers. Understanding how pastel sits on the paper explains why smooth paper doesn’t allow for many pastel layers and details. As a layer of pastel goes on, the peak and valleys of the paper gradually fill with pastel, this is why smooth paper only has room for one or two layers. Where as using a paper like Pastelmat where the surface is sanded and the peaks and valleys are much greater, it can hold in more of those layers, also allowing you to put detail on top of previous layers below.
When you come to block in your base colour layer, it’s important to make it slightly darker than your detailed highlight details on top. This will create the illusion of depth and allow the highlights to stand out on top. To figure out how dark this area needs to be, I typically look at the colours / tones in between the fur highlights. I go into more detail on this whole process in my Patreon video tutorials.
The two main brands of pastel sticks I have come to love and use are Unison Colour & Schmincke. I make sure to use either small disposabke eyeshadow sponges or Sofft Tools to blend out my pastel layers. For pastel pencils, I mainly use (in order), Stabilo Carbothello, Faber-Castell Pitt, Caran d’Ache, Derwent & Bruynzeel.
I hope all of that helped and gave you a bit of an insight into how pastels work. Just to recap, when drawing fur with pastels my method is:
- Pastelmat as paper choice (always!),
- Thin base layer of pastel, mainly using soft pastel sticks or PanPastels to block in the colour,
- Always make up the base layer with shadows / dark tones so that the highlights of the lighter pastel pencils stand out,
- Refine fur details on subsequent layers with pastel pencils,
- Notes: Keep a hoover handy to clean up any dust (wear a mask for protection if needed & keep the workspace well ventilated. You do not want to breathe in pastel dust regularly). If the pastel paper gets clogged with pastel, use a kneadable eraser to lift of some of the condensed pastel so you can continue drawing with detail.
- Keep your pencils sharp, especially for smaller sized drawings!
You can find many soft pastel tutorials and real-time drawing videos on my Patreon.
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