Wildlife Painting Step-by-Step Demonstration: Zebra

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Zebra Wildlife Painting: Starting with a Pencil Sketch

Wildlife Painting Step By Step Demonstration: Zebra Step 1
Zebra Painting Step 1: Sketching with a Pencil.

When I decided to do a painting of a zebra, the first thing I did was to look at various reference photos of zebras. My idea was to have a single zebra, positioned as if it were drinking water, with the scene reduced down to its essence. My intention was for the focus to be on the zebra's head, with the rest of its body and its location merely being suggested, rather than painted in fine detail.

The painting was done in acrylics on canvas (36x24"/91x61cm), using a palette limited to titanium white and Paynes's grey, with a little Prussian blue, and even less bone black. As is the case with most of my paintings, I used only one brush, a no.10 size filbert.

Using a pencil, I sketched the position of the zebra straight onto the canvas, focusing on the stripes that give form to the body rather than drawing an outline. The next step is to start blocking in with some paint.

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Zebra Wildlife Painting: Initial Blocking-In

Wildlife Painting Step By Step Demonstration: Zebra Step 2
Zebra Painting Step 2: Initial Blocking-In.

Using thin bone black, I started block in the stripes on the zebra. See how, even at this early stage, the stripes give structure to the zebra's body. There's no need for an 'outline' edge along the top of its back. Thinning the paint with water, I also started painting in an indication of where the water would be.

My intention at this stage is to get enough shape down that I can stand back and look at the composition to see if I'm happy with it.

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Zebra Wildlife Painting: Defining the Dark

Wildlife Painting Step By Step Demonstration: Zebra Step 3
Zebra Painting Step 3: Defining the Dark.

Next I painted in the dark triangle that would be the water the zebra was standing in and drinking from. At such as initial stage in a painting's development, it's important to be bold, not timid; the dark part may seem too much or exaggerated right now, but there's still a lot of painting that'll happen on top of it which will calm it down.

Then I suddenly worried that maybe zebras didn't do this and only ever drank from the edge of a water source to avoid crocodiles. So I surfed around a bit researching zebras' drinking habits and found that they do on occasion wade into deeper water. Just as well, or I'd have had to change the entire composition. (Note to self: Check this kind of detail before I start painting next time!)

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Zebra Wildlife Painting: Checking the Composition

Wildlife Painting Step By Step Demonstration: Zebra Step 4
Zebra Painting Step 4: Checking the Composition.

Using Paynes's grey, I went over the whole composition again, redefining and strengthening the shapes of the zebra, and the water. I also put in a very thin glaze in the top right-hand area -- you can't really see this in the photo -- because I didn't want to leave the canvas bare.

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Zebra Wildlife Painting: Working Back in With White

Wildlife Painting Step By Step Demonstration: Zebra Step 5
Zebra Painting Step 5: Working Back in With White.

After stepping back and looking at the painting and my reference photos for some time, I now did the same thing again using titanium white. At this stage I'm still working broadly, trying not to get drawn into detail until I'm satisfied with the basic structure.

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Zebra Wildlife Painting: Adding Stripes

Wildlife Painting Step By Step Demonstration: Zebra Step 6
Zebra Painting Step 6: Adding Stripes.

Having (finally) decided I was happy with the composition and the underlying structure of the zebra, it was time to start adding some detail or, rather, stripes. Having the stripes to follow the contours immediately creates a sense of form. And, conversely, flattens it out if you don't. Just compare the stripes on the neck with those on the stomach.

Again I found myself painting what I thought, not what my reference photos were showing me. I kept making the stripes identical in width, and parallel to one another. A zebra's stripes are far more varied. Time to stop and study the reference photos!

This is also the stage at which I added a glaze of Prussian blue in a few areas, especially the black stripes on the water's side of the zebra and, in an even thinner glaze, in the 'sky' area above the water. It's not dramatically blue, it just adds a subtle variation to the darks.

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Zebra Wildlife Painting: Fixing the Ears (and Eye)

Wildlife Painting Step By Step Demonstration: Zebra Step 7
Zebra Painting Step 7: Fixing the Ears.

I refined the stripes, got the eye working (just look what a different that little spot of light in it makes), and then had a lightbulb moment! Despite the fact that I had reference photos in front of me, I'd been painting the ears totally wrong -- 'inside out' as it were. A quick swipe of white on the zebra's left ear confirmed this. Once again I was painting what I thought, not what I saw.

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Zebra Wildlife Painting: Reworking the Face

Wildlife Painting Step By Step Demonstration: Zebra Step 8
Zebra Painting Step 8: Reworking the Face.

After sitting across my studio looking at the painting for some time, I decided there were three things really wrong. (1) While the eye was okay, it wasn't working in the face as a whole. (2) The face was too small for the body. (3) The back was going off at too great an angle for the front legs and the neck.

Using titanium white I painted out part of the back and the ears and face (except for the eye), enlarging it at the same time. Then using Payne's grey I painted in the nose and the centre line down the front of the face.

Stepping back to look at it again, it seems the face is now too large for the body, but as it's turned slightly towards the viewer there would be some foreshortening, so I need to resist the temptation to make it smaller again at this stage. I need to wait until I've got the ears done and then reassess the size.

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Zebra Wildlife Painting: Reworking the Face Again

Wildlife Painting Step By Step Demonstration: Zebra Step 9
Zebra Painting Step 9: Reworking the Face Again.

I could've put up several photos between the last one and this one of how I reworked the face, but you don't need to see that struggle. This 'white bangs' stage happened after I got the nose working, but not the forehead. Basically I worked alternately with the Payne's grey and titanium white until I eventually got all of the face and ears working for me.

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Zebra Wildlife Painting: Declaring the Painting Finished

Wildlife Painting Step By Step Demonstration: Zebra Step 10
Zebra Painting Step 10: Declaring the Painting Finished.

When I found myself 'just quickly' fixing this little bit and that, I knew it was time to stop. It may not be 100 percent yet (can a painting ever be?), but fiddling will never make it perfect, just the opposite. It was time to declare the painting finished and to put it to one side. I'd look at it again in a week or so and decide then whether I still think it's done. (And, ultimately, I did.)