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How to Draw Animal Feet with Ruth Buchanan

Posted on Thu 14 Feb 2019

Animal feet and lower limbs seem to be a challenging feature for many artists. It is easy to fudge the issue, hiding the feet in grass or foliage or simply not draw or paint them at all. If we do attempt them, it is easy to mis-read references, seeing shadows as toes or toes as shadows.

A little knowledge of structure can help: there are four main types of animal feet forms (although there are other variants in insects and aquatic creatures): pads without claws (more like hands); pads with claws; toes with talons; hooves. In these four main types the digits (fingers or toes) are comprised of bones called phalanges. Evolution has reduced the number of digits in some animals, so knowing the number of digits is a good start to knowing the animal, and therefore drawing it correctly.

Toes countdown

When drawing I find it useful first to rough-in key lines based on the bones. This gives me an idea of the angles. The lines across the drawings are linked through the joints of the fingers and toes, which are not straight lines as the digits are not all the same length. I then indicate some mass by using maquette circles and ovals, amending as necessary, before sketching. When sketching I use straighter lines in a ‘chopping or carving’ way rather than going for a clean outline, as I can do that when I transfer the drawing. I don’t normally ink the lines, but have done so in this article for you to see the construction. For watercolour I tend to do this process in my sketchbook and then transfer the drawing to prevent damage to the paper surface from overdrawing or rubbing out, but if I am working in oils I do this on the canvas with a brush and thinned paint.


Six digits plus an extra

While bears have five digits on each limb, there is a case for saying that pandas have six as they have an additional single bone from the wrist ending in a pad that works in a way not dissimilar to a thumb, which has two bones. This is not truly prehensile (able to grasp objects) but by wedging food, such as bamboo, between the additional digit and its five toes, the panda can hold the stem steady while it strips the leaves.

Lemur, baboon and giant otter

Five digits

Although some sea creatures have more than five digits, five seems to be the magic number in land-based mammals unless there is a genetic anomaly, such as in polydactyl cats, which can have up to seven. Humans have five digits on each limb, as do a number of other animals including bears, racoons, badgers and most primates. Some of these animals have prehensile ‘hands’ with an opposable thumb (defined as a digit that can bend and touch all the other digits), which affords them more dexterity. This is found in primates on all four limbs, although the ‘new world’ group of monkeys, lemurs and lorises have thumbs that are not fully opposable. Other animals have opposable thumbs on their fore-limbs though not on their hind feet, including koalas, racoons, otters and arboreal frogs. Opossums have opposable thumbs only on their hind feet. Some marine animals, like otters, beavers and the platypus, have five toes that are webbed; others, like crocodiles and Asian elephants, have five digits on their front limbs but only four on their hind limbs. Bats have five elongated ‘fingers’ that give structure to the skin of their wings as well as five toes. Chameleons have five toes, but they are fused into two. The moral of all this is to check before you draw!


Four digits

In this group are dogs, foxes and cats. Pigs have four toes and trotters (not dissimilar to hooves), but the outer two toes are shortened so pigs mainly weight-bear on the two middle toes. African elephants have four toes in front and three toes behind. All these animals have elongated metatarsal/metacarpal bones of digit three; these bones connect the wrist or ankle to the phalanges – the knee is the equivalent of a human wrist and the hock – the large joint in the hind leg – is the equivalent to a human ankle. Rats, mice and squirrels have four toes in front and five behind. Most birds have three ‘fingers’ within their wings but four toes – three facing forwards and one facing back. Cats and dogs have vestigial thumbs in the form of dew claws. They also have partially webbed toes, as do polar bears, though they have five toes.

Three-toed sloth

Three digits

This is a rarer variant, and a group that contains only rhinos, tapirs and three-toed sloths. With the toes well hidden within the foot, rhinos only show toe clefts and nails on their feet. Sloths only show elongated claws outside of the paw. Three toes are more common in hind limbs only: desert rodents, several species of kangaroo, tapirs, two-toed sloths and emus. Some birds with webbed feet have three toes and a vestigial, backward-facing fourth.


Two digits

Here we start to see cloven hooves as in cattle, deer, antelopes, gazelle, goats and sheep; but there are also animals with soft pads and a nail divided by an ‘interdigital cleft’ such as camels, alpacas and llamas. They all have third digit metatarsal/metacarpal bones that are much more elongated than cats or dogs. Ostriches also have two toes, with an elongated digit three. Hooves tend to be sandy, greyish or almost black in colour. They can be two-toned or have stripes of (usually darker) colours.


One digit

There is only one, unique genus here: equus. Species include zebras, donkeys, horses, and any hybrids such as mules. When drawing hoofed animals the angles are important. There are three distinct angles: the leg down from the mid-leg joint – structurally the very elongated metatarsal/metacarpal digit three; the pastern – between the lower leg joint and the hoof; and the angle of the hoof itself. The angle of the pastern and hoof varies from upright in a donkey to more sloped in a horse or pony, and also varies from breed to breed.



  • Langton watercolour board (Saunders Waterford paper)
  • Masking fluid and cheap synthetic brushes to apply it
  • Frisk Maskaway masking fluid remover block
  • Rosemary & Co Series 731 1⁄2in kolinsky sable filbert; Chinese sumie brush; Escoda No. 8 synthetic round
  • Watercolours: Lucas manganese blue – I prefer this light blue as it granulates well; M Graham ultramarine blue and naphthol red; Winsor & Newton brown madder; Holbein Naples yellow and lavender


I sketched the image in my sketchbook using keylines based on the skeleton (yellow). I then added maquette shapes for mass (red) before sketching the outlines (brown).


I transferred the drawing to my watercolour board and masked off retained white, hard, high contrast edges (blue masking fluid). I let this dry thoroughly. Using my 1⁄2in filbert and manganese blue I painted a background, allowing the wash into the shadow areas on the hand. While still wet, I applied ultramarine blue in areas where I wanted a hard edge, then used madder brown over more of the shaping shadows and, in a less watery consistency, over some of the ultramarine background as texture. This was left overnight to dry completely.


I removed the masking fluid taking care not to disturb the surface of the board. Using my kolinsky sable filbert and Chinese sumi-e brush, I redrew and shaped the paw using lavender, adding some shadow darker areas on the hand. I then worked Naples yellow in for the warmest light edges, centres of the fingers and on the areas of the paw toes closest to the viewer.

NB. I would not normally add the colour around the signature this early; I did so in order to scan the work-in-progress for this feature. For this I needed to remove all the masking fluid because the light beam from the scanner (or any strong light source) can damage the masking fluid and make it harder, or even impossible, to remove. I was not trying to make shapes here, but working purely abstract – shapes appear by themselves.


Using a mix of the lavender and Naples yellow, I worked more into the paw, reserving the white of the paper and creating a soft shaping shadow. Into this I dropped touches of naphthol red to warm certain areas.


Pause, watercolour,  (34x26cm)

Using the sable filbert brush I created more shadow areas with mixes of madder brown and ultramarine blue, dropping-in naphthol red or Naples yellow to warm certain areas, and manganese blue in cooler areas. I then applied some darker variants of the mix with the No. 8 synthetic round to create more definition.

Ruth Buchanan studied and worked in graphic design and illustration, then taught Print Media and Film Studies at a Further Education College. She exhibits nationally and internationally, and her equine, animal and figurative work features in private and corporate collections both in the UK and abroad. Ruth is a member of the International Watercolour Society (England), the Society of Equestrian Artists, the Association of Animal Artists and a Signature Member of the Institute of Equine Artists. Ruth will be teaching at Pure Artwork Studios, Oxfordshire in March and April, 2019. For details see

This feature is the fourth of a ten-part series in The Artist

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How to Draw Animal Feet with Ruth Buchanan


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