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How to paint an Amur Leopard in watercolour with Ruth Buchanan

Posted on Thu 04 Jul 2019

While we can become proficient at rendering tonal values to describe an animal in either monochrome or colour as tone and temperature, it is more challenging when looking at an animal with a strong pattern. This could be a pattern in the coat, but can also be a strong cast shadow, which can be confusing to the eye and therefore confusing to paint, as the pattern or cast shadow can ‘fight’ with the tones that are used to shape the animal, confusing both. The answer is that one or the other must be dominant. This is also where a good knowledge of the structure and form of the animal will help.


This is part of a larger composition. Because I plan to paint the background of the whole composition later, I have not painted establishing shadows cast by the animal or any background, although I would normally do so. Amur Leopard uses the pattern and handling of the spots to define the animal’s shape.

You will need:

  • Support: Langton watercolour board, Not
  • Brushes: Rosemary & Co kolinsky sable filbert series 731, ½in; series 170 squirrel mop size 4; series 401 sable/synthetic mix rounds sizes 8 and 12; Winsor & Newton Artisan synthetic hog (as lifting brush)
  • Watercolour paint (tube): M. Graham ultramarine blue; Winsor & Newton manganese blue, burnt sienna, permanent rose, gold ochre and brown madder; Sennelier cadmium orange; Jackson’s red orange; QOR transparent red oxide; Rembrandt vermilion; Holbein Naples yellow and lavender


After drawing up, begin underpainting with a mix of ultramarine blue and permanent rose using my kolinsky sable filbert. This helps to define the spot pattern, the contours and perspective of which describe the form of the leopard. The tonal shading is minimal, around the undersides of the paws. Mask off the whiskers with masking fluid.

Ruth's Top Tip

I worked very quickly, creating a wash of varying colour and consistency so I made sure I had clean water and laid out my colours on a palette so that I could pull them in as needed. My base colours were Naples yellow, gold ochre, burnt sienna, brown madder and transparent red oxide, which I laid out at the bottom; my drop-in colours of cadmium orange, red orange and vermilion were laid out at the top.


Using the kolinsky filbert, quickly wash over the leopard shape with a base mix of gold ochre and Naples yellow; while wet work back in with mixes of the other colours. The form is helped by adding strokes of thicker consistency paint along the spine, the top of the sides, left front leg, forehead and side of the nose. While this is still wet ‘in-line’ the open spots with burnt sienna and ‘touched’, but not ‘coloured-in’ the closed (solid) spots with burnt sienna in the warmer (advancing) areas of the head, back and tail, and with transparent red oxide in the cooler (receding) area of the neck and chest. This phase can be quite random as the main shaping will come from the spot pattern.


Start adding the spots to help shape the leopard (working only on the head, spine and tail at this point) using a mix of brown madder neutralised with ultramarine blue and applied with the size 12 sable/synthetic mix round. To avoid the spots becoming too flat, vary the mix: more brown where they are closer to the light; and more blue at the lower edges. Keep a second brush loaded with madder brown to add variation, especially in the open spots, you can also use dropped-in colour from the base palette. Then paint in the ears, nose, eye and mouth, being careful to cut around the whiskers where you have removed the masking fluid.


the ‘second pass’ of spots has a subtly cooler (bluer) and more watery consistency of the same colours; it described the body curving away from the light where the sides of the leopard fall on a different plane from the spine, where the tail curves away and where the neck and chest recede from the viewer. Add some touches of the same colour onto the spots on the front leg and haunch. Vary the colours and tones within the spots to prevent them becoming too flat and standing out in front of the body rather sitting on, and moving with it.


Amur Leopard, watercolour, (35x25cm)

Ruth says: 'My final pass was of a thicker consistency of the brown madder ultramarine blue mix, but with more separation between the variations of the blue and brown. I used this to paint the remaining closed spots and end of the tail. I added a little shading to the side of the nose and around the eye, then some more of the ultramarine and manganese blues to suggest the longer white hairs of the underbelly, the undersides of the paws, the far right foreleg and neck. I finished off with touches of the mix using a butter consistency of paint around the eyes, ears and nose and introduced touches of vermilion around the ears and forehead'.

Ruth Buchanan worked and taught in graphic design and illustration. She exhibits nationally and internationally, and her work features in private and corporate collections in the UK, Europe, USA and the Middle East.
Ruth teaches for Pure Artwork Studios, Oxfordshire, and has led workshops throughout the UK and in the USA.

More from Ruth

For advice on how to draw horses please click here.

For top tips for drawing animal feet please click here.

Read more on painting animal patterns from Ruth in the August 2019 issue of The Artist

Click here to purchase your copy

How to paint an Amur Leopard in watercolour with Ruth Buchanan


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