How to Paint a Zebra in Watercolour

Zebra are one of my all-time favourite subjects to paint; and they’re great practice for beginners too.

01: Choose your Reference Photos

A great painting starts with fully understanding your subject. If you don’t spend a lot of time with zebra, reference photos are essential. It’s especially important to make sure your photos are for the same species and, if possible, the same sex. There’s nothing more frustrating than getting partway through a painting before realising you’ve combined the long tail of a Plains Zebra with the stripes of a Grevy’s Zebra.

Tip One: Either work from one reference photo or look up the characteristics of the species you’re painting. There are three primary species of zebra, with various subspecies for each:

  1. the Plains Zebra: the most common zebra, and the smallest. They have black noses, and shadow stripes between the black stripes on their hindquarters. Their stripes also wrap under their bellies.
  2. the Mountain Zebra: the second largest. They have faded brown stripes leading into a black nose. These zebra have a white belly, and a dewlap (loose skin) beneath their neck.
  3. the Grevy’s Zebra: the largest zebra, that almost looks like a mule. These zebra have thin, closely spaced stripes, and a white belly. Their tail is also white, and has the least hair. The nose is brown, and their ears are large and oval shaped.

If you’re struggling to find good reference photos, remember you can always use video as a reference.

A Plains Zebra, with a black nose, and faint shadow stripes.

02. Sketch out your Zebra

You’ve got your reference photo! Now it’s time to draw out your zebra. For this project, I’ve picked the photograph of the Plains Zebra, shown above.

I always draw on printing paper, rather than directly on watercolour paper. Watercolour paper is delicate and expensive; printing paper is cheap, and plentiful – and I find it a lot less pressurising. You can make as many drafts as you’d like, without worrying you’ll irrevocably damage your watercolour paper before you even start painting. You can use a transfer method to get your drawing from your printing paper to your watercolour paper later.

The easiest way to draw an unfamiliar animal is to break it down into smaller shapes, like this:

  1. Zebra have coffin-shaped heads; the widest part of the coffin is where their eyes are. The foot of the coffin is the area between their nostrils.
  2. After I’ve drawn the coffin, I draw in ovals; one for the snout, and two for the ears. Make sure to leave space behind the ear-ovals for the stems of the ears to go
  3. Finally, Zebra have very defined jaws; they’re almost at a right-angle. I drew a line from low in the snout-oval, and then drew a line almost straight down from behind the ear-ovals.

Coffins, circles and right angles are easy for anyone to draw – so if your proportions look off after you’ve drawn these rough shapes, it’s super low pressure to just try another circle, or take a new line until you find something that does work for you. Don’t start adding in details like the eyes, the nostril or stripes until you feel you’ve found the right proportions.

Once you’re happy with your proportions, feel free to start adding details to your drawing. You might also want to change lines to make them less straight and more organic, or amend the oval for the snout so that it’s more realistic looking.

I ended up with a very rough drawing that looked like this:

My super rough drawing is now ready for me to transfer onto my watercolour paper! Pick whichever transfer method you’d like to use to do this. I chose my favourite: DIY Graphite Paper.

03. Begin your Painting!

Base Colour

Use a very diluted wash to fill in the body of your zebra (I used a touch of Burnt Sienna, which was so dilute that it looked like ivory on the paper). Cover everything, but use the excess paint on your brush to drop paint in the shadow areas around the snout, under the chin, and along the edges of the neck. If you aren’t sure where the shadows are, use my tonal guide below:

You can mix your colours on the paper if you prefer! Just put very wet dots of paint on the paper; use warmer browns for areas where the sun is hitting, and cooler blue greys on shadowed areas.

Define your Shadows

Before you get to the stripes, make sure you’re happy with the shadows. Think of the zebra as an albino horse at this stage. Does it have definition around the jaw, and snout? Have you put expression lines in around the eyes? Folds in the skin of the neck? Use the colours you chose as for your base layer, and gradually build on those.

Show your Stripes

Now the fun part begins! You’re going to need to versions of a colour for this; one should be browner, the other should be bluer. Warm colours are advancing colours – which means they appear closer to us – while cooler colours are recessive – which means they appear further away. Use this to your advantage!

Using your blue mix, apply it to the furthest edges of the stripes, under the chin and by the hair on the neck. Put your warmest shade in the middle; your zebra’s neck will become even more three-dimensional. Don’t forget to play with lightening and darkening your stripes depending on where the light is coming from. Make sure to vary the width and shape of each stripe for a more natural look.

Add the Details

Finally, use a fine brush to add details to the zebra’s face, such as the eyes, nose and mane. A dry brush on the mane will really emphasise the texture of the hairs. You can use this technique on the chin hairs as well.

If you want to add extra depth and detail to the hair or eyes, you can use a white gouache – sparingly! Make sure this is part of your top layer, as white can make watercolour mixes muddy and flat.

Don’t forget the pupils on a zebra are horizontal and rectangular as well; it’s the little details that will really emphasise your understanding of your subject.

Et voila! You should be well on your way to creating your own zebra!

Watch the Video:

Video coming soon

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