We grew up in fear of the “wolf at the door”. It took me a while to determine my parents and grandmother were speaking figuratively (life altering abject poverty) and not literally (the wild beasts occasionally spotted in our wilderness home environment). We did, after all, have moose, cougar and bear all stroll into the yard at various times, and the bull moose did clamber up the front steps for a quick peek in the window.
I also had difficulty associating the exaggerated slavering snouts and scrawny body parts of the illustrations in our fairy tale books with the reality of the magnificent furry beasts loping across our fields or highways. Even as a child I understood they were an integral part of the great balance of nature.
A few weeks ago as I puttered at my art table trying to paint the mountain slopes of my childhood, a long ago imagined pair of wolves I conjured in order to match the eerie howling we heard in the valley came to mind. I could clearly “see” two furry beasts howling from a mid-mountain ledge. Sketching them in seemed only fitting.
In my Chinese Brush Painting (CBP) studies I have focused on dogs before, mostly concentrating on small breeds. And out of tradition I studied the Pekingese, that quintessential Asian lap dog. See Links here and here.
For the wolves in my painting I needed only to understand the details that would make them appear distinctly “wolfish”. None of my CBP books address wolf-painting per se, but I quickly found several good photographs at some of the national park websites.
Dogs vs. Wolf
For anyone who wants to dwell on what makes a wolf a wolf, there’s plenty of well-illustrated material online. Here’s just two such links I found helpful: the first compares wolves, coyotes and foxes, the second zeroes in on wolf characteristics.
This one notes differences largely in behavior and temperament. Differences in number of teeth, nature of scat, breeding, maturation rates and footprints are discussed, but likely do not affect a painting.
The breeds of dog most closely resembling a wolf are the German Shepherd and the Husky: fur coloring and relative sizes are very similar. However key differences do commonly present and they can be important in a painting. Some of these come to mind:
- The tail of a dog may curl upwards, a wolf’s does not.
- A dog may stand with its head held upright at a ninety degree angle or even “pushed back”, i.e “aloft”; a wolf tends to stand hunching its head with shoulders slightly raised. Yes, it looks more menacing, which is part of its nature. You want to be sure to show thick muscled shoulders or “ruff”. Forget the scrawny, wasted caricatures of old fairy tale books—they do no justice to the spirit of a wolf. Of course posing a wolf with its head pointing at an upward angle with mouth open clearly conveys “howling wolf”. The prominent teeth should be visible and its snout slightly shorter and fuller than for a coyote.
- The wolf’s eyes tend to be smaller and more slanted downwards at the centre than in a dog, important if you are painting a full frontal view. The eyes will be yellowish if you are painting in color.
- The chests on dogs tend to be broader and the feet solidly under the body; they rarely splay. The chests on wolves are narrower and the feet often splay outwards rather than appear directly below the body.
- If you want to depict a specific kind of wolf you may want to check out details concerning fur color, tail size and color, and so on. There are 38 subspecies under the category of Canis lupus and some are now deemed extinct. I was surprised to learn there are several reddish or cinnamon colored subspecies. See this link.
- Wolf packs are social groups and when you depict a group you will want to show accurate positioning relative to others; using photographs for reference instead of another painting is therefor most important when painting this creature.
Whistler B.C. is home to artist Andrea Moore who paints large scale wolves in acrylics. In the examples of her work below you can see she knows what she is doing! Look at those slanted yellow eyes, the hunched shoulders, and (in the twosome) the slight splaying of the legs.
Painting a Wolf with a Chinese brush:
As usual when painting animals in the CBP manner your first decision is whether to fully line the creature in ink and wash with color or ink tones, OR to depict it in “boneless” manner, using colored/toned brush strokes to define the shapes and body details.
In both cases I would start with the eyes and facial features. As my first “need” for a wolf in a composition was to depict one or more in moonlight in winter I opted to try several poses with simple inky washes over outline “sketches”. (Painting in the “boneless” style would result in images more like Ms. Moore’s above.)
Below is the procedure I followed once I had found a few photographs of wolf pairs and groups. A lone wolf howling at the moon is a classic wolf image; wolves hunting are another
I started with a simple pose of a single wolf in profile.
I can see that I will have to work on texturing to define the rounded shapes of limbs, darker where the body part would be shaded behind or under another body part and lighter on the parts that struck by light.
Here’s my second small study:
Putting together my mountain slope techniques with the wolf poses I completed the painting as envisioned and here it is on my drying board.