Burning bright: tiger (Part 1)

As children we often heard our grandmother fret about a possible  ‘wolf at the door’. Because bears, moose, cougars and other assorted wildlife occasionally showed up on our farm, the idea of a real wolf threatening our livelihood was credible. Upon learning the Chinese place images of roaring tigers near household entrances to deter demons and bad fortune, I can appreciate their thinking.

Turns out the tiger can also stand duty on gravesites to ward off evil spirits, and its image on baby shoes protects infants from harm. In China the tiger is considered the ‘king of beasts’ (not the lion) and its power extends to the spiritual as well as physical attributes.


Simple research turns up all kinds of associations with strength, dignity, wealth, energy, and powerOne site tells us there are even different roles for five different kinds of tigers. And Wikipedia covers a lot of tiger territory as well; one curious bit is that the tiger’s forehead bears a striped pattern that reads as the Chinese symbol for Wang, or Prince.

Brush painter Henry Li also says in this Youtube tiger-painting lesson that striping on the tiger’s face resembles the Japanese character for ‘king’.  Looking at this array of Kanji symbols for ‘king of kings’ (generated by an online translation site) one can see that stripes on a tiger’s face could easily be interpreted as such.


Asian cultures are not alone in their reverence for Panthera tigrisWilliam S. Blake’s short tribute poem that starts ‘tyger tyger burning bright in the forests of the night’ was written in 1794 and is said to be the most anthologized poem in the English language.

What is the tiger?

The tiger’s distinctive bold striping on an orange-ish coat of luxuriant fur sets him apart from other panther species—the lion, leopard, jaguar, and snow leopard—although all share status as endangered/threatened species. Collectively, they are considered ‘the big cats’. According to Wikipedia:

Tigers are among the most recognizable and popular of the world’s charismatic mega fauna. They have featured prominently in ancient mythology and folklore, and continue to be depicted in modern films and literature. They appear on many flags, coats of arms, and as mascots for sporting teams. The tiger is the national animal of Bangladesh, India, Vietnam, Malaysia and South Korea.

From hallowed state to point of near extinction—that sums up the status of tigers in China. Where once there were eight now only five sub-species exist and some of those are threatened.

The good news for one wishing to capture the realistic ‘spirit of tiger’ on paper is that Siberian tigers can often be observed in well-stocked zoos, AND if you’ve ever had a cat share your home, you have ample ‘cat knowledge’ to transfer to your tiger challenge.

Resources for painting tiger:

My first inspiration for painting tiger was a book featuring Victoria’s own master painter Stephen Lowe, aptly titled The Art of Stephen Lowe. The tiger head detail from his Tiger Guards Jade Green Forest dominates the cover jacket.

Given the popular appeal of tigers, they are often addressed in general CBP instruction books. For an absolute beginner, Chinese Animal Painting by Rebecca Yue provides immediate satisfying results; she directs you through painting a side profile of a tiger springing forward.  (Her color application method differs from others in that she allows the colors to blend on the paper as opposed to mixing in a dish. The resulting tonal variations are rather pleasing.) Later in the book she shows a pair of tigers in a snowy setting.

If you truly want to master tiger painting, a specialty book is recommended. I have found two with a lot to offer.


Shin Po-yun addresses the domestic cat in the first half of his book Painting tiger and Cat and tiger in the second. To be expected there are crossover treatments, such as for eyes, paws, muzzles, and fur. He provides numerous poses in different settings, including singles as well as tiger pairs and some with cubs. He also provides several pages on details such as paws, muzzle, eyes, and tail.

Artist Hao Bang Yin, whose books on eagle and horse I’ve found so helpful, also does a thorough job on painting tiger. He shows steps leading up to simple compositions, many different poses of singles, pairs, and groupings and some detail work in the early part. His book is in Chinese and it took me awhile to grasp that his coloring method differs from Po-yun’s. (Po-yun sketches a tiger, darkens body creases with grey washes, inks in stripes with shades of black ink, then applies color washes and tweaks the darkest stripes. Bang Yin sketches the animal, defines the major stripe pattern with grey ink, applies color washes, and then brushes the stripe patterns with ink into the still-wet tawny-colored fur. When the tiger dries, he tidies up the stripes with dry black ink.) Both approaches have merit; and both involve surface touch-ups that provide depth or volume to the animal shapes.

Another book I consult for tiger help is The big cats, the paintings of Guy Coheleach. It is loaded with sketches as well as helpful narrative to give you context, and then numerous full compositions. Although not a brush painter, the artist captures the spirit of the tiger admirably.


Anyone who has had a cat or kitten in the house will have good working knowledge of body parts to a tiger. Both have dominant eyes, triangular nose pad, small chin below a whiskered muzzle and round ears. Other feline body parts–paws and claws, the backs of heels, the roundness and tautness of muscles, the tail held in proper balance to the body–offer significant challenges to artists in any medium.

Po-yun’s book provides this helpful image showing skeletons of a domestic cat at rest and in motion; likewise the tiger’s body can appear differently when the animal moves or merely stretches.


Pet cat owners are often adept at reading the ear and tail positions for clues about the cat’s mood or intentions. Whether or not the claws are visible, how the whiskers are held, and even if the belly is relaxed or drawn tight under the body all indicate cat temperaments. All such knowledge is reliably transferable to tigers.

Such things as ears drawn back, eyes squinted slightly and shoulders stretched forward while the tiger is drinking are details one often sees in a domestic cat.   The snarly face with wide open eyes, the languid droopy eyes and chin of a contented animal, the alert heads-up of one looking out for danger, and the proud ‘shoulders-up’ look of a cat that has finished grooming and seems to be posing to best show off his luxuriant coat all come easily to mind.

Cats make great painting subjects, wild tiger or tame. If you’re not familiar with the muscle arrangement in shoulders, thighs, back and limbs then some research is needed. Tigers are highly muscled predators with strong claws and teeth for ripping flesh; the distinctive stripes are thought to serve as camouflage in shadowy forests or tall grasses. As with other creatures these ‘business bits’, as well as the eyes, are often exaggerated in brush paintings.

Common poses—tiger classics:

Tigers are painted alone or in pairs, sometimes in groups. They look magnificent head-on, gazing back over one shoulder, or in side profile—all postures that display the striped feline body to great advantage. Tigers posed calmly sitting on rocks or under a tree are common compositions, under a moon or drinking from a stream.  I made these quick outline sketches of several of the more common poses to get familiar with body proportions:

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Some brush painters have developed very interesting compositions with reflections of the tiger face or sometimes the moon in a pool. Consider all of the inherent challenges—water ripples, crouched tiger body, reflected images, shadows from nearby foliage, misty air above the water. These are not for the faint of heart!

Domestic scenarios with one or more cubs also result in fun compositions. (As Bird Woman loves to remind me, ‘cute sells’.) Tiger cubs are like other baby animals in that their eyes and heads look large for the body. You can have fun posing them distracted by butterflies, romping with a sibling, or maybe just exploring their surroundings. And even with big cats, they often do snuggle up together, eyes slightly closed in contentment and furry necks entwined.

One can paint tiger with mouth open in a fierce snarl revealing teeth, or show the face gazing placidly out from a body you know is capable of pouncing suddenly and forcefully. In all cases it’s best to start with the eyes, building the head and aligning stripes symmetrically around them.

Painting strategy:

As with other complex creatures it can be helpful to a beginning painter to tackle only a head shot at first, before moving on to the whole body. There is great beauty and complexity in the tiger’s face. That Henry Li demonstration I linked to earlier results in a satisfactory side profile composition.  (Do note how he achieves ink tone variations in the stripes and how he manipulates both vertical and side-strokes.)

A common start is to lightly sketch out the round head shape showing placement of eyes, ears, mouth and chin. You may even want to lightly mark where the dominant facial stripes will go (symmetric yes, but not absolutely perfectly so!)

Po-yun recommends drawing a circle with a T-shape on the lower half, then placing eyes on the horizontal bar with the mouth below on the long stroke.  Here’s my study sheet from his lesson:


He then moves to completing the eyes before darkening the stripes with black, washing in orange and burnt sienna, adding white hairs to the dried face, and tweaking the black lines.

I moved on to trying different head poses, following Po-yun’s method.

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Bang yin proceeds in much the same manner, but puts in the eyes after he has striped and colored the head.

Painting tiger involves four or five steps, depending on how you do eyes:

Step 1–sketch the rough shape in light ink placing eyes, ears, muzzle and major striping

Step 2—paint the major stripes, keeping them arranged symmetrically and paying attention to thick and thin lines. Use black ink, a dry detail brush, and mix strokes from vertical to sideways.

Step 3—do the eyes now or after coloring the fur

Step 4–apply color, leaving white paper for areas intended to be white fur. For a soft effect you can dab clear water over the face first and then tip in strokes of orange/burnt sienna.

Step 5—when dry, darken some of the black stripes, whisk in white outer fur strokes, and of course the major whiskers. Enlarge the eyes, and add the white sparkle.

I experimented with doing black stripes first and applying the tawny wash over, as well as dropping the inky stripes into slightly damp colored fur; I prefer the effect achieved with color over dry ink stripes.


Back in 2010, our last tiger year, I tried a tiger head after Stephen Lowe’s larger work.  For that I took more time and layered the color washes.


The cover jacket of Lowe’s book shows the head detail (reversed left to right) of his larger tiger composition. My very first tiger is in the frame at the back.

Here’s a composition of two cubs I have almost completed; I am waiting for the mouth of the one on the left to dry thoroughly before attempting a do-over to get more white into the yawn.


I think I am ready for a full-bodied large tiger and am considering whether to paint the full frontal advancing cat or the over-shoulder backward glancing animal. Both have great appeal.

Tiger Tips:

  1. Stripes are darker and thicker near the top of his body.
  2. Stripes emanate from an axis along the tiger’s spine. Po-yun provides views from above and from behind to help understand the patterning.
  3. Stripes may be sparse across the fore limbs or not. Note that both limbs tend to match or mirror one another
  4. His belly may be pulled taut or drooping in a side profile pose. Paint the stripes either elongated (taut) or bunching up at the bottom (drooping)
  5. Stripes are fewer over the shoulder hump, denser over the back and abdomen and appear in greater pattern variety.
  6. Facial stripes spread out from the eyes and are symmetrically arranged in mirror image. (You can actually create one side and hold a small mirror flat to your paper to visualize this if need be.)
  7. Tigers should be painted in ‘wild’ settings with rocks, trees, foliage, etc.
  1. Some artists work with leaving white paper for white fur in the face, chin and neck particularly; you can also work in white paint and light ink washes to get the blending of color correct.
  1. The tiger’s tail serves to aid in balancing his body. Think of how we automatically extend our hands to our sides, raised slightly with palms facing down when we walk along a raised curb or balance beam. Consider if your animal is resting, on alert, or perhaps poised to strike out and define the tail accordingly. If he’s resting the tail will be flopped down limply on the ground beside or behind him. If he’s standing alert, the tail usually extends in the air behind him in a sin curve (out and down then up towards the end with the very tip flicked up or down depending on where his attention is aimed.) Cat ears are similar to horses in that they are moved toward sound sources, laid back in threatening gestures, and usually in tandem.



This entry was posted in Chinese Brush Painting, painting cats, painting tiger. Bookmark the permalink.

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