In a class of its own: the Red Panda

You’d expect a creature with ‘panda’ in its name to be, well…a panda, don’t you think?

Not so, apparently. The animal known as the Red Panda has been variously classified as a panda, a bear, and a raccoon. Today it is deemed to be none of the above. Phylogenetic research has placed it in a class unto itself: the genus Ailurus, and family Ailuridae. Along with the weasel, the raccoon and skunk families it is part of the superfamily Musteloidea. Two subspecies are recognized and neither is closely related to the giant panda.

Some familiarity with the Red Panda’s habits and physical features casts light on the confusion surrounding its place in the animal kingdom. It is primarily an herbivore that dines customarily on bamboo, and thus its  association with the giant panda seems obvious. The name panda is said to come from the Nepali word ‘ponya,’ which means bamboo or plant-eating animal. Both animals are native to the eastern Himalayas.  This link will take you to a great image of a Red Panda, plus a map further down on the page that shows its range of habitat.

Then there’s the striped bushy tail and the ‘masked’ look to its facial features that suggest a raccoon relative for sure. They also share the omnivorous appetite and body shape of a bear.

Further research tells me the creature spends most of its time in trees (even when sleeping) and is able to move with dexterity because of retractable claws. Like the giant panda it has a ‘false thumb’ that is actually part of the wrist bone.

The red panda is slightly larger than a domestic cat with a bear-like body and thick russet fur. The belly and limbs are black, and there are white markings on the side of the head and above its small eyes. They use their long, bushy tails for balance and to cover themselves in winter, presumably for warmth. Red pandas tend to prefer a solitary life, rarely traveling in pairs or family groups. Their numbers in the wild are declining due to loss of habitat and the WWF classifies them as a ‘vulnerable’ species.

The Red Panda is deemed to be a favorite subject for CBP, says one of my resources. Yet I found very little guidance in my growing library to help me understand its nature. With a newscast near the end of November introducing two tiny red panda cubs born at the Philadelphia Zoo this past summer, I was inspired to investigate the creature I deemed to be a smaller, more colorful version of the giant panda.

My photo hunt uncovered images of single animals hanging limply (asleep?) in evergreen trees, or peering steadfastly at the camera in the manner of our native raccoons. The few examples of Chinese brush paintings I found also showed single animals in trees or munching on bamboo. With its attractive physical features, the red panda is a compelling painting subject, not needing much in the way of setting.


I found two similar approaches for painting the red panda in my CBP books. Rebecca Yue includes the red panda in her Animal Painting Made Easy, describing her method as similar to the approach for painting domestic cats. A more detailed strategy is given by Pauline Cherrett in a kit called Chinese Brush Painting, a master class.

Red Panda books

Cherrett’s kit on the left includes instructions for painting several animals including the Red Panda

 Strategy for painting:

1.    Using a detail brush and black ink define the eyes, nose, and lip. Add curving lines either side of the face for cheeks and tufts of dark fur pointing outward. On my first attempt I got these cheek lines placed too high and my animal’s face was too round. The proper shape is more pointed, with white cheeks similar to a raccoon’s.

2.    Mix burnt sienna with vermilion for a deep reddish-brown. Load a soft brush and place two sidestrokes down the forehead, with slightly smaller ones either side. Splay the brush tip and lightly mark in the ears and other facial hair.


3.    Start the body with the shoulder and forearm, then the back leg.  Paint these parts using a rounded sidestroke, with your brush loaded in the reddish-brown and tipped ever so slightly in black ink.  Fill in the animal’s back and then add a wide, fluffy tail.

4.    While the tail is still damp, tip in some medium ink with the brush tip at intervals along the tail to suggest striping. (Yue uses darker reddish-brown for the tail striping instead of ink.)


After only a few stabs at rendering a red panda, I attempted a full composition. The setting I chose was largely filled with bamboo painted in the outline style. Here it is:


I played with a few more red panda studies, but a proper head shape confounded me; I decided to leave the unfamiliar creature aside for awhile.  But the bamboo stand painted in outline style rather pleased me, so the day was not lost entirely.



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