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How to Draw a Cougar: “Cougar Intensity” by Jeff Hebert

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Jeff Hebert’s amazing drawing of a cougar was done entirely on a mobile device. He’s broken down his process for us so you can see how he works and how to make something like it. Then you will know How to draw a cougar too.

Step 1. Start a new file

The first thing to do is start a new sketch. For this painting I used a custom size of 2500 x 2000. I like to use the 1.5:1 ratio for my animal paintings. This is very close to the Golden Ratio and makes getting a strong composition a bit easier. I set the background color or hue to complement my main subject’s color but at a very unsaturated level. This helps to really bring your main subject out from the background. Don’t go too intense with it, or the complementary color will start to compete for attention. Setting the color is easy to do in SketchBook Mobile. Just click the colored circle in the bottom of the layers palette. Here, I set mine at a mid-tone grey in the teal area of the color selector.

Step 2. Get something on the canvas

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The next thing I like to do is get something on the canvas. I do this by adding texture with Overlay layers. Just click the tools icon in the top palette. You’ll see an icon to add image. Once there, set the layer to Overlay and adjust the opacity to your liking. I like doing this early on as it makes me feel like I’ve got something going, and the textures can lead to happy accidents along the way. They also do a lot of work for you. I’ll explain that later.

Step 3. Initial sketch

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Using simple shapes, I map out the general pose of my subject, in this case a cougar. I am just paying attention to the shape of the head and ears, the heavy brow and round chin, sweep of the neck and the square of the his body near the edge of the page. It’s a very simple drawing with simple shapes. It’s the foundation for what follows. From here, I will refine and slowly add details. Once I’m done, I knock back the opacity of the layer to around 50%. As this layer is just a guide, it won’t be around for long.

Step 4. Finished line drawing

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For the finished line art I pay close attention to the proportions of the features against one another as well as angles. I do this by what I call the “eye flick.” I will look between my reference and sketch, switching my eyes back and forth. The faster you do this the more inaccuracies will jump out at you. As I see them, I will use another great tool in SketchBook Mobile, the Select and Transform tool. I will select and transform parts until the eye flick shows minimal things to change. I use the pencil 4 for this stage. I have also adjusted the background color darker to prepare for the next step.

Step 5. Laying in the background

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As soon as I have the final sketch done I turn my attention to the background. In this step I’m giving myself a nice dark backdrop for the warm tones I plan on having in the cougar. I fill in the background using angled strokes in the direction of the cougar’s gaze. I want the painting to flow from left to right. The cats pose and stroke directions I lay down will help with this. I used a hard airbrush for the darker gray.

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Then, using the first of the Smudge brushes I push and pull the color around until I get some good interaction of the tones that are underlying it. The Smudge brush is great for giving a real traditional feel to backgrounds. Just don’t go to crazy with it, or you wont get the effect you want. Less is more with this brush. As you can see from the inset I have the brush fairly large and at a low opacity.

Step 6. Laying in the local color

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Once I’m happy with the background I turn to the color palette of the painting and local color of the cat. The local color is the color without regard to light hitting the object or the shadows. I know I want it warm so I stay in the oranges, reds, and yellows. For the grays in the fur I just desaturate but stay in the same local colors. Here I am less concerned about the form and more concerned with getting color down that I can pull from later.

Step 7. Mid-tones and form

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This is where I start thinking of the forms and shapes of the cougar’s body. Using the hard airbrush and using the reference for clues to how the form lays, I carve out the cougar from the warmer darker undertones. Starting dark helps you to pull out the form.

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If you have trouble with color, it may help to do this in grayscale. Working in grayscale tones helps you see forms much better. You don’t have to worry about the color information. With SketchBook Mobile’s new layer modes like Color it’s easier than ever to do this. As this is a very limited color palette, I chose to work with color. It’s your choice — whatever is easiest for you.

Step 8. Starting in on the lights and the fur

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When the mid tones are laid in and the form has been defined, it’s time to start the really fun stuff. Just remember not to start in too soon. The foundation needs to be there. I like to start at the head as this is the place I want the viewer’s eye to ultimately end up. I will spend the most time here and less at the periphery of the image. The textures I overlaid earlier help to fill in the gaps between the fur I’ve done and the edges I don’t want the viewer to concentrate on. I will start following the lay of the fur using a texture brush paying close attention to the colors as they shift and follow the form of the cat. Switching brushes, I work until I have the fur texture I want.

Step 9. Details and more fur

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If you have the tones set right you can now add a layer on top of the Overlay layers and start really laying down fur and texture. Doing this on top of the overlay layers allows me to start with truer colors and not worry about the color shift that may happen under the Overlay layers (the Overlay blending mode will tend to darken colors underneath it). Here I’m putting down the gray hairs and the lighter toned hairs of the face. I have laid in the eyeball remembering that from the side the cornea is a dome above the iris, which is a disc. I used green as a nice contrast to the orange hues and helps to really pop the eye.

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The reflections and highlights will be added later. I pay close attention to the fur around the ear as it’s a prominent feature as well. This fur also helps draw your eye to the main focus, the head and the neck area.

Step 10. Adding Light and more details

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At this point it’s time to start making the glow of the neck fur and cheek happen. I do this by starting a new layer and setting the layer mode to Hard Light. This will intensify the luminosity of the color I choose in the color picker (I chose a nice pale yellow). Working the cheek and down the neck, I pay attention to the flow of the hair and try to stay toward the edge as this will be the fur that catches the most light. Once that is done, I turn my attention back to the eye. I like to think of the eye highlights as the cherry on top. Still working on the Hard Light layer I pick a nice almost pure white and just do a dab where I think the main highlight will go.

Step 11. Details, details, details

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At this point, after I have layered in the fur and I am happy with my choices, it’s all about the details. I follow the 80/20 rule when it comes to my paintings. That is, I spend 80 percent of my time on the last 20 percent of the work. That 20, is the details. I will add highlights to the fur, add the whiskers, and do general clean up of the image at this stage. When adding highlights I usually chose a cool color depending on the fur (cooler if a warm fur, warm if a cool fur color) here I went with a slightly cooler yellow orange. I’m really thinking of light now and how it bounces around. I’ll add a bit of rim light as well as define more of the contours.

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I work with many temporary layers as it makes adjusting easy. If I go too crazy, I can dial them back with the opacity of the layer by moving the slider. Once I am happy I merge my temp layers down by clicking the top layer and selecting the merge icon.

Step 12. Adding the frosting

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Here I am adding the breath of the cougar. I imagine it as a cold morning out near a quarry, the warm light reflecting from below and bouncing on the rocks around him. His breath catches the light as he exhales. To do this, On a new layer I choose the double line brush and just go crazy with it. Making sure to add a few wisps floating up and away from him. Then using the smudge brush and the soft eraser I adjust the lines moving it around till it looks like breath.

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Reference images from a Google search can help a lot here.

Step 13. Finishing

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At this stage I will take a step back. I usually let a painting sit here for a day or so and come back to it. I think of the 30/3 rule. That is you want a painting to be as interesting at 30 feet as it is at 3 feet. That’s where composition and contrast help. Details are for the 3-foot viewer. When I did this I realized the background needed a bit more. I also decided to add the boarder around the edge. I really wanted to emphasize the sweep of the cougar’s posture. I chose a hatch patterned brush. I also felt the organic nature of a few ink spots would look neat and add some interest.

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I went straight to the background layer, chose a darker value and went crazy. Have fun and see what you can come up with. For the border, I made a selection using SketchBook Mobile’s Selection tool, used the square Marquee tool and tapped the Invert selection icon. Then I filled it with black. One last thing I like to do is add a grain texture to the piece over all of the layers. You can do this by importing an image and using blending modes, or you can create a brush with a stamp-like grain texture to do this.

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When I am happy with that, I export the PSD file. Then using SketchBook on the desktop, I merge the layers, do a few adjustments to the color and saturation and resize the image to 300 ppi for print. And there you have it! I hope by showing you the steps I take to complete my images you can take this knowledge and create your own awesome artwork. Oh and incase you were wondering how it came out, here’s the finished piece…

how to draw a cougar