Fox Spirits Tutorial
Stephanie Pui-Mun Law








(A) large Chinese brush. These are great for doing washes. They hold a lot of water and pigment, and because the purpose of these brushes are for calligraphy, they come to a very nice point. The one I use is approximately equivalent to a standard size 10 brush. Another bonus is that these are usually much cheaper than their western equivalents, and if you find a good one, it will last as long as their expensive counterparts. (B) size 5 brush. Mid sized for laying in color but with a little more control. (C) size 3 brush. (D) size 1 brushes. For details.



I prefer pan watercolors versus tubes. Mostly for the ease of use and lack of cleanup. You don’t waste any paint either because when you’re done, you can just close up the case and reuse whatever has dried the next time. In fact, I find this preferable to using new colors at times because over time, various pigments mix and you can get some subtle and interesting shades that when used on a painting make the colors more lifelike. Be careful not to let the colors get too muddy however. The brand I use is Winsor & Newton.





  • pencils for initial sketching
  • Strathmore lightweight illustration board
  • masking tape for securing the painting
  • paper towels for wiping up extra moisture
  • water


Step One:

As mentioned before, I use Strathmore lightweight illustration board for painting on. You can buy this by the sheet (22x30 inch size) in the paper department of art stores though it’s not cheap, about $6.50 per sheet. I actually buy mine from in packages of 25 sheets, at which point the price is about $4.50 per sheet.

If you’ve never painted watercolors before, I would actually suggest that you just go to the store and try out several different types of paper. You might find that what suits you the most is something entirely different. I tried out about 8 different papers before finding this was MY paper.

The Advantages? Acid free to the core (many other illustration boards are not). It is very smooth, but absorbancy is perfect. Allows for multitude of layering without ruining the surface. It’s thick enough not to warp.

Anyway, back to the painting at hand. After cutting the illustration board to the correct size for my painting (12x5 inches) I begin by taping down the borders with some acid free artist tape to a masonite board. This just allows for easy handling of the painting and not having to worry about banged up corners. Also if you use thinner paper, this will prevent warping.

After that, I sketch directly onto the board with pencil, lightly. I only put enough detail to guide me, but elements of the background I leave to emerge as I paint.

Step Two:

Now that the sketch is done, it’s time to start painting.

I use the large Chinese brush initially to lay in the washes.

With mixtures of sap green, yellow green, and viridian green, a paint in a very light wash. Because I want the wings of the spirit to eventually have a glow to them, I fade in the color around the edges of the wings, to leave that area white. To get that fade in, I have to dab at it a lot as I go with paper towels. Also, reserving the whites of all the forground elements. One of the things you have to be aware about with watercolors are where your lighter areas will be. Because the colors are transparent, you work your way down into the shadows, while keeping the lighter areas white from the paper. You end up painting in a lot of the negative spaces. It’s a mindset that is initially odd and difficult to wrap your brain around if you work more with opaque mediums, but eventually it makes more sense as you work with watercolors. Because of this, I tend to work from the background up to the foreground.

In the bottom corners, because I want more weight at the lower part of the painting, I use slightly more pigment so that the greens are darker down there.

Step Three:

I add some more layers of greens in the background. The best way to have gradiants of color is to slowly build it up with thin washes. You have better control over it that way. If you are after a more textured look, then more pigment and a wet-in-wet approach might be more suitable.

I use more sap green in the upper left corner and lower right. I also mix in a hint of light red to the viridian green to start pushing in some shadows around the tail at the bottom and in the corners. With a mixture of lemon yellow and naples yellow, I fill in the white glow around the spirit’s wings and to the upper right corner.

Between each layer wash that I put in, I wait for the previous layer to dry! This is important or else the colors just lift and you don’t get the intensifying of added layers. It is especially imporant to wait for layers to dry when starting to work on adjacent areas. If you get too impatient, the colors will all bleed together, and you are left with no definition. While that might be desireable for some styles or for a specific effect, in this painting, it’s not what I’m after.

Step Four:

Now that there are some basic tones in the background, I take a moment to look at the irregularities and splotches that are there.

Using the smaller brushes (size 3 and 1) I purposely start to enhance those irregularities by outlining them with sap green and viridian green mixtures. These are the little “bubbles” you see in the texture. I don’t leave it hard edged, but feather it in lightly to fade to the rest of the background.

Another technique I use here is to lift some of the color out from the center of those bubbles. This is done by wetting a small brush and lightly scrubbing the bristles over the painted area. Dabbing with paper towels while it’s still wet will remove some of the color and leave the area slightly lighter. I use older brushes that have lost their point for this because it’s not very friendly for the hairs.

A note about this though — different papers will respond to this to varying success. The illustration board I use does very well for lifting, and because I do so much lifting when I’m creating textures, it’s another bonus for me using this particular paper.

With some more light red and viridian green in the lower part, I add those faded looking streaks of darker color, again just emphasizing the irregularities that were already there.

I also put some light washes of lemon yellow and sap green over it all to brighten up the overall color.

Step Five:

At this point, the background is pretty much complete. Time to move on to the foreground.

With a mid sized brush (5), I put in a wash of light red over the spirit’s clothing and tail.

With some flesh color, I paint an underlayer for her skin. If the paint set you have doesn’t have this color, you can mix naples yellow with some oranges and reds and get suitable tones. I wanted this creature to be a bit unearthly, so it’s slightly green-tinged with a touch of sap green as well. If you were working with darker skin, various types of browns added to the mix would work well.

Step Six:

After the underlayer for for the skin is dried, I start to build up the shadows.

With the smallest brushes (size 1 or 0), I work from the edges of the body with mixtures of light red and burnt umber. I shade in to define the muscles, and along the creases where the folds of cloth meet her flesh. In some places, like along the underside of her hand, the arm in back, her neck, and where her foot meets her calf, I do a thin layer of light red.

To really emphasize some of the crevices, I line it with viridian green.

Also, the strips along her leg and back are done with short vertical strokes of viridian green.

Step Seven:

With the mid sized brushes, I continue working on the draped clothing.

I use various mixtures of cadmium red, naples yellow, and light red to intensify the color. Then for the shadows, I use vandyke brown, light red, and burnt umber.

Again, this is all done with many layers, and waiting for the layers to dry in between. This is watercolor, so the drying time is very quick, especially with such a small area.

In between layers of adding more depth to the shadows, I put in glazes of cadmium red and light red to bring out the brightness of the color.

Step Eight:

Still adding layers of reds to the clothing.

To finish up the part around her waist, I add shadows as described above, and also some light washes of sap green and yellows on the right side. This is because the wings will be glowing greenish-yellow, and I want some of that color reflected in the highlights along her hip.

Also, I finish up the patterns on the sleeves with lemon and naples yellow. Notice that I left a thin outline of white paper showing through, instead of painting all the way to the borders.

Step Nine:

At last, the foxes!

With a much thicker layer of light red and cadmium red then I used on her dress, I paint an underlayer for the foxes. I wanted to make them really bright colored. I leave a little bit of white around the edges of them for the highlights and reflected light.

I also finish up the mask that she is holding up. Also with more cadmium red, light red, yellow ochre for the base colors. The shadows are done with burnt umber and paynes grey and a little bit of black at the nose.

You’ll notice, I used black nowhere else. I only use it for very rare touches. Black itself is a very dead color, and most of the time a much better effect can be achieved by using a mixture of burnt umber and ultramarine blue, or paynes grey. Those mixtures just make a painting much more lively.

Step 10:

With mixtures of vandyke brown and burnt umber, I do the shadows on the fox tails and their paws. I also use my smallest brush to do some outlines of their tails in burnt umber and paynes grey, just to emphasize them a little.

I use a little bit of black and paynes grey for their ears, noses, and eyes.

Step 11:

I finish the wings by adding texture with lemon yellow and sap green. There is a little bit of alizarin crimson mixed in as well in some of the purplish-hued areas.

It’s especially important here to paint around the white areas. It wouldn’t have the same glow if it was painted in with white paint afterwards.

Alizarin crimson and cadmium red finish off the tips of her hair and add some slight shadows.

And we’re done!

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