In this detailed fine art tutorial, I'll teach you how to use acrylics to paint this beautiful scene of a museum-quality Tyrannosaurus skeleton.
It's one of my favorite exhibits at one of my favorite museums: the fossilized skeleton of a Tyrannosaurus rex at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C.
Perhaps the most iconic dinosaur of all time, Tyrannosaurus rex was an apex predator of North America during the Cretaceous period. Using its accute binocular vision and superior olfactory senses, the legendary therapod is believed my most paleontologists to have been both an active hunter and opportunistic scavenger. With a maximum length exceeding 40 feet, only the largest sauropods would have been off the menu for this enormous carnivore. And with immensely powerful jaws and teeth built like railroad spikes, Tyrannosaurus would have been a formidable adversary to even armored herbivores like Triceratops.
Despite its fearsome predatory attributes, recent evidence suggests that Tyrannosaurus was likely a nurturing and attentive parent to its offspring and may have even pair bonded with its mate. Like all therapods, it was closely related to modern birds and its skin was probably covered at least partially with proto-feathers. Tyrannosaurus succumb to extinction along with the last of the dinosaurs during the asteroid impact at the Cretaceous-Tertiary boundary approximately 66 million years ago.
The reconstructed skeleton is an imposing figure, and it was a fun composition to paint in acrylics.
Along the way, I documented each step of the project with sequential photographs and detailed notes, which I will share with you here in this complete how-to-paint tutorial. So if you're a big dinosaur fan like me, you may enjoy painting this scene yourself. Or if there is some other composition that has sparked your inspiration, you can apply many of these techniques to any painting that you may wish to create.
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Materials and Tools
Before we get started, we'll need a few basic items: acrylic paints, brushes, a surface to paint upon, and some other miscellaneous materials and tools.
Acrylic paints are enjoyable to work with because of their ease of use and great versatility.
When applied thin, acrylics behave much like watercolors, allowing us to apply delicate translucent glazes that enrich the layers beneath. When applied thick, acrylics behave much like oils, allowing us to blend directly on a surface and to create bold impasto textures.
But unlike watercolors, acrylics are permanent when dry and will not flow when rewetted. And unlike oils, acrylics are water-based and dry quickly. Therefore it is wise to work fast when blending on a surface, or to blend on the palette when more time is needed.
If you are new to acrylics, you may wish to experiment on a scrap surface before applying a technique to your painting.
Acrylic paints are available in tubes, jars, and bottles. They are also available in "artist" and "student" grades. I prefer tubes because they make it easy to apply the appropriate amount of paint directly to your palette. And I recommend artist-grade paints because they contain more pigment and less binder, allowing us to produce much richer effects.
Here are the colors that we'll use for this composition:
Paint brushes are available in a large variety of shapes and sizes. Here are the brushes that we'll use for this composition:
- 3/4in Filbert Brush
- #8 Filbert Brush
- #4 Round Brush
- #1 Liner Brush
- Art Sponge
Acrylic paints can be applied to nearly any surface that has been primed with gesso - stretched canvas, canvas board, wood paneling, etc. Projects created in a thin, watercolor-like style can also be applied to canvas paper or watercolor paper. For this composition, I used a:
- 12 x 9in Canvas Board
But you should feel free to use whichever surface at whichever size you prefer.
Palettes are available in a variety of materials - metal, glass, wood, plastic, etc. I prefer to use a:
- Rectangular Plastic Palette
However, rather than applying paint directly to the palette, I recommend first covering it with two layers of damp paper towels. Paint is then applied to the damp paper towels. This creates a "wet" palette that keeps the paint usable for a longer period of time, allowing us to work at a more relaxed pace.
Other Materials and Tools
Finally we'll need a few other miscellaneous materials and tools:
- HB Pencil (Wood or Mechanical)
- Permanent Markers (Fine and Ultra Fine Point)
- Spray Bottle
- Water Cup
- Paper Towels
For a workspace, I prefer to use a drafting table adjusted to 45 degrees. But you should feel free to use an easel if you prefer to work vertically, or a table if you prefer to work horizontally.
Prepare a Reference
Before we begin to lay out our composition, it is useful to have a reference image. For purely imaginative pieces, some hand sketches and color studies are usually all that is needed. For more realistic pieces, photographs are a valuable resource.
For this piece, we'll reference a digital photograph that I had taken during a previous visit to the museum. However, I was not entirely pleased with the framing of the raw image. So, to create a more balanced composition, I cropped the photo a little tighter along the bottom-left corner and a little wider along the top-right corner.
Here is the reframed reference photo:
As we create our painting, we don't want to copy the reference image exactly. Instead we'll use our artistic license to make subtle changes. I like to warm tone and sharp contrast that characterizes the photo. So we'll preserve these styles in our painting. But I don't like the clutter of the signage that is visible behind the skeleton. To keep focus on the subject of the painting, we'll replace the background with a loosely textured gradient.
Create the Sketch
A great painting starts with a great sketch. It allows us to lay out our composition before ever touching brush to canvas. And because acrylic paints are translucent, the sketch will show through the initial layers of paint, providing a guide as we develop our painting. So taking the time to create a detailed sketch is well worth the effort.
If this feels like a challenging composition to draw freehand, you may find it helpful to lightly pencil a grid onto the canvas and a matching grid onto the reference image. This makes it easier to locate objects within the scene.
We start by blocking in the major contours with our HB pencil - the basic edges of the skull, the spine, the arms, and the legs. Then we continue to add more detail - the fenestra of the skull, the teeth, the ribs, and the joints of the fore and hind limbs. To place focus on the subject, we purposefully omit any details relating to the background.
Once the contours are complete, we trace over them with an ultra-fine-point permanent marker. This ensures that our contours have enough contrast to show through the initial layers of paint. To give form to our contours, we shade the midtones of our composition using the same HB pencil. And we shade the shadows using a fine-point permanent marker.
Here is the finished sketch:
Apply the Midtone
With the sketch complete, we're ready to start applying some color. At this stage, we're not concerned with detail. We only want to set the overall tone and temperature of the painting.
If you plan to display your painting without a frame, I recommend painting the edges of the canvas with Mars Black.
The first layer of paint that we apply to our composition is a translucent glaze of Naples Yellow to create a warm midtone value.
This midtone value sets the overall tone and temperature of the painting. It will also serve as a convenient reference point as we work to develop warmer/cooler and darker/lighter values later on. This layer is typically referred to as the underpainting.
To create a smooth glaze, we add only a little bit of water to the Naples Yellow to reduce its opacity. We then load a small amount of the mixture into a 3/4in filbert brush and apply a thin layer over the entire composition. We work in short, angled strokes to create some subtle variation within the background, moving quickly to prevent over-working any areas and smudging the graphite from our initial sketch.
The contours and shadows that we shaded with permanent marker should remain clearly visible through the midtone value.
If coverage appears a little thin after the first pass, we can wait for the initial glaze to dry and add another layer by repeating the same process. The desire is to create a meaningful base of color while allowing the sketch to continue to show through.
Here is the painting with the midtone applied:
Render the Background
With the underpainting finished, we are ready to start completing individual areas of the composition. We will begin with the background of the painting and then work our way forward.
For this step, we add one gradient to our palette:
To ensure that the subject remains the point of focus, we only want to loosely render the background with a low level of detail. But we also want to give balance to the composition by rendering the background with some level of interest. To accomplish this, we want to create a textured gradient, ranging from lighter values at the top of the painting to darker values at the bottom of the painting.
To produce the appropriate level of texture, we use an art sponge to pick up various values from the gradient on our palette, then apply it to our canvas using a combination of dabbing and short scrubbing motions.
We use Unbleached Titanium to develop the lighter values toward the top of the background. We use Naples Yellow to develop the midtone values throughout the middle of the background. And we use Raw Sienna to develop the darker values toward the bottom of the background.
Here is the painting with the background rendered:
With the background finished, we are ready to begin developing the subject of the painting - the Tyrannosaurus skeleton. At this stage, the only contrast between the highlights and shadows of the skeleton is what shows through from the initial sketch. So let's add a little more definition to these structures by loosely applying some lighter and darker values of paint.
For this step, we add two colors to our palette:
The purpose of this step is not to create fine detail, but simply to add some basic form to the subject.
We begin by applying a translucent layer of Burnt Umber, thinned slightly with water, to the shadows and darker midtones. Using a #8 filbert brush for larger areas and a #4 round brush for smaller areas, we cover the darker areas of the skeleton just enough to create a meaningful base of color while allowing some hint of the sketch to continue to show through.
Next we use the same #4 round brush, after cleaning it in our water cup, to apply Titanium White to the highlights.
As we create highlights along the skeleton edges, we may notice certain areas where contrast is lost between the subject and the background. If this happens, feel free to add some darker values to the background by applying a touch of Raw Sienna from the previous step. For example, I darkened the background above the top of the skull and cervical vertebrae to create a little more definition along these edges.
Finally we leave some of the lighter midtone areas untouched to allow the initial glaze of Naples Yellow to continue to show through.
Here is the painting with the contrast developed:
Render the Tyrannosaurus Skeleton
Now that we've loosely developed contrast throughout the skeleton, we're ready to begin rendering individual areas in greater detail.
For this step, we add one gradient to our palette:
Let's start with the skull.
Using a #8 filbert brush, we begin with the darker values from the Mars-Black-to-Titanium-White gradient. We apply paint rather thickly to create more opacity. We work quickly and in short strokes, blending values directly on the canvas to indicate subtle variations in the topology of the skull.
For the finer details and textures around the muzzle, we switch to a #4 round brush, applying a variety of lighter values and midtone values from the same gradient. Here it is important to pay close attention to the reference image so that we can alter our brush technique from short strokes to dabs to better replicate the intricate structures in this area.
Continuing with the same #4 round brush, we move to lighter values from the same gradient to render the highlights. To finish off some of the thinner areas, we switch to a #1 round brush.
Here is the painting with the skull rendered:
Next we render the spine.
Using the same gradient as the previous step, we begin by applying darker values to the underside of the vertebrae with a #8 filbert brush. While the paint is still wet, we render the finer details by blending in some midtone values with a #4 round brush, taking care to follow the natural joints and structures of the individual bones.
Continuing with the #4 round brush, we apply paint to the ribs, mostly lighter and midtone values, with a few darker values here and there where shadows are present. As we progress, we want to ensure that there is sufficient contrast along the highlighted edges of the ribs.
Finally we render the spinous processes along the top side of the vertebrae, applying paint from the full range of our gradient with a #4 round brush. Again we want to take care to produce the appropriate level of contrast along the highlighted edges of the vertebrae.
Here is the painting with the spine rendered:
Then we render the arms.
We start by applying a midtone value to the right scapula with a #8 filbert brush. While the paint is still wet, we render the finer details by blending in some darker values with a #4 round brush. Then we add some highlights along the top edges with a #1 liner brush.
For the left scapula, we apply mostly lighter and midtone values from our gradient with a #4 round brush. Note the thin metal pin that connects the proximal end of the left scapula to the adjacent rib, as well as the small shadow that it casts. Including small details like this with a #1 liner brush adds a nice touch to our painting.
The forearms are small and slender and show a high level of contrast between highlight and shadow. There is very little midtone in between. We render these areas by applying lighter and darker values from our gradient with a #4 round brush, switching to a #1 liner brush to finish off some of the thinner areas.
Here is the painting with the arms rendered:
Finally we render the legs.
We start by applying a midtone value to the pelvis with a #8 filbert brush. While the paint is still wet, we render the finer details by blending in some lighter and darker values with a #4 round brush. Then we add some highlights along the top edges with a #1 liner brush.
The pubis and ischium are largely covered in shadow. So we render these using darker values from our gradient using a #4 round brush, switching to a #1 liner brush to apply lighter values to any highlighted edges.
In our composition, only the left femur and the proximal end of the left tibia are visible. Each bone shows a lot of variation in value - highlights, midtones, and shadows. Using a #4 round brush, we apply values from the full range of our gradient to render these areas, blending directly on the canvas as we proceed. Where finer details are required, we once again switch to a #1 liner brush.
Here is the painting with the legs rendered:
Our painting is nearly complete. But to my eye, the color temperature of the skeleton appears a bit more muted than I had imagined. Using a #8 filbert brush and #4 round brush, let's apply a light glaze of Burnt Umber to the some of the shadows and midtones to add just a little bit of vibrance.
And with that...
Congratulations! Your painting is now finished and ready to sign:
And there you have it! A museum-quality paleontological exhibit that you can hang in your home.