To learn how to draw a unicorn, I decided on the more modern western concept of a magical horse with a horn. I always liked fantasy books with unicorns you could ride in them, so here we are. I used Photoshop with a Huion HS611 graphics tablet for all the steps in the tutorial. The tablet works well and is an affordable alternative to many other options.
Unicorns have been a part of world mythology for millennia. With so much history, artists from everywhere draw unicorns and write stories involving them. The idea that a creature is so pure of heart that the mere touch of its horn can heal is beautiful. Further, some anthropologists speculate that early humans saw the profile of an antelope and thought it only had one horn. Because they couldn’t find a single-horned animal, it later gave them the impression that it was somehow mystical.
I discovered that there was more than just one “type” of unicorn and that cultures far and wide had different ideas of how a unicorn may look. Some were almost cat-like, while others looked more like a dragon. In some stories, they were no bigger than a goat and had cloven hooves. These are utterly unsuitable for riding.
As artists, we all develop strong preferences for what type of material we like to use. Below is a list of supplies that I prefer; as always, links are at the bottom of the page.
|Supplies||Reason for Preference|
|Drawing paper||Drawing paper needs to be thicker than standard notebook paper. Using something like Bristol smooth or even watercolor paper works.|
|Drawing pencils||Until you’ve had some practice, buy inexpensive pencils for drawing.|
|Watercolor or colored pencils||Gold for the eyes, horn, and hooves; black, yellow-brown, cream.|
|Erasers||You’ll need two types of erasers: the regular rubber kind and the moldable putty type.|
|Blending stumps or blending pencils||The blending stumps or pencils give me more control than just using my finger.|
|White gel pen or white pencil||One or both are necessary for final highlights.|
|Watercolor paint brushes||I would use small round brushes for this project, and most others using watercolor pencils.|
1 — Create a Structure with Basic Shapes
For this drawing, the unicorn is coming toward you at an angle. It’s in sort of a half-trot-half-hop-direction change. This means that unlike the horse drawing tutorial, in which the basic shapes were more spread out because it was a profile, these are more compressed in the unicorn drawing because you can’t see as much of the animal. The neck triangle is more erect than out to the side, and the circles are closer, with a bigger size difference between the chest and rump circles.
Now, add the legs, head, muzzle, ears, and horn. The stick-figure legs are a rough representation of the major joints in a unicorn’s legs. To help visualize the joints, place a circle at each spot on the legs where a joint exists. It will make the proportions easier to gauge.
Digital artists: Create a separate layer for the body and another for the legs. That way, if you need to adjust something, it’s easier.
Paper artists: These aren’t going to be permanently embedded in your unicorn drawing, so draw lightly so you can easily erase them later.
2 — Sketch the Unicorn Outline
Using the basic shapes you drew, sketch a rough outline. Round the neck’s top line and the whithers (where the shoulder blades show) at the base of the neck. On the unicorn drawing’s legs, draw the areas between the joint circles smaller than the joints because joints tend to be more pronounced. Be sure to include the mane and tail.
At this point, you should have something that looks like a unicorn.
Create a clean outline by removing all the basic shapes and underlying structures. I also add a little bit of muscle and tendon definition at this stage, but you can easily wait to do that until after you add color.
Digital artists: Create two new layers when you sketch the outline. The first one is for the first outline sketch. It’s usually fairly rough, and it’s easier to clean it up if you do the final outline in a new layer. Once you’re happy with your unicorn drawing outline, simply turn the layers with basic shapes off so they’re no longer visible.
Paper artists: When you sketch the outline, expect mistakes. Draw very lightly, so it’s easy to erase and fix things you don’t like. Once you are happy with your outline, remove the basic shapes.
3 — Add Color to the Unicorn Drawing
Here’s where it gets a little more difficult. Traditionally, western unicorns are white. Unless you’re drawing on colored paper with white pencils or gel pens, it’s hard to tell the difference between the animal and the background.
To help, I left most of the outline intact. I also used something closer to ivory instead of a snow-white base color. Add yellow to the eye, horn, and hooves; later, we’ll add more color for more depth.
The beauty of drawing a mythical animal is that there’s no real “wrong way” to color it. So if you want an aquamarine and purple-striped unicorn, do it. Just be mindful because when you add shadows and highlights, you may need to adjust the shadow colors a little.
Here I added a few different layers of color to the mane and tail. It’s sort of an ivory base with some darker strands in there for depth. I added a light layer of gunmetal gray to the yellow to give the bronze-gold color to the hooves.
Digital artists: Create three new layers: one for the body, another for the mane and tail, and one more for the hooves and the horn.
Paper artists: Build up the mane and tail gradually. It won’t look right if you are too heavy-handed.
4 — Creating Shape with Shadows
Here’s where keeping your light source in mind is essential. Drawings without shading or highlights look flat and two-dimensional. You want the unicorn to look as though it could trot right off the page, so proper shading is necessary.
The light is coming from above and slightly in front of the unicorn’s right shoulder for this drawing. It’s a pretty strong light, so the shadows under the tail, made, and rear legs are also strong with harder edges. Add a little shading around the muscles and joints in the chest and legs.
Shadows like those you see under the hind legs and tail with a hard edge don’t need much, if any, blending. However, others need to be blended, like those around the front of the chest and inside of the unicorn drawing’s ear. You can always blend them in more but start with less.
Other areas that need shading are:
- The area behind the eyes
- Horn and hooves
- Mane and tail
- The base of the mane along the top of its neck
- Inside the ear
You may find that the shadows you added aren’t dark enough. In that case, add more, little by little. However, if you find that you’ve added too much, erase a little. Either digitally or with a putty-type eraser.
Even though this is a mythical animal, making it look a little more “natural” means that you need to be aware of basic anatomy. Certain muscles will almost always be present when certain bone and joint structures are also present. Study a few photos of horses in different postures so that you can gain a better understanding of their anatomy. If, however, you’d prefer a more goat-like unicorn, then study goats.
Digital artists: Create a new layer for the shadows and set it to multiply. This makes the layer transparent and adds color in it to the layers behind it.
Paper artists: For drawings with more delicate base colors like this one, I prefer to use a blending stump with only a little bit of graphite already embedded in it for shadows. This allows you to build up the shading slowly without blowing out any details you already have in your drawing. If you need a darker shadow, use a very sharp, very soft graphite pencil (like 6B) and gently draw the shadow. Blow off any excess graphite. If you brush it off, it may smudge.
5 — Highlights Make a Drawing Pop
In an already white animal, it’s difficult to add highlights. If you’ve decided to use snow-white as a base color, your best bet for highlights is more of an absence of shading than actual highlights. That’s why I decided on ivory instead of pure white. It’s much easier to highlight and looks white enough to pass as white.
The unicorn needs highlights in several areas:
- The lower end of the tail, where the hair is bending upwards a little.
- Top of the mane, where the sun hits it.
- Hooves, horns, and upper 1/3 of the eye.
- Forehead, muzzle, and tips of ears.
- The upper portion of either side of the chest.
- Leading side of the legs.
- Tops of the leg joints.
Just like with the shadows, you’ll need to treat some of the highlights differently. Most of them are softer, so blend the edges a little. However, the horn and hooves are hard and shiny. To make them look shiny, don’t blend the highlights, just draw them lightly in curved lines.
I think that’s all of them but use your own judgment. You can always add more highlights if you feel something’s missing.
Before you move on to the next step, set your unicorn drawing aside for a few days. I promise it’s worth the wait! You’ll actually come back with a fresh perspective and see things you wouldn’t have seen otherwise.
Digital artists: Highlights also need their own layer. It’s easier to correct problems when you have everything separated.
Paper artists: Use your moldable eraser to pull the color out of areas where you want highlights. However, highlights on the horn and hooves may be better done with a white pencil or white gel pen. Start with small amounts and increase gradually until it looks right.
6 — Adding Finishing Touches to Your Unicorn Drawing
When you look at it this last time, check for inconsistencies in the shading, light source, and anything else that doesn’t look “right.” Add a shadow on the ground underneath the unicorn in the drawing and see how it gives the unicorn a sense of belonging in the space.
Enjoy your work! Drawing is a skill that takes time to develop. I learn a little more every day by practicing and studying plants and animals. You should also take a bit of time to study art created by the masters. Monet, Van Gogh, and others spent decades refining their skills, and it shows in their work.
- 157 lb. paper with neutral pH
- Sturdy, 2-ply paper with smooth rendering surface
- Perfect for pencil, pen, dry brush, and other mediums
- 11" x 14"
- Made in the USA
- Designed for artists of all skill levels
- 17-piece set includes pencils, charcoal pencils, compressed sketch sticks
- Also includes a standard eraser, a kneaded eraser, a blender/smudge stick, and a dual-barrel sharpener
- Allows artists to experiment and combine different techniques
- This is the first graphics tablet equipped with 8 multimedia keys
- The multimedia keys are intuitive and can be used for a variety of artistic needs
- Can be connected with Android 6.0 (or later) phones or tablets via an adapter
- Battery-free stylus doesn't require a battery or charger
- Sleek and slim design available in 3 colors?
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