With MerMay coming up you might be wondering how to draw mermaids. The top half of a mermaid is human, so if you’ve already drawn characters before you’ve got this down. Keep reading to find out how to easily draw a mermaid tail!
1. Find a reference of a person from head to toe
The easiest way to find reference pictures is to browse Pinterest. Simply type in ”pose reference” and pick an image. The reason why we need references of a person from head to toe is that we can actually use the legs as a reference.
The tail of a mermaid ideally bends where the knees normally would bend. Of course, you can play and bend the tail all you want but it’s something to keep in mind. Especially helpful to keep in mind when your tail looks off!
Tip: Browse Pinterest and Instagram for MerMay. You’ll see how others draw mermaids and study how they draw their tails!
2. Find fish reference
Yes, you read that right. Let’s collect fish references! A mermaid’s tail is basically a fishtail, but more flexible, elongated and most of all: a bit more visually pleasing to the eye.
Browse the internet searching for fish or fish photography to get your reference images. Search references for:
- Movement of the tail
- Scale design
Tip: Instead of ”fish photography” try ”betta fish photography”. Betta fish are known for their beauty.
To keep your reference images organised you can use this software program called PureRef. You decide how much you want to pay for it. You can even type in 0 dollars and get it for free. But if you can, I strongly suggest paying for it!
It’s great to use when you have a lot of reference images. Here’s a quick one-minute video that explains how to use it:
2. Draw an action line
Once you’ve picked a pose you should draw an action line. An action line is a line that covers the movement of a subject. This avoids a character looking stiff. In our case, the action lines greatly cover the direction of the tail.
Here’s what the action line for my reference picture looks like:
But since we’re dealing with a mermaid we can’t draw 2 legs. We have to choose if we go with the extended leg or the leg that she pulled up. An action line following the pulled up leg looks like this:
Decide which leg you are going to focus on. Draw a few action lines to see what you like.
Tip: Extend the action line beyond the feet to get a longer mermaid tail. I sometimes do this to balance the upper body with the tail!
3. Create a silhouette following the curves of the legs
Now that we have our action line in place, we sketch the tail. A mermaid’s tail is very flexible and it tapers near the end. Follow your action line and keep the butt, hips, knees and calves in mind.
In my example I already sketched the upperbody so we can focus on the tail.
Whenever you’re drawing a mermaid tail from reference, imagine both knees right next to each other. If the ref has legs in different positions choose the one that looks the most dynamic.
Draw the fins using your references. You can add fins wherever you like. They don’t only have to appear at the end of the tail!
To make sure your tail ”works”, create a silhouette. If it reads well your tail is ready to be rendered!
Here’s a downloadable template of mermaid tails. Maybe this sparks some inspiration!
Tip: Print the downloadable template and easily transfer the designs onto your paper to use!
4. Add the scales to the mermaid tail
Take a look at your reference and look at the scales. Notice the shape? There are a lot of different varieties out there. Pick one you like and design your scale pattern!
- 1. Choose a scale shape. Use your reference if needed.
- 2. Draw this shape a couple of times right next to each other. It should cover the width of the tail.
- 3. Now we need to draw the same amount of scales below our first row. But this time, we offset the scales. The middle of each shape should fall right under the end and beginning of the shapes above.
- 4. The row below that should have the same offset as the first row.
- 5. Continue doing this until your mermaid tail is completely covered.
Now let’s render the tail
1. Fill in the scales with various hue changes. Also, pick different shades and tones. Read here the difference between hue, value and saturation if you’re not sure what I’m talking about!
2. Now add a shadow beneath the scales. If you’re working digitally, simply duplicate the layer and move it beneath your scales. Lower the value to create a shade.
3. Fill in the gaps by adding a base color. I choose to pick a darker value than the scales.
4. Add some highlights to indicate the tail is wet, and some sparkles to indicate it’s a mermaid tail (optional)!
Alternative to fully rendering the mermaid tail
Now be aware that drawing these often tiny scales is very time-consuming. So, more often than not artists indicate scales by drawing a few of them. Or they skip them altogether and go for a gradient!
1. Pick a base color
2. I created a gradient by shifting hues: I added some blue greens. You can also create a gradient by going from a dark blue color to a light blue color.
3. Here I used a splatter brush to indicate texture. I also added an outline to make the character read better.
4. Now I add scales by drawing just a few of them, spread across the tail. I lower the opacity so that it looks subtle.
You can see that I applied the same steps to the image below:
5. Render the fins
Fins are very delicate. That’s why I often make them see-through. You can vary endlessly with fins. I like to add some sparkle to give it that extra oomph.
Here are some fin inspirations:
1. Choose a fin shape. Use your reference.
2. Pick a color and color in your fin shape. Maybe go for a gradient?
3. Add lines following the curve of your fin. This is also known as contour hatching.
4. Add sparkles if you want to!
6. Indicate a light source by adding shadows and highlights
The thing that takes your illustrations to the next level is lighting! An easy way to add interesting lighting is to add rim light.
This simply means that, whenever there’s a light source behind it, the object gets an illuminated rim.
I’ll exaggerate the lighting so you can see clearly what I mean.
Tip: If you work digitally set the blend mode of your rim light to ”add”. Then adjust the opacity. This creates a nice gradient that correlates to the opacity level!
If your tail bends in any way I’d suggest you draw a shadow. Match it to your art style. In my case, my style is very simplified. All I do is add a slightly darker value of my colors onto the places where there would be shadows. In this case below the arm and the bended knee.
8. optional: Add details such as bubbles and sparkles
Lastly, you can go wild with extra details: Bubbles, sparkles, caustics… You name it.
Since I’ve already added sparkles in prior steps I now want to add bubbles. subtlety is key! Don’t forget that.
I draw bubbles using a digital brush and then I change the opacity to a low number. If you draw traditionally, just make sure to lightly draw your bubbles.
That’s it! Now you’ve got a beautiful mermaid tail! Okay, in the image above I exaggerated the lighting and lines. When you draw your mermaid tail, make sure that you’re being subtle.
Here’s another illustration that I did following the same steps as I did in this mermaid tail tutorial. The only thing different is that, due to the composition, my tail isn’t fully in the picture. But because I used an action line you still understand what the tail is doing.
Oh, and I went for subtlety!
I hope you learned how to draw a mermaid tail using this fun tutorial. If you’d like to share what you’ve drawn, tag me on Instagram @oleandered or use the hashtag #oleandered. I’d love to see it!
See you next week,