Free Tutorial: How to Draw Scales on Snakes, Fish and More

Though you might step back at first sight of a scaly creature, on closer inspection, the intricate patterns on the outer skin of many scaled animals can be very striking, interesting and, yes, even beautiful.

drawing the various patterns of animal scales

Drawing these intricate patterns can be daunting, but I will break down the process to teach you how to draw scales in the easiest way possible. Whether you choose to exactly reproduce the scale pattern of an animal or loosely reference the patterns, this tutorial will help.

Drawing scale patterns

It seems there are endless scale patterns of the various creatures that wear these intricate outer layers. Start by perfecting your pattern-drawing technique so you can easily apply the pattern to an animal. If you practice any of these, you will certainly be able to adapt your hand-eye coordination to almost any other scale pattern.

Carefully study the shape of the animal’s scales and how they are patterned  together. Some scales are very close together and others have a little space in between.

Patterns of different animal scale patterns

To understand your pattern and to place it accurately on the animal you are drawing, practice drawing these common animal scale patterns:

1. Rounded square scales

Note that this pattern has space between each shape. If you draw some perpendicular lines, as shown below, you’ll have a guide to keep your shapes even. Remember to draw these reference lines light enough to erase and to follow the curves of the animal’s form.

2. Diamond scales

Diamond-shaped scales are easy to draw. The only tricky part is adapting the pattern to follow the form of the animal. Widen the diamond shapes as they would naturally spread with the bending of the creature’s form, and tighten them in the inner folds of the creature’s form.

3. Octagon scales

This elongated octagon shape may take a little more practice to get right. Note how the rows are staggered to keep the shapes nestled together.

4. Curved scales

These are probably the scale shapes that first come to mind when you think of animal scales. And they are the easiest ones to draw! Again, these need to conform to the shape and curves of the animal you are drawing.

5. Uneven scales

Not all scales follow a perfectly repetitive pattern. These rounded scales are like little uneven stones that fit to follow the curves and shape of the animal. You have to pay close attention while drawing these, but they allow for a much more freeform style.

Animal scale patterns in artwork

Drawing scales on animals

Snake scales

For practice, snakes a great examples because their scales usually include multiple patterns.

A snake’s scale pattern is symmetrical: One half is a mirror image of the other. To capture this detail, I drew a line to mark the center of the snake. This is how I will work and match my scale pattern from one side to the other.

Applying scales to a snake drawing

Here is my finished version. It took a while to get all the scales in place (and a lot of erasing too!), but eventually it all fit together.

Finished sketch of scale pattern detail on snake

Fish scales

A simple fish drawing is one of the best ways to acquaint yourself with drawing scale patterns. Make sure you have a sketch ready before you add the scales.

Preparing a fish sketch for drawing scales

Step 1: Draw your first row of scales near the head of the fish, just under the gill line.

Step 2: Draw a second row with each scale bridging over the meeting point of the scales in the first row.

Step 3: Follow this same bridge pattern with each consecutive row. Stop at the beginning of the tail fin.

Breakdown of how to draw fish scales

Pause periodically while you work to make sure the scales follow the curves of the animal. Don’t worry if everything is not perfect; it just needs to be easy on the eye.

Sketch of fish with detailed scales pattern.

You will be surprised how good the scales will look after taking the little extra time to get the pattern right!

A finished snake with scale pattern painting.
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