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Painting Siamese Fighting Fish Using Acrylics

October 11, 2013

Betta Splendens are gorgeous, colorful pet store favorites commonly referred to as Siamese fighting fish.

In the wild they are quite dull, short finned and visually unimpressive however due to many years of selective breeding the fish available to purchase are vibrant and the males of the species have long flowing fins which cascade all around them like beautiful, delicate silk scarves.

To me, the big pretty fin look combined with the varied color palate makes them irresistible to paint. I also adore their grumpy little frowny fish faces which I think contrast the beauty of their colors and fins wonderfully.

Besides being visually appealing the fish also happen to be really interesting as a species.

So In the page below I will provide written and visual details of 3 paintings (for the sake of variety) that I completed in October 2012 as they progress step by step.


Materials Required: 

  • Photo References
  • Acrylic Paper
  • Acrylic Paint
  • Acrylic Paint Brushes
  • Pencil
  • Eraser
  • Disposable Plastic Plate
  • Water Cup/Bowl for brush rinsing
  • Paper Towels
  • Black Micron Pen (optional)

About Your Materials 

Photo References

Unless you are able to conjure up drawings straight from your imagination you’re going to require photo references. Typically I will just do a Google image search to obtain what I require. Asking for permission to use someone’s photo as a reference not necessary with traditional art, however using other people’s photos without permission in digital manipulations can get you into trouble. is also a fabulous place for photo references and inspiration. There are thousands of dedicated stock artists who make uploads daily.

Acrylic Paper

Acrylic paper is almost as thick as card and is specially designed to hold up to acrylic paint without warping too badly. Usually one side is textured like canvas and the other side is smooth.

Acrylic Paint

Acrylic paint is water based which means easy cleanup, however it dries very quickly if you do not use any additional mediums to prevent drying. I just wet mine periodically with a squirt bottle full of water. I have grown quite attached to acrylics in the past two years.

Acrylic Paint Brushes

These are soft but slightly stiff brushes often marketed for watercolors and acrylics. Be careful not to get brushes that are too stiff ( and usually dirt cheap) as they will be difficult to work with. You want to go sort of middle of the road as far as price is concerned with any paint brushes you buy for any project. You do get what you pay for.
Black Micron Pen (optional)

In art, using black can be a big no no and generally as an alternative to black, very dark concentrations of other colors are preferred … I remember being told when I was in high school that black just makes a hole in your paper and usually, that is true. Sometimes however you need to define an edge or just can’t get around using black (very sparingly) Micron pens are especially good for this because they come with very fine tips and get the job done drawing over acrylic paint without creating a black hole in your paper!

betta sketches

I’ve decided to use three paintings as examples for this page and they are each 2.5 x 3.5 inches. That’s the size of a trading card. This is a popular size for selling (ACEO’s) and trading (ATC’s), which I personally really enjoy working in.

The first step is easy. Sketch out your fish. It doesn’t matter how dark your pencil is because you’ll be covering it up with paint anyway. Ensure that you show the direction that the fins are flowing in your lines. This will help you later on when you’re trying to paint them.

Betta’s are relatively easy to draw once you’ve done it a few times. The main points are getting the fins in the right places and the grumpy faces in the right proportions.

betta painting 1

Next the backgrounds need to go down. I prefer to make my palette on a plastic plate. You may choose to mix some colors to achieve the desired hues or use the paint straight from the tubes, it’s entirely up to you.

Once your pallete is prepared you can get to the paint application…. Make sure you’re working on top of some sort of protective surface because it will drive you crazy trying to not go past the edges for this part. Mess is part of the creative process, don’t fight it. A sheet of printer paper should suffice.

I like to glop paint on the paper when doing the backgrounds for Bettas. Using between 1 and 3 colors, making wet dollops around the edges of the fins. Don’t worry if you overlap your sketch slightly because you can paint over it later but don’t overlap too much or the fins will look lumpy in a bad way. (yes, there is such a thing as lumpy in a good way)

Lift the brush to create a texture of tiny peaks. Don’t be afraid to make it thick. Texture is a good thing. When finished this technique reminds me of the gravel at the bottom of a fish tank and contrasts the smooth strokes of the fins later on.

Be adventurous with your color combinations. Explore!

Allow the paint to dry completely before proceeding. This shouldn’t take very long. You can expedite the drying process by using a hair drier if you really want to, applied at a distance far enough away that it will dry but there is no danger of disturbing the paint.

betta painting 2

After the backgrounds are down you need to think about how to paint your fish and you will want to choose colors that complement the background well enough to ensure that the fish POPS out as much as possible.

I’ve just laid down a very thin layer of paint here. The beauty of acrylic paint is that it is water based. This means that not only is it easy to clean up, as mentioned in the materials section, but it is also easy to thin so that you can use it effectively as a wash using water.

As you can see, the pencil still shows through the paint very clearly.

betta painting 3

Now that the base layer is dry the next layer of paint will smooth on a bit easier and you will want to comb it on thick using a round brush defining the lines within the fins. Allow the paint to dry slightly and keep combing it on ensuring that you create distinct directionality with your brush strokes.  This doesn’t really show up very well in photos unfortunately but the key to remember here is that you want the painting to have TEXTURE.

betta painting 4

After the second layer of paint has dried you can begin applying detail layers, where you will define the highlights and shadows of the whole fish. This can be done with darker and lighter shades of the same main colors or with new colors all together.

This is achieved in SEVERAL layers of paint.

Another wonderful point about acrylics is that if you get it wrong, you can just paint over it. It is ok to change your mind. Just look at how my red fish started out with a dark red body and ended up with a light blue one.

Messing about won’t do the painting much harm if it’s small scale. This is how you learn to control the medium anyway so if you aren’t experienced with acrylic just relax and keep going over your work until you get it right.

If you get frustrated put it down and come back to it later. It usually takes me at least 2 days to complete the details on a painting because I start to go crosseyed and I need to walk away from it to gain a fresh perspective!

You are going to want to get the eyes painted as the very last step (photo ref is particularly useful here).

betta painting 5

betta full size

Be Sure To Sign Your Work And You’re Finished! 

betta collage



From → Arty Crafty

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