How to Paint a Cow Skull

Written by on June 28th, 2011 // Filed under Cow skulls

This post was written to help provide you with a broad overview of how to paint a cow skull and get started with this art form. I have other posts dedicated to specific processes and I will try to link out accordingly. 

Step 1: Find a Skull Dealer

You need to find a skull or a skull dealer. I recommend hitting up local flea markets. I do not recommend purchasing skulls online due to their fragility.  Craigslist is acceptable because you can inspect it and pick it up yourself just like if you were at a flea market.

Step 2: Picking the Right Skull

If you intend to take an animal skull and turn it into art, I would recommend purchasing the highest quality skull you can find. I define high quality as the following:

  • Good horns – look at the horns. Buy polished ones that have been sanded. If they haven’t been sanded, they won’t shine. It’s okay if they have a few nicks in them. Too much sanding and the horns become extremely fragile. So look for a skull with a few nicks but not too many.
  • Solid bridge - Look at the bridge of the nose, aim for a good solid and full one like this. Try to avoid ones like these, they look goofy and take away  valuable “canvas” space. I respect that you may have the rare artistic vision of painting a skull missing a bridge, however, most people will view the skull head-on and this is a crucial focal point that we’re missing. Plus, the nooks and crannies of a skull are an absolute pain to deal with (thin bone, dirt, etc.), the bridge covers of a lot of mess.
  • Teeth - This is a personal preference, but I prefer my skull to have all of its teeth…and not look like the guy I’m buying them off of. Just looks more complete.
  • Horn color - You’ll want to be conscious of the horn color and the palette of colors you’re intending to use. The skulls mainly range in the black/brown/grey categories but it can make a big difference. If you intend to use black, find horns with black in them and viceversa for brown.
  • Horn attachment – Find horns that have an attractive quality in their attachment to the actual calcium. The ones I purchase always have rope wrapped around the connection point (plus a few hidden screws to keep it all in place). Some sellers have perfected the attachment and don’t use rope. Others will leave a really gnarly and jagged edge. I stick to the rope because of the rustic appeal.  — I know I’m mentioning a lot about horns, but keep in mind that people often purchase just the horns or even blank skulls (I know, beats the hell out of me too) for their beauty. When hung on a wall, these horns act as a beacon and garner a lot of attention.
  • Horn width - Be conscious of the horn span. I like to buy right in the middle. Bout 3ft 9 inches. No 4 or 5 footers, but not the measly 2 footers.
  • Smell – Odd. I know. But get up to the skull, specifically near a cavity (eyes/under the bridge/behind the neck vertebrae) and take a good wiff. Caution: It’ll smell slightly repulsive. If it smells flat out rank, don’t purchase it. It means the the flesh eating beetles didn’t do their job and that their is still flesh in the inner cavities.
  • Price - Do not pay over $70 for a skull. You’re getting ripped off. $70-$90 should be an immaculate skull as described above, perfect horn attachment and no other issues. If you’re at a flea market, haggle with the people as long as you can. Also, make sure you cover the ENTIRE flea market to gather pricing information. I buy mine for $50, the guy has them priced from $60-$70. I start him at $40 and we eventually get to a standstill at $50, ’tis is life. I also recommend that you buy near the beginning of the day and near the start of the market to ensure you buy the highest quality skull possible. However you can also make the argument that you go near the end of the day on the last day of the market in order to try and strike a deal due to desperation.

Step 3: Transporting Your Skull:

To ensure we protect the integrity of your skull, we need to make sure we get it to your home/studio safely. If possible, I highly recommend that you bring a buddy to hold the skull on the drive back to your place (flea markets can be rather out of the way from civilization). DO NOT PUT THE SKULL IN YOUR TRUNK. It will break. Unless of course you cushion it with a copious amount of pillows and fluff. None the less, I don’t recommend it. I also recommend sitting your friend in the backseat with the horns pointed away from you (Final Destination anyone?).

Step 4: Cleaning and Priming:

Before you start painting your skull, we’re going to need to clean and prime it. First, have a good open space to paint, one in which you can turn the skull easily as well as a good space to flip and turn it. Next, if you’re not in a studio, put something underneath it. Newspaper, beer boxes, whatever. I just unfold Shiner boxes and let it be. Now it’s time to clean it. Grab a paintbrush and dust off your skull. Depending on the stripping process/elements that the skull was exposed to there may be quite a bit of dirt/dust/spiderwebs/and the occasional dead flesh eating beetle (these guys will drop out once you’ve flipped the skull out a few times). After it’s dusted, prime it. Use whatever you’re comfortable with though. And do NOT skip over this step. Sure, you can get away without priming some canvases, but with bone you’ll want to use it because the porous nature of the minerals. It’ll soak it up and create a fairly smooth and solid surface for you to paint on. Let it dry. Make sure to do the teeth as well. For a more detail, please see my post on preparing your skull and removing odor.

Step 5: Planning

Plan what your design is going to be. Don’t skimp on this step. Some quality thought and special attention to color can go a long way. I put together a Bull Skull Design Template that allows for you to print out a skull outline and to sketch out your ideas. (It’s actually the depiction of a bison skull but it’s more practical for drawing on, bulls are just too narrow)

Step 6: Painting

I start off by spray painting a base color if my design calls for it and at the very least I spray paint all of the interior cavities that I can reach (pays off down the road). If you spray paint be sure to wrap the horns. The first time I did this I used saran wrap and 4 rubber bands to protect the horns. Now I’ve started using old undershirts + rubber bands to protect them.

Unleash yourself. Warnings though: Be patient. Take your time. Bone is more difficult than canvas. Constantly check perspective (hold it up periodically as if it were hanging on a wall). Don’t be cheap about any part of it. Perhaps I’m a little too attentive, but I even go as far as detailing the inner-teeth/roof of the mouth.

Side note: Do not paint the horns. I personally think that is a waste. I consider myself an organic and those horns are absolutely raw and beautiful as they are. Your synthetic polymers only bastardize that bit of beauty.

Step 7: Finishing Touches

Be sure to go back over the details of your painting and look at the various fissures that are on the skull. Often it’s easy to leave a bunch of white showing from one angle, but not another.

Also. The rope around the horns. If your rope is anything like mine, it’s kind of ugly and blank looking. What I do is take a brown oil based stain + a few Q-tips and apply it to the rope. It creates a really nice grey/brown (kind of blends in with the horns no matter the color) that really fills in any “visual gaps.”

The final coat. Go to your local craft supply store and purchase some acrylic gloss. I buy Tree House Studios – Clear Acrylic – Gloss coating (once I finish the can I’m on though I’ll probably opt for the super gloss coating). Follow the instructions and apply a hefty coating to your skull. This will pretty much protect it from everything except hell’s wrath, not to mention it’ll give it a real nice professional shine. Make sure to cover the horns again and to let it dry for 24 hours in a well ventilated area before interacting with the skull again.

And there you go. You’re done. There are multiple ways to hang it. The way I do it is with some heavy duty wire wrapped around the neck vertebrae that’s attached to the head. BE SURE TO NOT DO IT AROUND ANY WEAK BONES. IT WILL FALL. Then just put it on a hook and you’re good to go. Enjoy!

P.S. – Use Pledge on the horns to polish them.


Here are some photos from the first skull I did.

Here is an artistic rendition of my first black light skull.

Dedicated to the vastness and unique dimension of artistic expression that can be experienced on bones of animals, in particular, Texas longhorn skulls.

44 Responses to “How to Paint a Cow Skull”

  1. Thanks so much for sharing this! We had an old cow skull sitting in our garden for a couple years, and I decided to paint it. Being from Ohio, Painting cow skulls isn’t a popular hobby here, so this helped a lot! I really like your work!

    Posted by AnnaReply
    • That’s excellent! Have fun with it. I’d love to see some photos of it once you’re done.

      Posted by Dave YetiReply
  2. Hello,

    I picked up a buffalo skull two years ago and immediately went to cleaning it; since then its been sitting waiting for me to know how to paint it.
    I’ve been looking for a site that would explain it as well as yours has.

    Thanks for the steps. Your site was helpful

    Posted by JakeReply
  3. Thank you for explaining how to paint the skull… I’ve had this skull for about 20 years and I’m going to paint a cutting horse and cow on it and then make it into a clock…. where the 12 – 3 – 6 -9 are I’m going to put turquoise. I’ve done alot of oil paintings but wanted to try this… Thank you again…

    Posted by DonnaReply
  4. Thanks! this helped a lot. I do have a question though. my skulls are in pretty good shape except for the fact that the bone is no longer smooth, they’re pretty rough. any suggestions? Someone mentioned using sandpaper to smooth it back out, but I’m not really sure about it.
    Thanks!

    Posted by CourtReply
    • Hey Courtney,

      You have a few options here.

      1) If you use the KILZ primer on the skull, depending on how porous the bone is, it should fill in a majority of the holes and leave you with a smooth surface to paint on. Sometimes this requires a second coat. It’ll leave ridges, but not holes (if that makes sense). I personally like it when it still has some roughness to it. It makes for a neat piece for everyone to interact with.

      2) You can sandpaper it. I’ve experimented with sandpaper and Dremel sanding bits. If you use a Dremel, be prepared. I’ve been practicing carving on skulls (bought 2 cheap calf skulls for $6) and it has been the biggest mess. Bone flies everywhere and the smell is atrocious. Same with sanding, just be careful and stay clean. Despite the Clorox bleaching on a lot of the skulls, bio remnants remain in the bone and it’s certainly something you don’t want to breathe in.

      Posted by Dave YetiReply
  5. Do you sell those painted cow skulls??

    Posted by alejandroReply
  6. My sister is a taxidermist and wants me to start painting skulls for her. She has all these spare bones, teeth, skulls, etc. and capes. I’m going to use your priming recommendations . Thank you! I’ll show you what I come up with. Thank you very much!

    Posted by Marta IzaReply
  7. Hello Dave, thank you for that, I happen to be a skull dealer and have recently started painting I found you post very helpful. I just wanted to let you know a few things. A reputable skull dealer like myself is very experienced in shipping skulls and very rarely have any problems with damage during shipping even when shipping to places far far away like Norway and Switzerland! Also I can pack about 150 bullaflo skulls on top of each other in the back of a pickup with no damage to any of the skulls! Its all about how you place them in there!! Happy Paining and if you ever need a skull buffalo, coyote or otherwise (not generally steer skulls however) look us up on ebay or send me an email. boydstore@yahoo.com! Thanks again for this super helpful post!

    Posted by Jen PetersReply
    • wow sorry for all the typos! YUK!!

      Posted by Jen PetersReply
  8. Hi Dave,
    I recently met someone who has had some bull skulls for about 20 years and has been wanting to get them painted and asked me to do it since I’m an artist. I’ve never painted on a skull before so I was looking for info. You’re article seems very helpful. From all of the other help articles I’ve seen, it looks like it is recommended to use acrylic paint. Yours wasn’t specific and I prefer to paint with oil. What do you use and would it work to use oil? Also, would gesso work as a primer or do you think Kilz is the best thing to use? Thanks!

    Posted by ConnieReply
    • Hey Connie,

      Personally I like to use acrylic. I don’t have much experience with oil, but you can go that route as long as you prime the skull properly. I lean towards using acrylic because of the sheer amount of paint you will use. You will encounter a lot of crevices and just tricky spots that take up a lot of paint/time, but leave the skull looking tacky/incomplete if not taken care of.

      Gesso is fine. I just use Kilz since my local store carries it in larger quantities.

      Good luck on painting! Would love to see how they turn out.

      Posted by Dave YetiReply
  9. I have a skull my husband got in the pasture that has been sitting in our yard for ever, and I got a wild hair to paint it. Do you seal it with anything afterwards, lacquer? Also, the teeth, do you glue them in, the one on mind are wiggly, and I didn’t know if I should coat them in something before painting. And, one last thing, what kind of glue works best on top of the paint, for embellishments?

    Posted by ChristineReply
  10. my skull has been bleached,peroxide,baking soda ,sitting out in the sun , & any thing that will take the smell out.like i said i’ve tried everything to get that smell out.would the kilz do it ?help!

    Posted by cindyReply
    • Hey Cindy,

      Can you give me a little more detail on the timeline of the skull? When did the animal pass/how did you acquire the skull? Had someone attempted to treat it already?

      The Kilz will help some, but it only masks it. The reason you still have the smell is due to flesh particles. Hands down the best way to get rid of the remaining flesh is via dermestid beetles. What I’m concerned about is that someone boiled it and that just makes the smell worse. Let me know and I’ll see what I can do to help.

      -David

      Posted by Dave YetiReply
  11. Loved the bits about the skulls looking goofy without the nose bone and like the guy you’re buying it from!

    Glossy is great for most looks. Consider weathered finishes that incorporate sanded layers, crackle finishes, and stains that help create patina… especially on a pair of ugly horns.

    Posted by deborah teselleReply
    • Deborah, I’d love to try some other approaches aside from the gloss – especially the patina! Any recommendations for how to go about it? I literally know nothing about creating that look on any sort of material.

      Posted by Dave YetiReply
  12. I recently found a few skulls at work’
    We do fencing in north Dakota and cow n bull skulls are everywhere. I found ur post while looking into ideas to paint mine and selling tips n value..if u want any nice skulls I will sell as many as u would like at $30each. Call me at 256-202-7785 jimmy. Thank’s.

    Posted by Jimmy PrindleReply
    • Hey Jimmy – that’s excellent. I’m still knocking through my current collection of skulls from the fall. But I’d be up for getting some more in a few months. Do you have any photos? What is the odor like on the skulls? And do you ever drive down to Oklahoma for work or anything? If not, a road trip to N.D. is fine with me.

      Posted by Dave YetiReply
  13. Thanks for the info Dave! I recently came into a human skeleton, the kind used to teach anatomy in classrooms. I want to paint it, but I have no idea what will work best, since I’m sure it’s already been treated and sealed in some way. Any thoughts or tips? (I know this is different from what you’re doing, but I thought it couldn’t hurt to ask!)

    Posted by CarolynReply
    • Hey Carolyn! That’s really cool. You do mean real bone, correct? Like a skeleton that was donated? If so, you can either tackle it with some $10 outdoor primer from Walmart or you can sand it, rough it up real good and then apply the paint of your choice. Would love to see photos of it!

      Posted by Dave YetiReply
  14. Dave great info I’m excited to start painting my new skull. Just a few questions I’d like clarified tho. For the horns themselves I just want a clear finish. Is it best to sand and then varnish or laquer them? And when it comes to painting the skull should you lacquer or varnish it first before painting with acrylic paint?

    Thanks
    Megan

    Posted by MeganReply
    • Hey Megan, I’ve actually never tackled finishing the horns before. I either buy the skulls with the horns finished and polished or I buy them raw and leave them that way. I would consider your overall skull quality first and see if it’s worth attempting. If the skull is in great shape and you want to do a high shine gloss, then maybe do a test spot on the underside of the horns. You also need to consider the type of paint job you’re going to do on it – sometimes the rustic, no gloss, raw horn looks best and complete the look you’re going for. Let me know what you find out – would love to get a guest post from you up on the blog.

      Posted by Dave YetiReply
  15. Hey Dave great read! I’m so excited to start decorating my cow skull. I just have a couple questions tho that I need clarified. I’d like to keep the horns natural with a bit of a glossy finish. Is it best to sand paper them then lacquor or varnish? Is one better than the other? Then for the skull before you paint with acrylic paint do you suggest varnishing or lacquering? Thanks!
    Megan

    Posted by MeganReply
  16. Hi I just bought a bullskull from a shop in cavecreek AZ. The smell is pretty bad…. I have put fabreese and disinfecting spray on it and is still there! I don’t see any flesh on it ….please help! How do I get rid of smell so I can put in my house?

    Posted by MReply
  17. Hi Dave,
    Thanks so much for this info! I love your site. Don’t kill me, but I want to paint ONLY the horns of a cow skull – shiny gold. I want to leave the skull itself bare. What would you recommend to pain the horns?
    JT

    Posted by JTReply
    • JT! Haha you are KILLING me. Are the horns at least unpolished? If so, just get them coated in a good outdoor/all surface white primer and then have at it with whatever shiny gold paint you have in mind. No recommendation on specific paint, just the process. Also, are these horns already attached to the skull?

      Posted by Dave YetiReply
  18. Hello Dave.
    I am using your site as a guideline for painting a cow skull; thank you for that. I used the Kilz as a primer a few days ago and it feels tacky in places. It is as dry as I think it ever will be but I am concerned about moving forward with the paint base coat. Has this ever happened to you? Do you have any suggestions for me? I am one of about 35 artists that are painting skulls as an annual fundraiser for our Ellensburg Rodeo Hall of Fame and my deadline is getting near. I truly hope you can help me soon. Thanks. Betty

    Posted by BettyReply
    • Hey Betty,

      That’s interesting, I don’t typically experience that. Maybe on occasion – it normally has to deal with the humidity. Are you painting inside or out? I know if you’re in Dallas like me, it can be rough to paint outside with the humidity levels. Also, did you stir/shake the primer well before handle? That can influence it. Additionally, if you’re going to paint with acrylic, you should be fine.

      Shoot me an email at david.petty1848@gmail.com if you’d like to discuss more! More than willing to help.

      Thanks,

      David

      Posted by Dave YetiReply
      • Howdy Dave,

        Wow, thanks for your quick response. I don’t remember if I stirred it up; darn, that may have been my problem and the tackiest parts are where it probably settled. I do know that I shook the can. Yes, I will be spraying/painting with a Sherman Williams acrylic latex.

        I am in central Washington and it is starting to warm up around here but we don’t experience high humidity. I have it in my garage which is a steel structure but not terribly hot.

        I am going to go forward and paint with confidence. I will let you know if I have anymore questions.

        Thanks so much for your input.
        Betty

        Posted by BettyReply
        • No problem Betty!

          And not to worry, I’ve used the SW acrylic latex before, you should be good to go. Does your fundraiser group have a link where the skulls are featured once completed? I’d love to write a post about it, or at least see what you come up with!

          Bests,

          David

          Posted by Dave YetiReply
  19. Thanks for this article. Could you share what types of paint you use? Would good old acrylic work? Is there anything I should avoid?

    Posted by MelissaReply
    • Hey Melissa! Thanks for the question.

      I really enjoy using acrylic. Nothing fancy. Skulls are pretty rugged and in my opinion, you’re just wasting money if you’re spending it on premium paints. I really like to encourage painters to experiment with spray paints and different mixes to create new effects. Worse case scenario, dunk the thing in a gallon of primer and go again.

      The only thing I would avoid is cheap black light paint from Hobby Lobby. Made that mistake once and it was pretty rough and tedious painting session. I would stress that you shake your paints appropriately before applying – including primer. Others have run into that issue in the past.

      I’ll try to get a dedicated post up soon about paint selection and send it to you. Please let me know if you have any other questions!

      Posted by Dave YetiReply
  20. This post is great, thanks for sharing! I recently got a bison skull that I’m going to try to paint. I’m not the most artistically talented, but I’m going to give it my best shot! Thanks.

    Posted by Eliesa WReply
  21. Hey Dave,
    I’ve been reading through the questions and comments here and I was hoping someone would have asked my question already but it appears I am the only one with this issue so far- A gentleman gave me two deer skulls to paint on and he said they may have been lacquered. They appear to have a glossy, clear finish. Will I have issues with acrylic paint peeling or coming off? Should I use a different paint such as enamel? He also wants one done with ink and I’m considering a waterproof, permanent technical pen. Any help with these dilemmas will be greatly appreciated! Thanks, Brandee

    Posted by BrandeeReply
    • Hey Brandee,

      Thanks for your question! Yes, you will have issues if you try applying acrylic to the finished skulls. No need to worry though, just run to Walmart and grab some primer – just be sure it’s outdoor/all-purpose. It will probably take two coats, but should do the trick. That is unless you have some unbelievable finish that you’re dealing with. Proceed with whichever paint you want afterwards.

      Ink is interesting. Although I have never done it, I have contemplated it. I personally think it’s best executed on a raw skull vs. one with primer. But let me know how it goes! Might be interesting.

      Please let me know if you have any other questions, more than happy to discuss!

      David

      Posted by Dave YetiReply
  22. Thank you for the post! Im a fellow okie and found old skulls on our property. Now I know how to paint on them! Thank you for sharing!

    Posted by AutumnReply
    • Too bad I’m a Texan! Looks like neighbors it is then.

      Posted by Dave YetiReply
  23. Hi David,
    I recently purchased a cow skull off of ebay. And when I received it there were spiders and other bugs still living in it. I soaked the cow skull in my tub full of water and dishwashing liquid and I got alot of the bugs out. It seems to be completely cleaned but before I start painting it I want to be sure. What else can i do to make sure there is nothing still living in the crevices?

    Posted by Alexandra ZReply
    • Hi Alexandra,

      It sounds like you got a majority of the bugs out. Honestly, you won’t get them all out. They have a real knack for reproducing in extreme circumstances. What you’ll want to go ahead and do is pour some cheap primer into the skull. Easiest way is to balance the skull on the back of its head and pour into the snout, ensuring you reach the middle of the head. You will then want to do this the other way by balancing it on its snout and pouring in through the cranial cavity. Bit messy, but it’ll coat and demolish just about any bug. I’ll do a blog post this weekend that goes into more detail on best practices of doing this.

      Posted by Dave YetiReply
      • Thank you so much!!

        Posted by Alexandra ZReply
  24. Thank you for your instructions. I have one Steer Head and 2 deer head to paint on. I have been looking at them for a few years, wanting to paint on them, but chickened out for fear of messing them up for good. I think I am ready to take the leap, now that I have found your instructions.
    We won’t be too far from you soon. We are leaving SC to go visit our daugher in Henryetta,Oklahoma.
    I am really excited to get the Steer done, so I can give it to them for a new House gift. She, her husband and two sons are all in rodeo. Ropers and bull doggers. :-)

    Posted by JudyReply
    • Hey Judy! You’re quite welcome. I’m glad these instructions were of some help. Please feel free to reach out if you have any questions along the way. Always happy to help :)

      Posted by Dave YetiReply

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