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Tips and Tricks for Sketching Animals

Right handed or left handed? Black or with cream? Older sibling or younger sibling? Most people believe that your answers to these basic questions can reveal a good bit about your personality. However, there is no question quite so divisive as this: cat person or dog person? Pets, and animals in general, play a huge role in our everyday lives. From our own personal furry family members to zoo animals that we treat like members of our extended family (think of April the giraffe that record breaking numbers of viewers around the world watched via live stream anticipating the birth of her new calf!), human beings tend to have strong feelings about animals.

One reason why we have such a strong emotional response to animals is that we are able to assign human behaviors and human emotions to their actions. A dog whines and looks expectantly at your plate of food. Well, he obviously must be hungry and really want to taste tonight’s dish. A cat swishes its tail and refuses to come when it is called. It must be feeling defiant and moody, unwilling to participate in any cuddles or play time. Whether or not the emotions we assign to these animal actions are 100% accurate, they play a large role in the way we respond to animals.

Because of our obsession with animals, artists who attempt to sketch animals often run into even greater challenges than those sketching human beings. While viewers are more willing to forgive small abstractions and minor inconsistencies in realistic drawings of the human form, with animals, viewers are more in tune to how an animal is supposed to look. From the expression conveyed on the animal’s face to the emotion the sketch is conveying, viewers will desire an animal sketch to fit with their preconceived notions of how the animal looks and behaves. If an artist chooses to challenge these stereotypes, he or she must do so head on and in a way that is clear to the viewer.

Just as the practice of sketching the human form can be outstanding practice for any artist, sketching animals is another way to hone your fine motor skills and enhance your ability to capture action and emotion on the page. One major bonus of sketching animals over humans—there is no need to get anyone’s permission to sketch them or to publish a sketch of them, and your subject will likely be staying in one place for an extended period of time.

As you embark on a continued practice of capturing the essence of an animal in your drawings, there are several tips and tricks you can use to enhance your experience and your finished work. First, choose your subject carefully. You should choose a subject that engages you. If you have a pet, that is the perfect place to start. Your knowledge of the animal’s behaviors and idiosyncrasies will add life to your image that cannot be duplicated. If you do not have a pet, your first subject can be the pet of a friend that you have spent time around or have heard many stories about. As a last resort, choose an animal at a local zoo or in the wild, however, make sure that you take time to watch the animal for an extended period of time over several days or weeks to get an idea about its so-called personality. If the animal is rather static, and its behaviors do not interest you, move on to an animal that makes you smile or furrow your brow as you watch it go about its day.

Before you begin your sketch, consider what you want the sketch to capture. Do you want to focus on something that the animal does—its movement? Or do you want to focus on its facial expression—its emotion? This is a choice that is going to guide the remainder of your sketch. If you choose to sketch the animal engaged in motion, you will need to spend more time focused on the way that the animal’s appendages move, the way its muscles engage during the action, and its body in general. If, instead, you choose to sketch a facial expression, the animal’s full physical form becomes secondary to the focus you need to place on the animal’s eyes, mouth, nose, and other facial features. You will need to watch closely for subtle changes in these areas to truly capture the expression you are attempting.

One tool that can be extremely helpful as you prepare to sketch and as you place the finishing touches on your sketch is your cell phone. Take a quick video or two of the animal. You can slow down the film frame by frame to really focus on minor changes in the animal’s posture and expression. If you are sketching a zoo animal or another animal that you are unable to approach, you will also benefit from being able to zoom in to various areas of the film to assist you in capturing the image.

Another great strategy for capturing the emotions and individuality of an animal that you do not own is to speak to its owner or handler. If you are sketching a dog you see at your local dog park, strike up a conversation with its owner about its behaviors and personality. Pet it. If you are sketching a zoo animal, zookeepers love nothing more than to brag about their amazing part-time pets. Ask them questions about the animal, and they can regale you with fascinating stories about the animal, from how it came to be at the zoo to its funniest character traits.

Sketching animals can be a fun and relaxing practice. There is something about watching the carefree nap of a puppy or the lazy snacking of a zoo elephant to remind you of the connection all beings on Earth share. Your practice in capturing nuanced emotions and actions will serve you well as you work on incorporating small creative details in your own medium.