How to Draw Realistic Animals That LEAP Right Off The Page

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I can’t remember a time when I didn’t draw animals, and now I'm lucky enough to be a professional animal artist. Whether you have the same goal or just want to get better at drawing these living creatures, I've got some tips for you. We'll start with the basics, move on to the nitty-gritty of drawing an animal head, and finish by discussing proportions, facial expressions and art materials.

Animal lovers, this one's for you.

Basic rules for drawing animals

Use live animals as your models whenever possible

True, many representational artists in a variety of media and genres work from photographs, and I'm one of them. But there's no substitute for drawing from live animals.

If your city or town has a zoo or aquarium, head there as often as you can to work on your sketches. Drawing a live animal is a totally unique experience. You're storing the memory in your hand and on paper, not just in your mind or as a photograph. It’s really about the process, not the end result.

Try to take your own photographs

It’s always better to draw from photographs you’ve taken yourself. Using your own images gives you a more authentic emotional response, which leads to stronger work. When you draw from other people's photos, you're only seeing what other photographers saw at the instant they clicked the shutter. You have their personal vision, not yours.

But if you’re just starting out, or if you want to learn to draw a species you can't find in real life anywhere nearby, then look for the best reference on the Internet. You can work from that image using the tips below. Just don’t sell the drawings you make from those images, because you'd almost surely be violating the photographer’s copyright. When working with existing photos, it's important to be courteous and ethical, and to respect other artists' work — the same way others should respect yours.

Start with the largest, simplest shapes

I took a photo of Michiko, one of our three cats, to use as a reference for a graphite drawing I'm working on (see above). I begin the sketch with the biggest and simplest shapes, but I don’t use generic ovals or circles (that's an old-school technique that feels outdated now). I look at my reference photo, and I focus on getting the basic contours as soon as my pencil touches paper.

The second drawing above shows, from right to left, how I add tone and value by working gradually from light to dark. I started with a 2B pencil and finished the darkest areas with a 6B.

Don't be afraid to erase

If I miss, then I take a kneaded eraser and lightly rub out the pencil marks. Then I try again. It would be awesome to get everything right the first time, every time, but no artist ever does. You can look at drawings by the greatest masters and find ones where they were searching for the correct line — but didn’t erase their “mistakes.”

Don't worry if you have to keep correcting as you go. That’s how you train your eye. The fact that you're noticing something isn’t right is actually good news.

Tips for drawing an animal’s head

For the most accuracy, look at the animal's head closely and make as many detailed observations as you can. Then you'll be ready to take your pencil and paper and start exploring how to render each part as precisely as possible. You can use a mirror to check your work. The parts that need correcting tend to jump out, like magic.

Eyes

Pay close attention to where the eyes are located on the animal's head, including how far apart they are. Keep in mind that an eyeball is round, so the eye you draw should show a curve wherever it's visible, instead of looking flat. How far into the eye socket is the eyeball? What shapes do you see around the eye? Getting those right is important if you want to capture the animal's expression and likeness.

Nose

Noses can be tough to draw since they usually have few, if any, hard edges. Draw the shape lightly and don’t make a hard edge unless you’re sure you can see one. You might want to do a study of just the nose before drawing the whole head, to make sure you understand the structure of that particular nose. Is it flat? How big are the nostrils? How far is the bottom of the nose from the upper lip of the mouth? Those details will help you nail a realistic look.

Mouth or muzzle

Like noses, the mouths of most mammals don’t have hard edges. The mouth and nose often form a single shape: the muzzle. Look closely at the animal you're drawing. Does its muzzle project from the plane of the face like a grizzly’s? Is it flat like a gorilla’s? Is it a continuation of the head, like on a horse? Does it have soft lips like a camel or giraffe?

Ears

Notice how the ears are set on the animal's head. Are they high on the skull or low? Big in relation to the rest of the head or small? How does the animal carry its ears when not alert? Are they shallow, almost flat or cupped? Is there a lot of fur in and around the ears, or is the hair very short?

Capturing proportions and expressions

Say you're drawing a kitten. You'll probably notice that its face, eyes, nose and mouth are small and close together compared to the overall size of its head. Getting those proportions right is what will help you draw a kitten instead of an adult cat. The same is true of a human baby.

Let's stay you're looking at a photo of a lioness at the zoo. Can you capture her expression? Do you see any other details, for example, is the paw on her hind leg slightly upturned?

The kitten you're drawing might have a softness and sweetness to her expression. The lioness, on the other hand, has obviously seen something and is focused on it. Try to capture those elements. They'll make your drawing a thousand times more realistic.

Choosing your materials

You’ll need a sharp pencil and smooth drawing paper. Look for a pencil with a lead that's soft enough to give you the darkest darks. The regular paper you'd use in a computer printer will work fine.

I like to work on Strathmore 300 vellum bristol, using a Derwent Graphic or Staedtler Mars Luminograph pencil. I do my erasing with a Prismacolor kneaded eraser.

Now, go find an animal that captivates you, grab your pen and pencil, and enjoy the adventure!

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How to Draw Realistic Animals That LEAP Right Off The Page