Creatures Great and Small

No matter what type of animal you want to draw—be it a house pet or a barnyard favorite—there are steps you can take to ensure you draw it well. In fact, in my 27 years of drawing and painting animals full time, I’ve found that there are three key areas you can concentrate on to ensure that your animals look realistic—and without getting bogged down in detail.

Quite simply, if you pay attention to the anatomy, proportion and movement of the animal you’re drawing, you’ll get natural-looking results. Although I’ll show you examples using horses, dogs and cows, the basic principles that follow can be applied to other animals, as well.

Understand Anatomy
There are many good books on animal anatomy (see Further Reading at the end of the article), and close study of the animals themselves is, of course, helpful. Knowing about the bones and muscles is crucial to drawing realistic animals, but it’s not critical that you know the exact placement of every one. Focus on just those that help create the outer shape of the animal, indicating hard and soft areas on the body. Take a look at the skeletal drawings of the horse, cow and dog on page 24. There are similarities in basic structure among the animals, but there are also critical differences, especially in the line of the back, the position of the neck and the lengths of the bones in the legs. I’ve seen too many paintings ruined because the horses were painted like cows, for instance.

Check Proportion
Though horses—and all animals, for that matter—will vary in size and shape, their basic proportions are relatively the same. For example, you’ll find many horses are two-and-a-half heads high (I use each animal’s head as a standard of measurement). Dogs will vary even more from breed to breed, but measuring a standing side view photograph or even the animal itself will get you started. As I’m checking my drawings, I compare the head size to the height and length of the body and length of the leg. Being familiar with proportion will be especially useful when you’re dealing with foreshortening and perspective issues.

Observe Movement
Knowing the underlying structure of animals will help you particularly when you’re drawing animals in motion. But keep in mind that proper anatomy and proportions won’t save your drawing if the animal looks awkward. An excellent exercise you can do if you don’t have easy access to animals is to sketch from a paused videotape. Find a video of an animal you want to better understand, and spend half an hour doing quick little sketches. Pause the tape and draw quickly to capture as much movement as you can before the tape resumes playing. You’ll be amazed at how quickly your drawing skills and your understanding of the animal will improve with this exercise.

Practice, Practice, Practice
If you find that one particular part of an animal is difficult for you to draw, such as the feet or legs, spend some time concentrating on that alone. Doing many little sketches of various positions of feet—or whatever other features plague you—will make them much easier for you to draw. Avoiding drawing a certain part because it intimidates you will be obvious to the viewer. (Always drawing your horses in knee-deep grass, for instance, won’t solve the problem of not being able to render hooves.)

Something else you’ll want to experiment with in your sketchbook is how to portray an animal you’re not seeing all of. For example, if you have a horse emerging from a barn, or partially hidden by a fence, don’t cut them off at such awkward points as right at the joints, the tip of the tail or the tips of ears just because that’s how you see it now. Some better places to do this are more toward the middle of the horse or between joints.

Picturing Success
The key to re-creating the incredible beauty of animals isn’t necessarily in the details. Spending time on anatomy, proportion and gesture and making them all work together will go a long way toward improving your animal drawings.

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