The Dilemma of Animal Painting and Image Reference

Pastel Journal received some great feedback from a letter published in the April 2012 issue of the magazine on how to paint animals from image references. Have any more ideas? Leave them in the comments field below.


I’ve just received the latest issue of Pastel Journal, as well as the online feature. The pieces on Steve Morvell’s wonderful wildlife pastels fill me with admiration.

For the most part, I do pastel animal paintings and portraits of people, working from life and photographs (more photos than life; animals won’t sit still). I would love to do more wildlife work. But if you don’t have the opportunity or the money to visit wild places, and if you’re somewhat physically handicapped, as I am, how do you get image references?

Lion Brothers | pastel animal painting

Lion Brothers (21¼ x 27 1⁄5) by Steve Morvell

You can’t use other people’s photos—well, you can if you get permission, but even if you do, you can’t, for example, enter a contest with the finished work.

Is there an answer to this?
Thank you,
Diane M. Smith




I’m writing in reference to the letter in your April 2012 issue from Diane Smith. I’m a professional wildlife artist with dual residency in the states and Brazil, and am fortunate to have access to my subject matter in the beautiful Atlantic Forest area where I live. I have always insisted on taking my own reference shots, that is, until I was asked to create the illustrations for the children’s book WISDOM, the Midway Albatross ( Unable to travel to Midway Atoll to document the life cycle of these amazing birds, I was able to use the photography provided by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service at their site because it’s in the public domain:

I hope this helps Diane in her passion for wildlife painting. As far as competitions go, not all of them require that you use your own reference material, and perhaps public domain reference photos are allowed in others.

Congratulations on an excellent and inspiring magazine !

Kitty Harvill, AFC



Here are my suggestions for Diane M. Smith on how to paint animals when you’re living with disabilities and can’t get into the great outdoors. I’m also a disabled wildlife artist with mobility limitations, so I have come up with quite a few strategies that work.

1. Join The Reference Image Library is priceless. Artists from around the world with a lot more mobility and better cameras than I can afford have posted so many gorgeous references for use by members without royalties that it’s where I turn first. It’s rare that I can’t find the animal or bird I’m looking for and good references of the places it lives.

2. Sketch similar animals in or near your house for practice. I got much better at big cats by doing thousands of quick gesture studies of my cat. Sparrows have a lot in common anatomically with other birds. Life sketching will help when the reference for that eagle is in an awkward position, but one of your sparrow sketches has the pose you want.

3. Sketch wildlife from videos as if you were drawing from life. It’s fair to play the clip over and over, but it’s most like life drawing if you just loop the clip rather than freeze frame on a good pose. This helps build anatomy skills and observation. Very often you’ll pick up more about the animal and its environment than the narrator says by paying close attention to clips.

4. Visit zoos in your area, even if it takes renting a wheelchair and getting a friend or relative to push it. If you’re going to sketch from life, you don’t need to walk through the whole zoo. Go directly to your favorite subject and spend half the day by that cage. Be sure to bring sunscreen and wear a wide brim hat—otherwise, take the usual going outdoors precautions.

5. If you have power mobility, check local and state parks for whether some paved trails run in areas you want to paint. Sometimes wonderful scenes and good wildlife come to those who wait—even if you’re waiting on a paved bit rather than half a mile out into the woods. It doesn’t matter how you get there or whether you only go in good weather; if you can do any outdoor painting or sketching at all, this helps give you good reference materials. What you see that’s too fleeting to sketch from life, try to draw it immediately. The act of sketching a fresh memory helps fix it into long-term memory.

6. Buy good books on wildlife painting and drawing. Study them and do the exercises. Copying the masters will help teach you what to look for when you’re drawing a real, moving target.

7. Do lots of fast, timed gesture sketches from every source. Every time you sketch, you’re observing the animal fresh. You’ll see something you didn’t the last time. Five three-minute sketches will teach you much more than a detailed 15-minute sketch.

8. Don’t be shy about contacting nature photographers online! You don’t know if they’ll be happy to give permission to draw until you ask. Most of them do give permission. I always credit them even if they say they don’t care, because their references are important. Many also want to see the painting once I’ve done it, so I keep their name on file and keep contact information. Some photographers have given me blanket permission to draw from all their photos. A very few want royalties or hefty fees, but there are so many who give permission without charging anything that I just move on and find a new reference.

9. Combine so many different references and studies that no one can tell what you used as a reference. If you aren’t copying anyone’s photo but checking the color in this one, background from two others, proportions in another, face details in a close-up, pose from another that might be a different species, you’ll come out with an original painting.

10. When entering contests, read the fine print. Contests vary. Many just say “your own photos or references used with permission.” A few purist contests don’t want you using any reference photos, but if you used your sketches as references and any photo references are second or third remove, that would probably satisfy even those purists. This is where zoo trips, life sketching birds at your feeder and pets in the house come in handy. It’s good to have those sketch references handy if your painting is questioned because by coincidence some photographer captured a tiger in your cat’s favorite pose.

There are places in the world that even athletic, abled wildlife painters have a hard time visiting, conditions so hard to paint in that the hardiest rely on photos and videos. For some nature subjects, like extinct animals, all you can do is study nature and extrapolate from the known species to put flesh and feathers on the old bones. We may face some special obstacles because it’s harder to get out into fields and woods on bad days, but painting nature is a way to connect with the wilderness even when shut in.

Robert A. Sloan



I’m not a wildlife artist, but I enjoy National Geographic’s Nat Geo Wild TV channel and highly recommend it. There is also a series of six programs on Wild Russia available in high definition, as well as others. Buying them is cheaper than traveling! Watching such a series over and over lets you learn how an animal moves, which helps with proportion as well as pose. It also gives you the correct habitat. When you’ve learned to sketch the animal accurately you can always go to the Internet for details like whiskers and tails.

Nova Wells



I read my wife’s response to your desire for info on wildlife photography and wanted to add my comments.  I like to take pics with my NIKON D-50 and a couple of small zoom lenses.  We attended a club presentation a couple of years ago at the Loveland, Colo., Camera Club. Speaker was a well-known wildlife photographer who has been published several times in National Geographic, and he addressed the general question: How do you take good wildlife photos? His direct answer assumes basic knowledge of your camera and accessories, which you can gain in your home. His answer: Go where the wildlife is friendly! One of his solutions is a trip to Rocky Mountain National Park, where crowds of people go in the fall to hear Elk trumpet. While still wild, the animals there are used to people and don’t automatically turn tail and run when people are around.

I’d like to add a couple of thoughts: If you have a yard where you live, you can see and photograph wildlife there. I have a couple of bird feeders in my backyard, along with an inexpensive water fountain, which trickles water into a small basin. It gets replaced with an ordinary waterer with a thermostatically controlled warmer that kicks in when the air temp nears the frost-mark. We see lots of birds of course—some of which pose for us, and we learn to anticipate their behavior. Chickadees, for instance, won’t pose—they come to the feeder, grab a seed and flit right up to a branch in a nearby tree to eat the seed. You’ll need some kind of a blind. Quickest and least expensive is some camo-colored netting from a fabric store. Improvise some kind of a frame with sticks or poles—a teepee comes to mind. Shoot through the door where the fabric overlaps.

I suspect you can search Google for some good ideas about feeding stations, and  appropriate seeds for your location. Birds here in northern Texas like black oil sunflower seeds. Of course, our home is a good blind, with the camo netting for a drape we can shoot through. Birds can give you a chance for some really good wildlife photos and bird paintings.

Enjoy your adventure!
Carl Wells



For the woman who needed pictures to work from: She can buy them from an image service! Some of the services, such as Fotolia, have inexpensive monthly fees for a certain number of photos a month.
–Eileen McHargue


* You’ll find a full-length feature on wildlife and conservation-inpsired pastelist Steve Morvell in the February 2012 issue of Pastel Journal. (Have you renewed your subscription to the magazine? You’re just one click away from a year’s worth of pastel inspiration and instruction.)

Enjoy an online-exclusive gallery of Morvell’s pastel animal paintings here.


Do you have more ideas on images sources for painting animals and wildlife? Add them in the comments field below.





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