Wildlife drawing is something I've done since I was a kid
I can’t remember a time when I draw animals wasn't a part of my life.
Now I'm happy to say, I'm a professional wildlife artist. My path as a wildlife artist has been different than the traditional wildlife artist path. In fact, I don't think there is a traditional wildlife artist path.
Whether you have the same goal of doing wildlife drawing for a living. Or just want to get better at drawing wildlife, I've got some drawing insights 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.
Table of Contents
Basic rules for wildlife drawing
Whenever possible draw from live animals as a reference. Zoos are my best friend for this. I live 5 minutes away from the San Diego Zoo and pay for a membership that allows me access to the zoo an hour before it opens to the general public. If you don't have access to a zoo, you can use wildlife reference photos.
Whenever I travel abroad, I pay for safaris, guides, and other ways to access animals in the wild so I can take reference photos. I've done this to see tigers in the wild in India and wild elephants in Sri Lanka.
Use live animals as your models whenever possible.
If you are going to use photos for your art, it's always best to take your own reference photos. Or pay for the right to use other reference photos. Copying a photo is infringing on the copyright of the photographer. Unless you have written permission granting the rights to replicate and sell the resulting drawing or painting. Which is another reason I'm always taking my own reference photos.
Drawing animals in real life are great practice for drawing movement. It's a totally unique experience. You're building a library of information in your head. Which makes you more confident in your drawing.
Try to take your own photographs
It’s always better to draw from photographs you’ve taken yourself. When you use your own reference images of animals there is an experience behind the image. Which develops stronger drawings you and a story you can talk about. When you make wildlife drawings based on photos that aren't yours, you're reliving a moment through their eyes. Which is their vision and not yours.
But if you're just starting out, there are virtually unlimited photos online for you to practice from. You just can't sell drawings you did base on those photographer's photos. As you'll be violating their copyright.
Start with the largest, simplest shapes
These photos are from a trip I took to Sri Lanka. Making for great reference photos for one of my mixed media drawings. I started this sketch with the biggest and simplest shapes, but I don’t use basic construction shapes most “how-to” books instruct artists to do. Such as ovals or circles. Which is a pretty outdated way of drawing. using my reference photos, I observe the basic contours as soon as I start drawing.
Never erase when you're wildlife drawing
There are no such things as mistakes when you're drawing. Think of ‘missed-placed” lines as thought lines. Lines you lay down in order to find the shapes and energy in your drawing.
These thought lines are what makes drawing such a unique medium. They show off what the artist was thinking and feeling as they made the drawing.
Drawing is a process. Where you're problem-solving on the page. figuring out where to place lines in an intuitive and logical way. Don't erase. Never be afraid of correcting by laying down more lines as you go.
Tips for drawing an animal’s head
When you're drawing animal heads, Observe as best as you can. Noticing textures and emotions behind the animal. Animals feel all the same emotions as humans do. The head is the biggest revealer of this. As you're wildlife drawing, explore the textures, mood, and shadows that make up the animal's head.
Pay attention to how the animal's eyes are positioned on their head. Notice that all eyeballs are round. Which means the eyes you draw should convey a curve. Never looking flat. As you draw, ask yourself:
- How deep-set are the eyes?
- Do you notice any shapes near the eye?
- What shapes do the shadows make from the brow or under the eyes?
Ultimately, getting these shapes right is important if you want to capture the animal's uniqueness.
Noses can be challenging to draw. This is due to a lack of hard edges and key shapes. in fact, most noses are made up of a combination of shapes. I recommend taking a moment to observe and figure out what shapes construct the nose. Just make sure to understand the structure of the animal's 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.
The mouths of most mammals don't have hard edges. Most of the time, the nose and the mouth are part of the same shape. Making a muzzle. Observe how the muzzle relates to the face. Does it form its own surface away from its face? Like it does on a wolf? Or is it on the same planar surface as it is on a monkey? What about a seamless part of the head such as it is on a horse? Or are the lips of the mouth they're own shape like they are on a camel?
Pay attention to how the ears are positioned on an animal's head. Ask yourself if they're high or low. How do they relate to the rest of the head? Are they small or oversized? Also, how does the animal you're looking at the position its ears when they are alert? Do they perk up? Is the texture of the fur different near and around the ears?
Capturing proportions and expressions while wildlife drawing
Getting those proportions right is what will help your wildlife drawing look great. Getting the overall shapes right are key to getting the proportions correct.
For example, if you're looking at a photo of a tiger, how do you capture its character and expression?
Can you observe any details about its body language that communicates its current mood?
The tiger you're drawing might have a lazy tired look to its expression. Or it could be in a playful mood if it's young and near another sibling. In your wildlife drawing, try to capture those character elements. They'll make your wildlife drawing more unique.
Now, go find an animal that captivates you, grab your pen and pencil, and enjoy the adventure!
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