Saturday, July 12, 2014

Answers to your questions about sketching animals

Last May, I did a blog post about sketching animals from life and invited you to submit questions for a Q and A in International Artist magazine

The new issue of International Artist is printed, and should be on the newsstands soon. It includes a six-page story with your questions and my answers and sketchbook pages. 

Although I couldn't get to every single question, I think I tackled most of them. Here they are:

Why bother? Why paint the animal directly?” (Karen Robinson)
Drawing and painting animals from life gives me a clearer sense of their characteristic poses and behaviors. As they move around, I’m forced to internalize a sense of their structure. Also, I like being able to feel their bones under the fur or feathers (assuming they’re domesticated). Touching, hearing, and even smelling animals adds so much to my understanding of them, and informs any work I do later when I’m working from references.

And there are unforgettable moments, such as sitting beside a calf that is just a few hours old, and having it get up on wobbly legs and sniff my sketchbook.

(Note above: where you see that YouTube play symbol, there's a live link to a video of the sketch being made)

“Quick gesture studies aside, what are the benefits to sketching moving animals from life as opposed to drawing from taxidermy for example?” (Gavin)
Each has its benefits. No taxidermist can perfectly capture a living animal, and they probably wouldn’t choose to portray an animal in one of its funny in-between expressions, like the way a donkey will lift up its front lip when it smells urine, for example. Life studies are great for gathering quick impressions of natural poses. Museum studies are great for really doing careful studies of structure, texture, and form.

“How about taking a video of an animal as it paces and leaps around in its cage so you can later sketch it in different positions and develop a 3D "model" of its shapes in your head by scrubbing the video back and forth?” (Leif)
All roads lead to Rome. Studying video is helpful, too. Of course animals in zoos or farms don’t behave the same as wild animals, nor are they as fit. If you can shoot video of the animals  that interest you, you’ll have a good reference. But there are so many great wildlife films available online now that you have to ask yourself if it’s worth shooting your own. When I bring both a camera and a sketchbook on a wildlife or zoo encounter I have to decide between one or the other because it’s just too much to juggle.

Do you ever snap a quick photo before starting a study so that after you have the main points blocked in, you can go back and look at some details in case the animal has changed position?  (A.L. Ryder)

I have done that a few times, but not usually. Normally, I forget to do that until after the animal has moved, and I lose interest in working on the sketch after I’ve left the scene.

What advice would you give for training one's memory? (Robert Simone)
I make the most progress when I alternate between observation, book study, and memory. Draw an animal from life, and then draw that pose or another pose later in your sketchbook just from memory. Even if that memory sketch doesn’t look very good, it helps me to come face to face with what I know and what I don’t know. The more I can internalize the animal’s structure, the better I can make headway on a sketch when the animal has changed pose.

“What if the animal decides to get up and walk away? Do you make up the rest or start a new sketch?” (Gabriel S.)
There’s no predicting it. Many times I’ve Iaid in a strong start only to have the animal wake up or saunter off. If I’m pretty far along, I stick with it. Sometimes I can hold elements of the pose in mind, and if I do my job at the beginning and leave a good map of the overall pose, I can fill in the blanks. But if I have a weak beginning, I’ll just start a new one right over the messed-up lay-in.

In the video of the painting of the Belgian draft horse, you can see me restarting two or three times at the beginning of each painting.

Belgian, 2013. Casein, 5x8” (follow the link to a video of the sketch being made)
“How would I catch the pose of an animal or group of animals who are running past, for example at a horse racing event?” (Pascoe)  “How do you capture a running dog, animals fighting / wrestling with one another?” (Susan T)
I’m not too good with either of these situations. I went to a dog walk park once and sat on a picnic table all ready to go with my sketchbook. The dogs were all hyped up and running around at top speed. I sat there for an hour trying to sketch those furry meteors, and what did I get in my sketchbook? Nothing whatsoever!

“Do you choose a pose and then wait for the animal to take that pose again?” (Karen Thumm)
Yes, I try to sit for at least ten or fifteen minutes before I start sketching. It usually takes the animal that long to get used to me while I get my materials ready, and in that time I have a pretty good idea of what pose they’re likely to stay in longest, or which poses they might return to. If they seem likely to move a lot, I’ll just try for small gestural sketches.

Thrush, pencil, 8 x 8 inches.
In the case of a thrush that was stunned after striking a window of our house, I sat quietly near it and sketched it as it gradually regained its consciousness.

Peanut, water-soluble colored pencil, 5 x 8 inches.

Do you catch the gesture first, then observe various individuals as they move into the pose you are drawing for the details or what? (Carole Pivarnki)
If there’s a group of related animals, I can use details from one to finish another that has moved off.

In the sketches of robin hatchlings, I climbed a ladder to the nesting shelf and tried to draw the babies as quickly as possible, capturing gesture first, and then layering details over that as long as I could before the angry parent chased me off!  
Robin Babies, watercolor, 5 x 8 inches

Older Robin Babies, pencil, 5 x 8 inches.

What is your minimum kit that allows for working in a full hue and value range, but is versatile enough for physically limited situations” (Jacob Stevens)
The simplest thing is a small set of water-soluble colored pencils, perhaps yellow ochre, red-brown, dark brown, and black, plus two water brushes, one with clear water, and one with black ink. I use a similar small palette in watercolor, casein, or oil. For mammals, you don’t need much more than that, though you could add a blue.

For a study of frogs, I’m glad I had green on my palette, which I used while sitting quietly beside a frog pond for over three hours. The frogs ignored me after a while and even hunted some insects while I sketched them.
Frogs, Watercolors and colored pencils, 5x8.”

What size sketchbooks do you recommend, and how long does a sketch take to complete? (Liz Gorman)
I like to work in a 5x8 inch watercolor sketchbook, and a sketch can take anywhere from 10 minutes to an hour, depending on how long the animal stays in the pose. Sometimes I’m lucky enough to work with an expert animal handler who will attempt to keep the animal in the same pose.

In the video of the turkey hen, you can see in time lapse exactly how much the bird was moving during the course of the 20 minute study.

How do you sketch birds or animals that perceive staring as a threat? Also, how do you keep your models from nibbling at your sketchbook or drawing tools?” (Laura Young)
With dogs that belong to other owners, they’re confused by the attention, and  refuse to settle down. That can be a gamestopper, so I try to wait until the dog is comfortable with me.

For gorillas and chimps, I arrive early at the zoo, before it’s crowded, and then slowly walk backwards to the glass without looking at them directly, except in furtive glances. That relaxes the apes, and they’ll often be willing to sit  closer to me. In the case of the silverback gorilla, it was a male who was not intimidated by staring from humans.
Silverback, 2013. Casein, 5x8” (link to YouTube video)

”How do you make a drawing of an animal that rather than being a generic drawing is a portrait, distilling the individual essence and personality of a particular animal?” (Tim B.)
To portray an individual animal well, I really have to get to know that animal, especially one that is around others of its kind. By comparing its distinctive qualities to those of others, I can accentuate them.

For example, I’ve painted a lot of hens on the farm near where I live, but Henrietta was a unique character, both in the way she looked and the way she moved.

Henrietta. watercolor, 5x8”

“How do you portray the defining characteristics of the animal or bird--such as fur or feathers--without getting too fussy and labored?” (Gayle Bell)
A good example would be a French bulldog that I drew on a train in France. He wasn’t holding very still, so getting too fussy wasn’t an option. His owner had a little blue padded bed for him and encouraged him to sleep, but he preferred to glance out the window. When I made bird-whistle noises, he looked over at me so I could do his portrait.

French Bulldog, 2010. Water-soluble colored pencils, 5x8” I sketched this dog on a train in France.

“Are there some types of animals you would recommend beginners start sketching first? Family pets, for instance?” (Tim Fehr)
Sleeping dogs are a good place to start—or any sleeping animals, really. One afternoon I took the opportunity to draw a portrait of a friend’s dog named Silver, who was deaf and blind but still very responsive to attention. He napped for about 15 minutes while I sketched him in watercolor pencils. Other than dogs, I would recommend sketching any domesticated animals that you can observe up close in a relaxed setting.

Old Dog Silver, 2011. (link to YouTube) Water-soluble colored pencils, 5x8”

Do you approach sketching animals differently if you are using the sketchbook as a fact-gathering tool for a future illustration as opposed to sketching for sketching's sake?” (Daroo)
Yes, I once went to the zoo to sketch mouflon sheep for an archaeological story on domestication. I ended up making very simple pencil sketches and written notes, trying to note how those sheep were different from other sheep I had drawn before. Narrowing my goals focused my observation.

“Is it more important to capture the spirit of the pose or focus on being faithful to reality?” (Tyler J)
It depends on what you want out to get out of the experience and what you mean by reality. In a way, the spirit of the pose is a key part of the truth of the animal, just as much as the detailed markings or the hair tracts.

“What do you do if you get half way along and find a major mistake? How do you keep proportions correct?” (Colleen Caubin)
If something is wrong, I rub out the goof and paint or draw it again. I check proportions as I go, using the same measuring methods I would use in a controlled studio figure drawing, but doing it rapidly in shorthand.  

“What do you need to know, if anything, about the skeletal structure of the animal you are sketching?” (Janet Oliver)
The skeleton is everything. It helps a bit to study diagrams in books, but I think you really have to find a museum with good animal skeletons and work from those, because that’s the only way you’ll get a three dimensional sense. I’m always thinking back to what I know about what’s going on deep beneath the surface.

Thanks, everybody for your great questions, and sorry I couldn't get to all of them.

Pick up a copy of International Artist at your local newsstand, or subscribe. GurneyJourney blog readers voted it the best art magazine, and I agree.

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Dan said...

When you put ink into a water brush, it is water soluable ink? I mean when you're sketching with watercolor pencils and ink, does the ink dissolve like the pencils, or does it stay put?

James Gurney said...

Dan, yes, it's water-soluble ink, for two reasons: to protect the brush tip from clogging, and because I like to lay down an ink wash and then be able to soften and dissolve it later. I use Higgins Eternal black ink and Schaeffer Scrip (blue) fountain pen ink for the water brushes.

For people who like an indelible in brushpen, I'd recommend the Japanese Pentel brushpens that come with India ink and replacement cartridges.

Nathalie said...

That was great to read a I just started to look at skeletons and while having drawn from photos for a long time. And even the skeleton drawings help!

Karen Eade said...

Thank you for this fabulous post. The illustrations were awesome but your baby robins were just exceptional. I am so inspired. Tomorrow I am out there with my sketch book so my hens had better watch out.

Anonymous said...

I loved the baby robins too, watercolor really gives the idea of their skin. I'm super late to the party, but I have to ask: how in the world do you sketch animals with camouflage coats such as lynxes, tabby cats and so on? They're squint proof and coupled with the short time you get to put them on paper it's really hard. Do you do anything in particular to create that effect quickly?

James Gurney said...

Thanks, Excessit. I don't know. I haven't sketched that many camo critters, but I've done zebras and bongos. I guess I would draw them without the spots or stripes and then put the decorations on later.

SusanT said...

James, this was such an exceptional article with a wealth of information. I am an Urban Sketcher, and a plein air watercolorist, yet I am astounded at the amount I have learned from your blog, and even more astounded at the amount of information and knowledge you have of the craft. Thank you for so generously sharing, and thank you for answering my question in your article.

Gavin said...

Great post - very informative and inspiring. If it ever stops raining I may attempt the cows that live on the border of my garden.

Anonymous said...

This is great, thank you for sharing your knowledge and experience.

Leif said...

Thanks so much for answering our questions! It's very helpful and I've saved this page for reference. I especially love the baby birds (both sets), what an inspiration!

Here's another idea while we're on the subject. I just happened to be at a natural history museum on a trip and for some of the stuffed animals and skeletons I took several photos from different views -- e.g. of the birds; I was interested in how all the parts fit together when they fold their wings. As you said the taxidermy won't necessarily match nature very well, but having a few different views helps me think about it more three-dimensionally.

You also have a good point that when you have camera and sketch tools, there is competition between them for your time. For me it takes some courage to just do a sketch in the here and now rather than just stockpiling photos or video for later use.

sfox said...

Terrific post! There's really no substitute for drawing from live animals if one is, or wants to be, an animal artist. So much good information and inspiration!