Fur, Feathers, Scales, and Tails

The Feat of Drawing Animals

I don’t have pets but I really love drawing animals because it allows me to focus on a subject matter that is totally different from what I’m used to. Animals’ bodies vary dramatically from bird to reptile to mammal, and that means I get to wrap my head around anatomy in ways that are quite distinctive from that of the human body. And there are fur, feathers, scales, and tails to play around with instead of just a vase of flowers or seated figure.

Patricia Traub's oil painting, The Collector, oil in canvas
Patricia Traub presents animals—above, The Collector, 10 1/2 x 14 3/4,
2008—in her work in a naturalistic way that emphasizes their
unique physical attributes and bearing.

For me, this uncharted territory makes for an exciting new drawing experience. I can use my materials in ways I never have before and try a whole new set of mark making—using soft, barely-there pencil strokes for the delicate fur of a rabbit’s ear or a broad stroke of charcoal for a wrinkly elephant hide.

And I’m not alone in this interest. Artists throughout history have found drawing animals to be incredibly compelling. Drawing horses was one of Leonardo’s favored ways to fill up a sketchbook. He was incredibly enamored with the majesty of the animals and made dozens of drawings of horses rearing, trotting, jumping, and at rest. Dürer drew his rhinoceros, Rembrandt his elephant, and the Flemish Frans Snyders specialized in painting wild and domestic animals alike.

Patricia's sketch, Long Sleep, shows how to draw a cat.

For Traub, how to draw a cat is a matter of observing the animal's body position and the details and pattern of its fur.
Long Sleep by Patricia Traub, drawing.

Patricia Traub is a contemporary artist who uses exotic and domestic animals as subjects in her paintings, making them part of the narratives in her work. She depicts lions and lambs, deer and primates with a naturalist’s eye, just as the Old Masters did.

She has traveled all over the world drawing and painting animals from life, as well as drawing her own pets in the comfort of her own home. When she takes these studies into the studio her focus is to show an animal’s natural characteristics and features as if each one of them was an object in a still life or the features on the human face.

Patricia Traub's drawing of a cormorant.
Drawing the feathers of a bird or the fur of a rabbit
allows an artist to really focus on mark making and
gesture. Cormorant by Patricia Traub, drawing.

In fact, it was Traub who got me interested in drawing animals in the first place. Seeing her draw realistic animals inspired me and allowed me to see that she approached how to draw animals step by step, spending time on quick sketches that warmed her up and allowed her to mimic the gesture of an animal with the gesture of her line. Then she focuses on details of anatomy, fur, and body position to create a convincing drawing of her subject. She also shared a wealth of knowledge concerning matching materials to her chosen subject. Traub taught me that drawing animals is all about focusing on observing my subject with sensitivity, a skill that translates to drawing just about anything.

Drawing animals is a way to accelerate your drawing abilities and perhaps consider a new subject matter like I did. If you want to explore drawing animals right now, I'd suggest starting with some of the most graceful, majestic and powerful creatures on the planet–horses. The Drawing Horses Value Pack offers a well-rounded group of resources that allow us to understand the proportions, stance, and physical details of this animal as you create your depictions. It is a fascinating study, so I hope you enjoy!

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Courtney Jordan

About Courtney Jordan

  Courtney is the editor of Artist Daily. For her, art is one of life’s essentials and a career mainstay. She’s pursued academic studies of the Old Masters of Spain and Italy as well as museum curatorial experience, writing and reporting on arts and culture as a magazine staffer, and acquiring and editing architecture and cultural history books. She hopes to recommit herself to more studio time, too, working in mixed media.