Take a Trip to the Zoo with Your Sketchbook and a Few Tips

High Angle View Of Monkeys In Cage At Zoo
Harry Nytra / EyeEm / Getty Images
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How to Approach Sketching Animals

A fast, informal sketch of Gorillas in the Zoo
Ed Hall, licensed to About.com, Inc.

Sketching animals from life is incredibly rewarding. With a little practice, you can learn to capture the character and movement of your favorite animals. A trip to the local zoo is filled with opportunities and before you know it, your sketchbook will be full.

Of all the approaches to animal field studies, gesture drawing is by far the most suitable. Animals don’t strike still poses like a model in a studio, so it is very important to use gesture as a way to record what you see quickly, efficiently, and with purpose. This is a skill that takes some time to develop, but it will pay huge dividends in the future if you stick with it.

As you draw, try to imagine that your hand is unwinding a ball of string, steadily and deliberately. It is important to look at your subject at least as much as you look at the paper.

Remember that you are not trying to draw every single hair, eyelash, wrinkle, or toenail. It’s an essence drawing that attempts to capture the spirit of the animal through a series of undulating contour lines and value masses.

It is important to distinguish here between outlines and contour lines - do not outline the animals. Use contour, which can be “on and in” the figure as well as around the figure, to build the form instead.

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Draw Different Animals

Draw a variety of animals to get the most out of your day at the zoo.
Ed Hall, licensed to About.com, Inc.

As with any type of drawing, it is tempting to plop yourself down in one spot and work on one drawing of one animal for an entire day. I have found this to be counter-productive to learning how things move and occupy space. Because animals are in constant motion (yes, even the sloth) it’s important to be able to convey that motion through convincing gestural studies.

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Sketching to Build a Visual Vocabulary

Sketching from many angles builds your visual vocabulary.
Ed Hall, licensed to About.com, Inc.

To really draw any subject well, you need to know it 'like the back of your hand.' Gesture drawing is by far the best approach to studying animals in the field. You can use the knowledge that you gain by capturing their motion for more involved works in the future, or back in the studio.

Through these rapid-fire sketches, you are building a visual vocabulary of the large overall shapes of animals. Think head/torso/hips as with the human figure to establish the three major forms of each animal.

Concentrate on observing the way they move as well as familiarizing yourself with their anatomy.

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Movement, Weight, and Volume

Sketching to explore movement, weight and volume.
Ed Hall, licensed to About.com, Inc.

Gesture is also a way of conveying the movement and the weight of these shapes as the animal passes through space. You are trying to depict the core energy by studying the large forms and shapes and organizing them into a volumetric form.

Think of how the parts go together, interact, and move in relationship to one another to convey weight and mass.

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Capturing a Unique Animal Character

Looking for a sense of volume in the sketch of a gorilla.
Ed Hall, licensed to About.com, Inc.

Pay attention to the character of each specific animal. How does it sit, walk, trot, shuffle, sleep, eat, swing, waddle? Each animal will move differently depending on the character of its form and these things can be translated in your drawings.

If possible, study the skeletons of individual animals. If you do not have a natural history museum in your area that showcases animal skeletons, check out Google image search for the skeleton of the animal you are interested in. Do some studies of these skeletons prior to going out in the field.

Since the skeleton is the underlying foundation of all figurative movement, it makes sense that the study of the skeleton will improve your gesture drawings.

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Varied Angles and Perspectives

Sketching from many angles.
Ed Hall, licensed to About.com, Inc.

Don’t feel that you have to draw all the animals “face on.” Fill a page with quick sketches from many different angles and perspectives.

An elephant looks a lot different walking away from you than he does coming at you or in profile. Being able to capture animals “in the round” will really improve your drawings and will help you convey a three-dimensional quality on a two-dimensional surface.

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Drawing Processes and Techniques

A page of sketches.
Ed Hall, licensed to About.com, Inc.

Start by working up several pages of gestures on each animal using vine and compressed charcoal on a lightweight paper.

  • Fill the pages from many different vantage points until you feel comfortable that you have a general understanding of the form and movement.
  • The transition from line to value within each drawing by alternating from the side of the charcoal stick to the point and back again.
  • Think thick/thin lines and value, but work very quickly.
  • Always remember to look at your subject as often as your sheet of paper.
  • Mix up the marks by breaking off different lengths of charcoal stick.
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In Depth Studies

Developing a sketch into a more complete study.
Ed Hall, licensed to About.com, Inc.

After you’ve established a page of gesture sketches, move to a more studied drawing of say 20 to 30 minutes. You might want to start this drawing with a gesture and then work it up into something a little more finished, maybe using some value drawing techniques.

If your gestures were successful, you should find it easy to establish the large forms quickly. You can then build a more modeled drawing on top of this super-structure.

Pick interesting vantage points from which to draw the animals. Take your time, move around and observe before plopping yourself down to draw. Don’t wait for the animal to come to you - “find” the pose for yourself.

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Sketching with Color

Tinted paper, charcoal and white chalk.
Ed Hall, licensed to About.com, Inc.

If you want to use color to study animals in the field I would suggest using quick drying and quick application mediums such as watercolor, colored pencil, pastel, or colored Conte crayon.

Oils don’t work very well at the zoo as they are slow drying and can be messy. Instead, use your studies as a color guidepost to create a more involved oil painting back at the studio.

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Zoo Field Trip Fun - Sketch at the Zoo

A sketch can be a complete work in its own right.
(c) Ed Hall, licensed to About.com, Inc.

Above all, have fun and don’t get frustrated. Many times drawings that you thought were total failures in the field look a lot different once you are out of that environment and back on your home turf.

Remember, if you are doing your gestures correctly, half of the time you won’t even know it until later on. Trust your eyes, work fast, and have fun!