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Carousel 024: Drawing Animals

Aspiring cartoonists are always advised to study human anatomy, but animal anatomy often goes unmentioned. This may be because most comics today are set in urban environments, where animals seldom play key roles. But regardless of what role they play, you can bet animals will appear in at least some of the scripts you are invited to draw. Don’t be one of those artists who screams and leaves town whenever that happens! Here are several tips that will help you draw better animals:

1. Animals aren’t furniture. To give your story authenticity and bring it alive, the animals you draw should appear to think and feel (in whatever rudimentary way they do). The best way to achieve this is to give each animal an attitude. Is the animal curious? Alert? Content? Pick a mood that suits, and dwell on that mood as you shape the animal’s expression and posture. This will grant it life, and keep it from resembling a stuffed ornament.

2. We know seated humans are shorter than standing humans, so there’s a temptation to draw seated animals shorter than standing animals. But this is a mistake, at least where quadrupeds are concerned. Quadrupeds, such as dogs and cats, sit by lowering their back legs while their front legs remain erect. The result is that a cat or dog will remain the same height whether seated or standing, and will remain the same height when seated as other animals of similar height who remain standing. (This may seem obvious, but don’t underestimate the urge to wrongly anthropomorphize what you draw!)

3. When we encounter animals in life, we habitually seek out their faces, in order to identify them and check on their moods. (Watch people in a zoo: They don’t mind if a creature’s feet or legs are hidden, but if it’s face is hidden, they try to coax it out of hiding.) This impulse also applies to visual narrative: when animals appear in a panel, readers want to see their faces. It may save time or space to crop a creature’s face out of a panel, but this tends to annoy the reader. Try instead to include the animal’s face. If that proves impossible, crop the animal well away from the neck, near its midriff, so the head’s absence won’t leave readers feeling teased.

4. The shapes of slender animals are defined mainly by their bones, but the shapes of fat or furry animals are defined mainly by their external masses. So, when drawing slender animals, such as horses or deer, begin by briefly sketching the skeleton, and work outward from there. For fat or furry critters, such as hamsters or hippos, first sketch the silhouette of the outer mass, then add details to the interior. Beginning this way, with an animal’s most defining characteristics, will help you establish its look more quickly and accurately.

5. Because horses are slender quadrupeds with long snouts, amateurs often draw them like large dogs. This never ends well. Some differences to keep in mind: unlike dogs, horses’ eyes are on the SIDES of the head, not out in front. Dogs’ eyes are spaced narrower than their ears and jaws; horses’ eyes are spaced broader than their ears and jaws. Also, dogs have thicker legs. One reason we draw horses’ legs too thick is that we expect their leg-strength to be down in their thighs and calves; it’s not. It’s mainly up in their shoulders and butt. Think of a horse as a corgi on stilts, or a hand gripping chopsticks, with most of the power located up high, and the horse will be easier to draw.

6. An animal’s rear-view is rarely its most photogenic angle. As a result, there are few photos taken of animals’ rear-ends, which means it will be difficult to find photo reference when you want to draw an animal from behind. If the animal you wish to draw is too large or exotic to find lying around your house, this lack of photo reference can be a problem. The solution: Find a front-view photo of the animal in the pose you want, then draw only the animal’s silhouette. The silhouette will be the same shape whether the animal is facing you or facing away. Once you have the silhouette drawn, you can estimate the interior details of a rear-angle view. The accurate exterior shape will usually contain your interior details well enough to “sell” the animal’s appearance to your readers

7. If you’re having trouble getting the hang of a particular animal, find photos of similar animals to compare it with. Observing how it differs from similar-looking species can help you identify that animal’s unique characteristics. For example, you may want to compare a lion with a tiger or puma, or compare a horse with a donkey or zebra. Certain size-relationships between the animal’s parts will become obvious when you see how those same features are worn by creatures with slightly different anatomies.

8. If you’re going to draw horses, you will probably draw people riding them, so here are a couple of proportions to remember. First, a human rider's torso is generally the size of the horse's head. (It’s tempting to draw horses’ heads smaller than that, because their heads look small compared to their giant necks, but don’t be fooled. Their heads are surprisingly large!) Also: people ride close to the horse’s shoulders, not halfway between the shoulders and tail. There is FAR more space from the saddle to the tail than from the saddle to the mane—usually the length of the horse’s head.

9. Because animals are often covered in fur, it’s tempting to become preoccupied with the fur, drawing thousands of lines all over the animal, and turning it into a fluffy mess. Don’t let fur overwhelm your drawing this way. Few animals look like fluffy dandelions; fur usually matches the shapes that underly it, cohering into a simple mass. Focus on getting the anatomy right, and then summarize the fur’s texture with a few tufts along the body’s contours. The reader’s mind will fill in the rest.

10. Occasionally your script will call for numerous drawings of an animal you’ve never practiced before. “Here comes Stumpy the Seahorse!” Deadlines may tempt you to dive right in and learn along the way, but this approach will cost time in the long run, as you keep guessing and struggling each time you draw the unfamiliar creature. Instead, gather a dozen good photos of the animal and take a few hours to draw them. This will make it easier for you to quickly and effectively draw the creature each time it appears in your story, with a minimum of time spent guessing, or finding and consulting new reference.

We’ll be taking our usual break from this column during the month of July. See you back here in August!

Jesse Hamm’s Carousel appears the second Tuesday of each month here on Toucan (except July and December)!