Many years ago I heard a motivational speech about overcoming our weaknesses. It’s not enough, the speaker advised, to simply overcome. What we should do, she explained, was to take a weakness and turn it into a strength.
She shared a personal story, revealing that throughout much of her life her weakness was that she hated to get up early. She stayed up late and then “slept in” the following morning. It made life difficult for her. As a wife and mother, she struggled to get breakfast on the table and help her children prepare for school. Later, when she applied for a job she was frequently written up for tardiness. She just couldn’t overcome this weakness.
Now, before I go on, let me just say this: I don’t see this woman’s problem as a weakness or a flaw. Our bodies know what’s best. Some people are early birds; some are night owls.
The woman giving the lecture went on to explain how she set a goal for herself. Not only would “getting up early” become part of her routine, she would turn that into a strength. She gradually trained herself to get up earlier — and go to bed earlier — and her world changed. She got to sit outside and watch the sunrise. She discovered that she could get so much more done around the house while others were sleeping. And she got high praise from her employer for always being the first to arrive at work each day, ready to go.
Nice story, I suppose, although hearing it made me cringe a bit. I didn’t see anything virtuous about forcing oneself to alter their natural body rhythms. Still, it was a point well-taken. As you can see, although this talk was from the mid-1970’s, I still remember it clearly.
I thought about this story a few days ago when I came to the “drawing animals” section in Barrington Barber’s Fundamentals of Drawing. Oh, dear. I don’t draw animals well at all! I’ve tried so many times.
When I began learning to draw, I started with leaves and flowers. Once I was able to successfully copy simple line drawings of those, I moved on to try a few living creatures. I began with birds, and I wasn’t too successful. Then, when I tried drawing a wolf, I gave up in despair.
Well, not really. I kept at it, kept practicing, kept learning as much as I could about drawing. I just avoided drawing any animals for a long time.
All I can say is, well, it resembles a wolf and it was better than my first attempts. Actually, I can say, too, that this wolf is probably better than what I could draw today. I’ve recognized that drawing animals is one of my “art weaknesses”.
Now, in the last seven years, I have successfully drawn a few animals. To me, a “successful” drawing of an animal is one in which (a) the animal is clearly recognizable, and (b) the body proportions are reasonably accurate. Note, please, that I’m not attempting to make highly-realistic animal drawings. Mostly, it’s the proportions that I struggle with, so if I get past that problem, I feel good.
If you’d like to see some of my more “successful” animal images, you can visit a few posts from the blog.
A bit of browsing will reveal other animals sketches that turned out fairly well — simple line drawings of birds, a few practice sketches of lions, and even a few dogs and cats that aren’t too awful.
Sad to say, though, most of my animal drawings are awful. I don’t even want to link to the pitiful cows I painted, or the fat little cats I’ve drawn in the past. Never mind dogs, either. They’re a lot like wolves, and nope, I can’t draw wolves.
This, my friends, is about to change. At least, that’s my plan. Probably at this point you’ve connected my story of the motivational speaker and my practice of art, so you most likely know what I’m about to say.
I am going to learn to draw animals.
I’m not just going to learn… I’m going to do my absolute best to take this “drawing weakness” and turn it into an actual “drawing strength”. I want to be an artist who is known for drawing animals. Hmmm… well, no, maybe not. I’ll still always be a landscape artist first and foremost, but the point is this. I struggle with drawing animals, so instead of shrugging and saying “I just can’t do this,” I’m going to do my best to learn how to successfully draw animals.
So, let’s go back a few days and I’ll share some of those awful sketchbook drawings I made. Now, when I’m drawing animals, I’m very hesitant. My marks are so light that even when I scan them and darken them, you can’t see a thing! That means you’re being spared a few of my sketches. But here are a few I was able to scan and darken.
Alli Farkas, don’t you dare laugh at my horse!
You’ve previously seen this misshapen giraffe, but you haven’t seen the cat before.
I did re-do the cat. I actually traced the contour in hopes of getting a better feel for the proportions of the body. I then added the features. I ended up with a cat that does look like a cat… it does, doesn’t it?
So how does one go about improving? How do I take this weakness and turn it into a strength?
My first step, of course, was to go to Amazon and look for books specifically on how to draw animals. I found a lot of books there, including one I mentioned previously, Melissa Washburn’s “Draw Like an Artist: 100 Realistic Animals“.
From the Kindle Unlimited collection, I downloaded “Draw Realistic Animals” by Robert Louis Caldwell. If you already know how to draw, this would be a great book, but for a beginner, it’s not very useful. It doesn’t really discuss drawing, but provides detailed instructions on using graphite to create realistic textures, such as leathery skin, short fur, long fur, feathers, and horns. I am finding it fascinating to see what can be done, but this book isn’t going to help me develop the basic skills I need. I’m just not at this level.
It does show how to use basic shapes in developing an animal’s body, but overall it’s just too advanced for me. I need a much more “step-by-step” instruction method.
There are a lot of “how to draw animals” books designed for very young artists, and a lot written especially for artists like me who need to keep the process as simple as possible. I browsed a bit and then ordered a used copy of “How to Draw: Animals in Simple Steps” by Eva Dutton and several other artists. It’s scheduled to arrive next week.
Here is an illustration from the book:
I think this will be much more helpful. If not, there are dozens of other books on the subject of drawing animals.
Maybe the whole idea is crazy for me to even think about, but then again, simply learning to draw at all seemed like a crazy idea seven years ago. Back then, I took a deep breath and said “I guess I have to learn to draw.” And now, I’m taking another deep breath. “I guess it’s time to learn to draw animals,” is what I’m saying now.
I will probably never be really good at drawing wolves, dogs, cats, elephants, or any other animals… but I can definitely get better. I hope to see a lot of progress in coming weeks.
I am assuming that it is important to you to draw realistic animals. However, some of the most charming drawings of animals I have seen are not particularly realistic. I love your giraffe. It is recognisable as a giraffe, the drawing has movement which is great and it has personality. I believe this is more important than drawing a static realistic animal.
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I don’t want to draw “highly realistic” animals… mostly I just want to train myself to see and draw proportions more accurately, especially when I’m trying to draw our precious cat, Flower Child. I never seem to get the head/body proportions correct, so my animals always look misshapen. Usually they look fat! I’m glad you liked my giraffe. I agree that good animal drawings should have personality, too. But most of all, I want to learn to get those body proportions right. 🙂
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I love watching your progress and your constant practice. My general observation is that your ability to draw what you see is improving — sometimes in great leaps. You are still learning how to SEE. We get so used to looking at things for the purpose of classifying/naming them (“that’s a tree, that’s a cat, that’s a flower”) that we think in symbols and have to learn to really see what’s there. Not a criticism, just an example: you drew the cat’s nose as a oval. Take a good look at a real cat’s nose. More of an upside down triangle….? Now you just have to fight the temptation to substitute a more accurate symbol for really looking at a specific cat in a specific pose ! It’s like drawing chairs, which is always hard because we think we know what a chair looks like, but a specific chair in a specific perspective does not look like an object with four legs of equal length. It’s a struggle between what we “know” and what we see. Keep Looking! And keep sharing!
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Yes, it is always a struggle. I am working a lot with shapes. I don’t always see them accurately. Angles re especially hard too. But I am making progress!
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