Draw What You Know

One of the first pieces of advice aspiring writers hear is to write what you know. While an author can choose to write of times and places far removed from their present experience, doing so requires a considerable amount of research. Writing about what we know tends to make our writing more honest, more authentic.

The same advice can be given, I think, to aspiring artists, students like me who want to learn drawing skills. It’s helpful to draw what we know, what we have experience with, subjects that are familiar — and comfortable — to us. A corollary to this is the simple truth that we can’t draw what we don’t understand, which means that we have to know our subject.

And so, having made up my mind that I want to learn to draw animals, it makes sense for me to begin with cats. I know cats. We have a cat. Although our sweet Flower Child doesn’t always sit still while I’m trying to draw her, I can always get photos of her for reference, like this picture of her enjoying a little outdoor time.


I’ve tried several times to draw Flower Child. The results have not been pretty. Not only my cats, but almost all the animals I’ve tried to draw have been either short and fat or long and skinny, with heads too big or too small for their bodies. I’ve had ears, legs, and tails sticking out at all sorts of awkward angles, and as for trying to get eyes, noses, snouts, muzzles, and whiskers… well, I won’t even show you some of the horrible attempts I’ve made.

I’m not sure what it is about animals that makes it so difficult for me to draw them. I did a bit of browsing to see if others have the same question, and, if so, does anyone have any answers? I did find a discussion on Reddit that mentions our brain’s natural ability to recognize faces — both human and animal — so that if something is even slightly off it destroys the illusion and simply looks wrong. I think there’s certainly a bit of truth to this.

My searching led me to Rachael Broadwell from the R. M. Broadwell Atelier, and to one of her excellent video presentations. It’s called “Drawing Animals for Beginners” and there are two parts. In the first, she discusses “Structure and Form”. The second part deals with “Action, Foreshortening, and Details“.

In only the first few minutes of the Part 1 video, she gives a very important tip. Most mammals, she points out, actually have a similar body structure. Once we realize that and understand it, we’re well on our way to learning how to draw animals successfully. In other words, we can draw what we know!

What she’s referring to here is actually skeletal structure. She then begins by sketching very simple, “stick-like” animals:

  • Rib Cage
  • Spine
  • Pelvis
  • Legs
  • Neck
  • Skull

So, now, think about it. Yes, every animal — mammals, at least — have this same basic skeletal structure. There are differences, of course, is the length of each part, but simply understanding — knowing — these elements will make it easier for us to approach drawing animals.

I think knowing this information will make it much easier for me as I go about trying to improve my animal drawings. So far, my first few days haven’t produced very good results. Despite having been around cats all my life, I apparently don’t really know what a cat looks like!

Here is perhaps the best of my efforts.

Of course, for me, half the fun of drawing is later adding color, so on another day I re-drew this cat and then added a bit of watercolor.

I’m not happy with either of these drawings, but at least they’re better than some of the others in my sketchbook right now.

Out of curiosity, I just now picked up my sketchbook, grabbed a pencil from my desk and very quickly — about 30 seconds — drew the overall “shape” of this cat once again, this time following the structural list above. I began by drawing the rib cage area, added a line for the spine, and filled in the pelvis. This cat is standing in a foreshortened position, so I tried to adjust for that. I then added the legs, imagined the neck (which we can’t really see) and showed the placement for the skull. I did add a tail but forgot to add any ears. Here was the result.

Actually, I’m fairly happy with this. I think I did capture the “basic shape” of this cat, and personally I found this step-by-step method much easier than that given in “How to Draw: Animals in Simple Steps”, the book I’ve been following along with. Here is the page I followed in drawing the cats shown here.


Maybe between these two “step by step” methods, I’ll be able to improve. I will also be looking for additional resources that might be helpful. I definitely plan to finish watching Rachael Broadwell’s videos, and I’m still browsing books at Amazon.

A big part of learning is finding the right resources. Sometimes that means the right instructor, or the right course material. We’re each individual in our learning methods, and what “clicks” for one person might not work at all for someone else. This is why there are so many different teachers, so many different tutorials, and so many different books all teaching a single subject or a specific aspect of that subject.

Looking at various art instruction sites, here are a few links I found, along with a few comments about each.

Artists’ Network

My query on “how to draw animals” led me to a free e-book with that title. It calls itself a “step by step guide”, yet, truthfully, it offers no instruction on the drawing process. Step 1 for “how to draw a dog” is this: “Draw the dog lightly in pencil.” OK, yeah, right. Aren’t you supposed to be showing me HOW? Moving on to “how to draw a horse”, here’s the first step. “Draw the horse’s outline lightly in pencil…” Again, OK, but HOW? isn’t that what you’re supposed to show me? In fairness, Artists’ Network is a site designed for artists. Presumably anyone visiting the site already knows HOW to draw. The “HOW TO” in this book deals more with shading and color for illustrations like this.

Oh, it must be nice to have this sort of talent, but I’ll never be able to draw like this. Obviously the “How to Draw Animals” book from Artists’ Network is not going to be very helpful for me.

The Virtual Instructor

While I give a big “thumbs up” to Matt Fussell and his art instruction site — I’ve been a member there since I first began learning to draw — his site is designed for more general inquires. He has courses on the elements of art, the basic principles of drawing, and on the specific methods and techniques for various media. What he doesn’t have are courses on subjects. There is no “how to draw animals” category there, although there are many tutorials that feature animals. One course is devoted to drawing animals with pastels, but mostly there are individual projects such as this “Graphite Dog” drawing.

Graphite Dog by Matt Fussell — The Virtual Instructor

I will point out that in each course — whether it’s graphite, ink, colored pencils, or any other media — Matt makes it a point to include a variety of subject matter, and that does include animals. Many of his drawing tutorials are available for free at his website, but others do require membership.

Creative Bug

I’ve become a fan of Creative Bug, mostly for the many “daily practice” classes offered. I was delighted to find a “Daily Painting Challenge” there titled “31 Animals”. I’ve been wondering what daily program I’d do next once I finish Joy Ting’s Color Play with Watercolor. Now, I know. I’ll be following along with Jennifer Orkin Lewis to paint simple animals like this cat:


With few exceptions, the courses I’ve taken at Craftsy have all been very thorough. When I first joined several years ago, the instruction was much too advanced for me. Even last year — with my six years of drawing experience — you’ll remember how I struggled to get through a class with still life artist Tony Curanaj. I did find a course there on “Drawing Wild Animals” by Sharlena Wood, but most likely I’ll pass this one by, too. I don’t think I’m quite ready for this level. As with Artists’ Network, the instruction provided here seems to presume a fairly high level of drawing skill. This course seems to focus on creating realistic textures and an overall sense of “realism” that I’m definitely not capable of doing.

Going back to the beginning here, I started by saying we should “draw what we know”, and I think it’s important, too, that we draw at our own level. In time, certainly I would love to be able to draw and paint animals — or anything — with the expertise shown here. But, I have only to take a look at the little cats I’m practicing on now to know I’m a long, long way from that sort of proficiency. Most likely I’ll never reach it, and that’s all right. Drawing highly-realistic animals isn’t my goal.

I just want to draw animals that aren’t wildly out of proportion. I want to draw cats that look like cats, dogs that look like dogs, horses that look like horses.  So, even while I work my way through “How To Draw Animals in Simple Steps”, I’ll be paying attention to skeletal structure and watching the rest of Rachael Broadwell’s two-part videos on drawing animals. Then, on July 1, I’ll start painting along with the daily challenge at Creative Bug. I’m sure I’ll learn a thing or two in the coming weeks.

And maybe you’ll find some of this information helpful, too. Animals are fascinating creatures, and our house pets are part of our families. Being able to draw them — both the domestic and the wild — can add meaning to our art.




  1. I will start by saying I am NOT a drawer. But I like giraffes. and I wanted to draw them… so first I got a picture of a giraffe that I liked… and put thin tracing paper over it… and traced it.. and traced it… and traced it… until I UNDERSTOOD the contour of her face and ears and everything.. sounds sill maybe but become ONE with the animal… actually you just learn memory skills from your hand and you Know then what the animal is built like… That is how I learned to draw a giraffe…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think that’s a good approach. That’s one reason why I traced the outline of the cat I shared a few days ago. I just wasn’t “seeing it” right when I tried to draw it free hand, so it helped to trace the image. To me, that’s a good way to “train” my hands and eyes to work together. I know how it feel to “become one” with a tree — that’s happened when I’m drawing — so I’ll try that, too, with our cat! Thanks for the tip.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. The problem with “drawing what you know” is that it’s not the same as drawing what you see, which is a really important skill. Humans navigate the world by seeing things and classifying them: ‘that’s a cat” (probably no danger) or “that’s a tiger,” Danger! Once we name the object, we can disregard it, which is very useful in daily life, but not in drawing. Looking for things we know are there (skull, spine, etc.) is a good idea, because we can use the head as a unit of measurement for animals, including people. This is the best tool for drawing things in proportion, in perspective. Find a unit of measurement and use it instead of depending on what you think you know. (Problem: You know that the cat’s body is bigger than its head. But that’s not necessarily true when the cat’s head is closer to you. Its head may even cover a large portion of its body.) This is why many people found the key to drawing what they see in Betty Edward’s book “Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain.” Once we learn to recognize the feeling of shifting from the left (naming things) part of the brain to the right (seeing spatial relationships) side of the brain, we start craving that feeling.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Good points. I do believe it would be easier to draw familiar things than something I have no knowledge of. Of course even when we draw something familiar w have to draw what we see, not what we think we see.


      1. very true. It took 23 hours by plane with transfers to reach Johannesburg from Miami. But I ner would turn down a travel challenge if it enlightened my interests.

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