11 Recommended Drawing Books For Animal Artists

by Bob Kuhn

Obviously, drawing skills are fundamental for the creation of visual art, whether it’s representational or not. By “drawing” I mean having the hand/eye motor coordination to make the marks you want, where you want them and the way you want them with your tool of choice, whether or not you approach your work using lines or shapes.

For the purposes of this post, however, I am talking about the use of “dry media”- pencils, charcoal and the like on supports such as paper and canvas. Plus the ability to represent an animal realistically and accurately. It goes hand-in-hand with the development of what I’ll call “visual judgment”, which is how you learn when you’ve made a mistake and what you have to do to fix it.

Part of the inspiration for the following comes from a comment thread I recently saw on Facebook in which an artist flatly stated that “passion” was the most important component of a painting. I would submit that passion uninformed by technical skill in areas such as drawing, design, form, structure, light, value, color and the handling of edges creates work that might have a certain initial level of visual excitement, but won’t stand the test of time or even close scrutiny. To my mind, lack of skill creates visual distractions that get in the way of the artist’s ability to express their passion. I also think that it can be used as a convenient excuse to get out of the hard work (it is HARD and it is WORK) of creating art.

by Walter J. Wilwerding

I recently was a member of the jury which evaluated applications for membership in the Society of Animal Artists. Five votes were required for acceptance. The  jurors were all artists with very keen eyes who were also uncompromising in their standards. I enjoyed the experience very much, both for the chance to see a lot of animal art and to learn from the other jurors. It was an objective process. The judging was not based on “like” vs. “not like” or “passion” or other vague emotional responses. The drawing of the animal was the first thing we looked at, whether it was a painting or a sculpture. Accuracy and an understanding of the structure of a species, plus a firm grasp of basic anatomy (“A leg can’t bend that way.”) were key. If the drawing of the animal was faulty, the application was rejected. It was one of the most consistent problems I saw in the work we viewed.

If, after taking a long, objective look at your work, you can see that there is room for improvement in your drawing skills, consider these books, which are from my own library and that I have found useful over the years. In no particular order:

-Drawing and Painting Animals by Edward Aldrich

-Animal Drawing, Anatomy and Action for Artists by Charles R. Knight

-Animal Drawing and Painting by Walter J. Wilwerding

-The Art of Animal Drawing by Ken Hultgren

-Drawing Animals by Victor Ambrus

-The Animal Art of Bob Kuhn…A Lifetime of Drawing and Painting by Bob Kuhn

-Drawing With An Open Mind by Ted Seth Jacobs

-The Pencil by Paul Calle

-Fast Sketching Techniques by David Rankin

by Charles R. Knight

And, for animal anatomy, you need both of these:

An Atlas of Animal Anatomy for Artists by W. Ellenberger, H. Dittrich and H. Baum

Animal Anatomy for Artists, The Elements of Form by Eliot Goldfinger

by Ken Hultgren

I’m sure that there are other good and useful books about animal drawing and anatomy and I invite you to share them via the comments section.

Animal Expression, Part 3- Noses And….A Contest!

Saving the eyes for last, I’m going to skip “down” to noses. This is a case where access to zoo animals is really handy. Even though you will still want to compare them to the wild version, being able to learn how a given animal’s nose structure works by seeing it really close up is very valuable.

Something that one of my art school teachers emphasized again and again was to not be “evasive” in our drawings, but to make a decision, put it down and then either make corrections, realize what needs to be changed for next time, or celebrate that you got it right. What was not ok was aimless noodling around trying to find the form. It shows.

I spent 4-5 hours on these six drawings of noses. This time I used a Sanford Draughting pencil, but on the same vellum bristol as last time. I kept erasures to a minimum and draw as directly as possible.

So here’s the deal: the first person who emails me with the correct identification (common name) of all six species gets a packet of six of my notecards (with images from original drawings). The deadline is midnight PST Wednesday, March 25. Your hint- they are all from North America.

grizzly-noseI’ve personally found the 3/4 view difficult, at least partly because I know that the camera flattens and distorts the form. This is a case where I draw what I know rather than what I see in the image.


Face-on is a good way to start. Look for reference with a good light side and shadow side, which will show more detail and structure.

moose-nose1Profile is good, also. Then you can see how the nose fits into the rest of the head without worrying about perspective. Pick what you want to emphasize and downplay the rest.

vulture-noseBird’s beaks are really hard to see close up in the field, generally because they’re small and the owners don’t tend to hold still for long. A captive bird may be your best bet because you don’t want to get caught faking it. But beware captive raptors whose beak tips won’t show the wear that the wild ones will.

cougar-nose1Cat noses are fairly similar in form. Variations on a theme, more or less. So drawing your house cat’s nose can be good practice for the big, wild guys.

elk-noseIt’s always great to get good reference of unusual angles, like this one looking up. It helps to see how the lower jaw fits with the upper jaw. Note how I have created a sense of three dimensional form by “wrapping” the right hand upper lip around the lower jaw.


Here’s a photo from the garden:


Animal Expression- Part 2: Ears

Starting at the top, so to speak, this week we’ll look at ears.

It’s important to not only look at the ear itself, but where it inserts onto the skull. These drawing were done in less than three hours with a Wolff’s Carbon pencil on vellum bristol paper. All the animals are native to Africa.

Bat-eared Fox, Kenya 2004
Bat-eared Fox, Masai Mara, Kenya 2004

Sometimes the ears occupy most of the top of the skull. They are the defining feature of this fox species, which is nocturnal. This one and its mate, however, were out and about near their den at mid-morning.

White Rhino, Lewa Downs Conservancy, Kenya 2004
White Rhino, Lewa Downs Conservancy, Kenya 2004

Ears can also be set high and perched almost at the corners of the skull. Notice how the fringe of hair makes them much more interesting and expressive than they would be without it. Also: Note that I didn’t “finish” the drawing, but concentrated on the parts of interest. Something to remember that might solve a problem sometime.

Cheetah, Masai Mara, Kenya 2004
Cheetah, Masai Mara, Kenya 2004

Notice that the cheetah’s ears are set low on the its head. They are down when the animal is relaxed and only come up when something has caught its attention. Ear set and skull shape are critical for getting  a cheetah head to look right.

Lioness, Denver Zoo 2008
Lioness, Denver Zoo 2008

I just happened to find this image of a lioness which has almost the same angle to the head as the cheetah. You can see that while her ears are in a similar position on her skull, they are much bigger in proportion to her head size. They are carried more erect and have a black stripe on the back that is apparently used as a signaling system when hunting with other lions.

The first three drawings were animals that I photographed in the wild. The lioness and the next two are zoo residents. While remembering that wild animals show wear and tear that captives do not, it is still very useful to do these kinds of studies to learn how to draw details like ears.

Hyena cub, Denver Zoo 2008
Hyena cub, Denver Zoo 2008

The outward curve of the ear inserts smoothly at its base into the skull. Hyena cubs are dark chocolate brown. For comparison, here is an adult (the mother).

Hyena female, Denver Zoo 2008
Hyena female, Denver Zoo 2008

As the head grows, the ears appear to move back on the skull. Unlike the cheetah, the hyena’s ears are carried upright. Hyenas always seem to look ready for anything.

Look at your own pets, whether it’s a cat, dog or hamster and see what you can observe about the ears. Then try drawing them!

Animal Expression, Part 1

IMHO, there is too much animal art out there in which the subject has about as much life as a department store manequin. Why is this? Is it a lingering result of Descartes’ pernicious idea of animals as “mere machines, incapable of thought or feeling” (Pollan, The Omnivore’s Dilemma)? Being so concerned with surface features that the inner life of the animal is ignored? Not doing the fieldwork and observation which would reveal that inner life? I could make a case for any and all of those reasons, but the fact remains that there are an awful lot of “dead” animals on canvas out there.

Pronghorn doe
Pronghorn doe

Internationally known wildlife artist John Banovich, who I have been fortunate enough to study with, pointed out in one workshop a few years ago that “you are only as good as your reference”. Since then I’ve realized how true that is. I look back through the print photos that I took before I went digital and it’s so obvious why I couldn’t get my work past a certain level. I didn’t have top-notch reference. I struggled to paint with what I had because I wanted to do it so badly.

African Wild Dog
African Wild Dog

Digital photography has been a godsend since it has always been necessary, as any professional photographer knows, to take 20, 50 or 100 shots to get the keeper. Now there’s no excuse not to fire away and greatly increase the chances that you’ll get the shot that will allow you to do the painting that will be ALIVE. Here’s an example: two images of a cheetah, taken 3 seconds apart. The first is ok, but the second is much, much better. The only difference is a slight turning of the head, but it makes a big difference in the expression.

Cheetah 8:45:11am
Cheetah 8:45:11am
Cheetah 8:45:14
Cheetah 8:45:14

For an painted animal to “be alive”, the artist is required to accept that they are sentient beings, with their own consciousness. Whatever else animals are, they aren’t “dumb”.


For the next few weeks, I’ll be discussing animal features one by one and how they relate to capturing life and expression. The final installment will be how it all comes together to create a whole that is greater than the sum of the parts.

Lion yawning
Lion yawning

Hope you find it interesting!