Animal Sketching At The Denver Zoo!

Hippo and penguins. I did the hippo in about 15 seconds since he went underwater at that point.
Hippo and penguins. I did the hippo in about 10-15 seconds since he went underwater at that point, so no time to add any tone or detail. The penguins were more cooperative.

I got to spend a day sketching at the Denver Zoo a week ago. There really is no substitute for drawing from live animals if one is an animal artist. Photos alone just don’t cut it and, even more, photos that you haven’t taken yourself. The kind of sketching I’m showing here is about process and observation, not a polished or finished result. I hadn’t done this for awhile so it felt awkward at first, but got easier as the day went on. I used a 7×5″ Pentalic Nature Sketch sketchbook and a .02 black Sakura Micron pen, both of which I keep in my purse, a roomy Tom Bihn bag which can also hold my iPad. So that’s it….paper and a pen. Anyone can do this and you’ll see animals, whether it’s a pet cat or a tiger, in a new way. Start with animals who are resting or otherwise not moving. What is challenging is exercising one’s visual memory by doing ones that are moving. You will see with zoo animals in particular that their movement often has a pattern. Observe that, pick a gesture or angle and start and stop as needed as the animal comes past again.

Steller's sea eagle and cinereous/eurasian black vultures. The eagle held still. The vultures were busy hopping around.
Steller’s sea eagle and cinereous/eurasian black vultures. The eagle held still. The vultures were busy hopping around.
Kangaroo and Kirk's dik-dik. The kangaroos were towards the back of their enclosure. The dik-diks were pretty close.
Kangaroo and Kirk’s dik-dik. The kangaroos were towards the back of their enclosure. The dik-diks were pretty close.
De Brazza's monkey, mandril and Red River Hogs
De Brazza’s monkey, mandrill and Red River Hogs. The De Brazza’s monkeys never stopped moving. It took awhile to even get a reasonably accurate head sketch. The mandrill just sat and looked at me. Red River hogs are one of my favorites, but I hadn’t had a chance to draw them much before. So the first one shows me searching for the shapes and proportions. Nothing wrong with doing that.
Red River hogs. What's not to like about drawing them?
Red River hogs. What’s not to like about drawing these guys?
Gorilla and giraffe. The big male was working on a treat stuffed into a wood cylinder. Even though his back was to me, I found the shapes interesting to draw. The giraffe was quite a way away so I couldn't really see the head all that well.
Red River hog, gorilla and giraffe. One of the hogs held still long enough to do a decent head sketch. The big male gorilla was working on a treat stuffed into what looked like a short length of wood. Even though his back was to me, I found the shapes interesting to draw. The giraffe was quite a way away so I couldn’t see the head all that well, but I really like drawing them, so what the heck.
The zoo has a small group of takhi/Przewalski's horses and of course I had to sketch them. I also shot some video.
The zoo has a small group of takhi/Przewalski’s horses and of course I had to sketch them. They also kept moving around, but this one stayed grazing for just long enough.
Takhi/Przewalski's horse and a bactrian camel laying on its side.
Takhi/Przewalski’s horse and a bactrian camel laying on its side. I did the camel to study the legs. Note how I used small circles to indicate the location of the joints.
Okapi back of head, takhi/Przewalski's horse, okapi
Okapi back of head, takhi/Przewalski’s horse, okapi. With those ears, why not draw the back of the head? I think that’s my most successful sketch of the day. The okapi was mostly moving, so I had to pick a position and use my visual memory along with noting the stripe patterns on the legs. This was a species I had never drawn before and it was s little challenging to keep the odd proportions correct. It’s reasonably close.
Colobus monkeys, maned wolf
Colobus monkeys, maned wolf. The monkeys were up in their trees, moving around and swinging on the ropes. All I could do is try to capture the basic appearance and the gestures. The black one is from memory. The wolf whose back of the head I did was lying down. The other one was pacing so, as mentioned above, I waited until he/she came past me again to continue the sketch.

It was snowing the next morning, so I went to the Denver Museum of Nature and Art. They have a large, very good collection of taxidermy mounted animals set in nice dioramas. One generally does not rely on mounts since accuracy varies greatly, but for field sketching on a bad weather day, they’re perfect! And they don’t move! As with the zoo animals, I was after a quick impression sketch, not a detailed study, because I had limited time. But one could certainly bring colored pencils, larger paper and do more finished work. One might choose to focus in on, and really work to understand, how the feathers are lifting where the bird is grooming them.

Whooping crane
Warthog and anteater.
Warthog and great anteater. For both of these I was concentrating on the movement and expression. Also the markings on the anteater. Ran out of room for all of the tail, but didn’t worry about it.



Mongolia Monday- Talking About Takhi

Well, I certainly enjoyed the last two Mongolia Monday posts and hope you did, too. Thanks again, Simon!

Today it’s back to a subject that has become near and dear to my heart- the takhi or Przewalski’s Horse. I always liked horses, even though I was deathly allergic to them as a kid, but have never been, ahem, drawn to them as a subject until I saw takhi for the first time at the Berlin Zoo in October of 2004. I didn’t even know they were there. I just happened on them in the far nether reaches of the zoo. Seven of them, looking like they’d just stepped out of a cave painting.

Takhi group, Berlin Zoo, October 2004
Takhi group, Berlin Zoo, October 2004

I remember that I plopped down on the nearest bench, probably with an idiot smile of delight on my face, to sketch and photograph them. They were enchanting.

Takhi Stallion, Berlin Zoo, October 2004
Takhi Stallion, Berlin Zoo, October 2004

I did some research when I got home and found out that they were being reintroduced into Mongolia. So when I signed on for an Earthwatch project there, I arranged a three day trip to the closest site, Hustai National Park. It was spring, which meant cold, windy and and occasional snow, but I saw the horses and got some decent photos. The next step was to get back to Mongolia, which I did in late September-early October of 2006. By then, I’d found out about a third, new release site in western Mongolia, Khomiin Tal, and managed to get out there. There is also a series of three articles I wrote for Horses in Art. One on Hustai National Park, one on Khomiin Tal and one on the domestic Mongolian horses. Look under “Writings” for those.

Then, this last May, I was at the Denver Zoo and saw takhi there. They looked much different from the Berlin animals, as you can see. There are a number of reasons for this that have to do with being kept in captive conditions, which can lead to much heavier bone structure and skull defects. The animals for release come from semi-reserves where they can live and eat more normally.

Takhi, Denver Zoo, May 2008
Takhi, Denver Zoo, May 2008

I’ve been drawing and painting them since that first trip to Hustai, but have hardly scratched the surface of the picture possibilities.

Here’s one of the first paintings, which is available as a limited edition giclee. When I showed a photo of it to a Hustai biologist on my second trip there, she immediately recognized the mare by her mane, which reinforced my desire to paint individuals of a species.

Mongolia Morning, oil  12"x 24"
Mongolia Morning       oil on canvas board          12″x 24″ (price on request)

Followers of this blog know how adamant I am about doing fieldwork. I think this next piece illustrates why. There is no way this painting  would have happened if I hadn’t been there at Khomiin Tal to photograph both the horses and the habitat. I’ve seen a few other paintings of takhi and so far none of them really looks to me like it was done from reference shot of reintroduced horses in Mongolia. They are pretty obviously captives in Europe or North America. The light’s not right, the land isn’t right and, mostly, the horses themselves aren’t right. But I sure can understand the compelling desire to paint and draw them anyway!

That's the Spot!  oil  16"x 20"
That’s the Spot!           oil on canvas board        18″x 24″ (price on request)

Here’s the most recent painting, a stallion at Hustai. I wanted to really show the valley that is the core habitat of the population of, now, over 200 horses in 15 harems and to try to capture the interesting shape of the shadows on him.

Master of the Valley
Master of the Valley    oil on canvas board    12″x 16″ (price on request)

This 10″x 8″ study is going to be listed for sale on EBay tomorrow or Wednesday. It was amusing to watch the foal work out the motor coordination required to scratch that itch.

Takhi Foal Scratching
Scratch that Itch!   10″x8″    oil on canvasboard

Lastly, I did a batch of drawings a couple of weeks ago and I rather liked the way these came out. The photos were taken at Hustai this past September. It was late afternoon and this one foal was having “crazy fits”. I’m always looking for animals in action and he/she certainly delivered.



Bobcat and Bighorns

The bobcat painting is done. I’ve called it “Stepping Lightly”. It will make it’s debut at Wild Visions2, the group show with five other Humboldt County artists next month. The opening reception will be August 9 from 6-9pm. More later about the show and the other artists.

“Stepping Lightly”                   oil                               18″x24″

Now, a cautionary tale about reference and using captive animals as models.

I’m doing a painting that is a first for me, three panels. Here’s the reference I’m using. The animals were photographed at the Denver Zoo and the landscape is from up on Logan Pass in Glacier National Park.

Is that a great pose or what? It was morning, warm and sunny, and the ram was getting sleepier and sleepier and finally his head gently dropped onto the ewe’s back. She never even twitched. Click. Gotta paint it. But where to put them? I chose this rocky outcropping in Glacier because I liked the shapes and knew that bighorns were often seen in the area. I did a preliminary drawing of the animals with the idea of showing them on a shelf of rocks. I wanted to communicate how comfortable bighorns are in an environment that we would find “challenging”. Here’s an in-progress shot that shows my setup with my iMac.

It’s great because Aperture lets me zoom in and out as needed very easily.

Another in-progress shot with the side panels propped on either side. At this point, I sent a jpeg to wildlife artist Laney, who has said nice things about my work the couple of times I have met her. She specializes in bighorns and I wanted her to eyeball the animals for drawing or any other problems. She replied very promptly and said that overall it looked good, but that the ewe’s hoof was in the wrong position compared to the rest of the leg and that the ram’s muzzle was too thin.

I went back to my reference and compared what I had with an absolutely wonderful book, Mountain Royalty, by famous Alaska artist Doug Lindstrand. As you can see from my photo, the ram in particular is shedding out, so it was a little hard to see the structure. Doug’s photos solved that problem and there was even a picture of a ram in a similiar position.

What I ultimately found was that while I had accurately drawn what was in my reference, it wasn’t “right”. The ewe’s hoof was at that funny angle, but that didn’t mean I should paint it that way, so I fixed it. When I compared my reference ram’s head with the ones in the book, I found that his head was really quite odd. Longer, thinner and with a roman nose that was much more exaggerated than the wild sheep. So I fixed his muzzle and re-proportioned his head as needed.

The other question I had for Laney was whether or not this behavior might be observed in the wild. She replied that the rams were only with the ewes in winter, so maybe I’d like to add some snow. Ah, well. In the zoo, of course, the animals are pretty much together all year around. In the wild when I shot my reference at the beginning of May, it was unlikely. Cue the snow reference. And, what I found was that it was the frosting on the cake since it brought the cool of the sky into the rock area and helped pull the whole thing together. Thanks Laney!

The moral of this story is that you can’t have too much reference, don’t assume that zoo or captive animals look the same as wild ones, do your fieldwork and learn about your subjects and finally, it is tremendously helpful to have a knowledgeable eye like Laney’s to look over what you’ve done and to it keep on track.

I finish the painting today and it goes in for framing tomorrow. I’ll post an image of it once it’s on the wall at the show.


Experience enables you to recognize a mistake when you make it again.

Franklin P. Jones

What a trip….

Finally got a chance to sift through my images from my trip to Missoula and Denver. Here’s what it was like at Denver International Airport on May 1, which was my outbound leg. The airport was closed down for almost an hour due to heavy, blowing snow. Then we were number six in line for de-icing at twenty minutes per plane. Had never seen de-icing before, won’t mind if I never do again- Happy May Day?

My camera luck ran out in Missoula. Digital SLRs and lenses don’t go well with pavement, so one of the Nikon D70s and the 28-300mm go in for repairs today. In the meantime, I couldn’t stand the thought of going to the Denver Zoo sans camera, so I went to a nifty camera store in Missoula and bought a Nikon Coolpix S10. Same file size as the D70, 6mg, 10x super zoom, decent “shutter” speed, supposedly. Well, we’d see about that. Fifty bucks for a 2gb card and I was set, I hoped.

I really put it through its paces and I’m very impressed. It wouldn’t do the job out in the field, too slow, but for anything that isn’t moving too fast, it did great! Here’s two images that will show what it can do. The first was through plate glass with no polarizing filter. And yes, those are piranha. The second is a snow leopard who was pacing back and forth waiting for mealtime. I couldn’t get quite what I wanted in terms of variety of leg position, but the focus was decently sharp. The image is more than good enough to use for reference.

And finally, A RECENT VISITOR, at 7:30 in the morning a couple of weeks ago out by the pond. Niki and two of the cats came out with me to see what was going on. We all went our various ways without incident or excitement.

Back home and in the studio

Got back from my trip last Thursday evening with no more than what is the usual nonsense when one flies these days. Plane was late getting to Denver, so we were late leaving Denver, which meant I missed my 4:12 connection in San Francisco. On the bright side, the airline automatically rebooked me on the next flight home at 6:30, which was good since the last flight out didn’t leave until, ouch, 11:30pm.


We have a canine guest right now, a 3.5 year old male German Shepherd rescued from a seriously rotten situation. I’m doing the emergency foster while a ride is lined up to get him to his long-term foster. He’s spent the last four months with people who didn’t “like” him, so he was kept inside and forced to do his business in a room. He’s got what looks like flea allergy dermatitis. Very thin fur on his back end and tail. Also very scared at first, but totally unaggressive.

We have him on a long cable tie-down on the patio so he can have peace and quiet, but start to get used to a normal environment not filled with screaming and craziness. He’s unneutered, but very submissive. Ignores the cats. Associates collars and having his neck reached for with something negative, but isn’t head shy. Niki is modeling calm, balanced behavior and setting boundaries for their interactions, so he’s my partner in helping get the poor guy back on an even keel. He’ll be a fantastic family companion once he’s had time in a stable environment and gets his confidence back.

I guess the moral is, if you really don’t want an animal, don’t just ignore it and stop caring for it, do what it takes to get them to a place where they have a chance to get a new home where they will get the love they deserve. Sheeh, is that so hard?


I had a great time sketching and photographing at the Denver Zoo, along with getting to see the Robert Bateman show at The Wildlife Experience. There were so many of his iconic images- the snow leopard sitting on a cliff as snow swirls around, the orca amongst the kelp, the storks at dusk with the shimmering band of gold water, plus some of his early abstracts. He is the living master in wildlife art when it comes to design/composition and the sheer beauty of his painting. Very, very inspirational. If you are in the Denver area and you want to see the best in animal art, see his show.

There was also a small room with paintings of African subjects and I was tickled to quickly realize that I had at least met, if not studied, with all of the artists: John Seerey-Lester, John Banovich, Simon Combes and Daniel Smith. I think I feel a lion painting coming on!

In the meantime, here are some of my sketches from the Denver Zoo. Most of them took less than three minutes, if that, so no time to doodle around. First I try to capture the gesture of their pose or movement, then add things like eyes and fur texture. Last is value, Sometimes I end up adding the modeling and “color” while I’m having lunch. The lions were very fit for zoo cats, but I’ll still “tighten” them up by referring to lions I photographed in Kenya.

The horses are my beloved takhi, of which three were out when I was there. I had seen domestic yaks, but these were the first wild yaks. They manage ok in The Mile High City, but in their native (shrinking) habitat, they thrive at 15,000 feet plus.