I’ve been passionate about drawing animals for as long as I can remember. In this post “drawing ideas of animals” I will showcase some of my work, both old and new, in the hope that sharing my tips and experience will inspire you to create your own beautiful animal drawings.
All of my drawings are of animals I’ve seen myself in real life, either in the wild, or when I’ve encountered them on my travels.
So what does it take to make a successful animal drawing? Well, first of all, not perfect drawing skills. That may sound odd coming from a perfectionist like me, but it’s true. As long as an image is appealing, your skill levels are secondary.
In fact, a stylized, naive, or cartoon-style artwork can be far more popular with the public than photorealism.
In my opinion, a good drawing should possess the following criteria:
- A good composition
- The right subject matter
- Convey movement
- Have atmosphere
- Tell a story
- Have personality
That’s not easy. I will cover each of these 6 criteria and use my illustrations as examples. You can use them for inspiration and as drawing prompts. Why not?
You’ll notice that I didn’t include ‘cute’ on my list. I’m cynical enough to acknowledge that cute and adorable animals will always have the pulling power to attract attention. I’m not opposed to ‘cute’, but I handle it in my way.
At the end of this blog post, I’ll show you how to draw an animal portrait with brief step-by-step instructions and add a portfolio of drawings with something written about each one.
Enough of the intro, you came here to see drawings of animals so let’s get started with…Elephants!
Disclaimer: When you buy something via my affiliate links, I sometimes earn a commission at no extra cost to you. I only recommend trusted sites.
How to Compose an Animal Drawing
These are pygmy elephants on the banks of the Kinabatangan River in Sabah, Borneo. I saw them from a boat as they rolled around in the mud and played. Needless to say, I took a lot of photos.
These posts will interest you:
- Traveling Artist: How to Sell Your Art and Travel the World
- Fear of Traveling Alone: What’s It Like to Travel Solo?
- How Do You Travel With Art Supplies? (A Practical Guide)
- How to Plan a Wildlife Photography Trip for Artists
- How to Plan and Compose Your Art: A Beginners Guide
This is one of my favorite drawings and I think it ticks most of the boxes for a successful drawing. There’s so much more to drawing animals than simply capturing a likeness.
How I Construct a Drawing
In the case of these three fine elephants, there was a lot of preparation before I began. I had plenty of reference shots but nothing that stood out. I had to mix and match a few images to make an interesting drawing.
There were three individual poses I particularly liked, each one in separate photos, none of which were good enough as standalone portraits, but combined as a group, they would work.
I chose a group of three because tryptic compositions work like magic.
All I had to do was adjust the sizes so they would merge seamlessly and get rid of the background.
If you want a free background remover try this freebie, Remove.bg. It’s OK for smaller files.
If you don’t have Photoshop, there are online photo editors you can use:
Gimp is free and open source and offers all the bells and whistles if you can take the time to learn it, or you can even use Canva for simple tasks, although you’ll need Canva Pro to access their background remover.
When I was happy with the composition, I turned the color to Greyscale (black and white), added a grid layer, and downloaded the new file.
Personally, I don’t like copying from a computer screen, I work outside remember, so I like to print various sizes to see how they look. You’ll get the best results printing from a large file at 300 dpi.
I chose the size that fitted comfortably within an A3 sheet of paper.
If you are wondering about sizes look no further: What Size Art Sells Best? Prints and Frame Sizes
My last step was to grid my drawing paper to the same scale as my photo and draw the outline.
I go through a similar process at the start of every drawing.
How to Find Your Favorite Animal Subjects
Another favorite drawing of mine. This is a relocated southern white rhino in a private game reserve in Kenya. This one was being settled in a compound within the park and consequently, easy to photograph.
It’s all very well being able to draw well, it’s another thing entirely finding a subject to draw. It’s especially difficult when it comes to drawing animals.
There’s a major problem, they tend to move.
Wild animals seldom cooperate. They are usually too far away, obscured by foliage, or in poor light.
It’s important to point out that I’m no photographer, I’m a professional illustrator and that’s not the same thing.
I can’t afford to buy the best camera kit, and if I could, I’d be paranoid that it would get damaged or stolen anyway. Not only that, good camera gear weighs a ton.
I make do with an amateur Lumix bridge camera. Nothing special, not too expensive, lightweight, and just good enough for my needs. That’s the advantage of being an illustrator, if the photo isn’t up to scratch, I can fix it. And let me tell you, that’s most of the time.
The secret to taking a reasonable photograph is to keep your finger on that shutter button and let rip. If you have 4k you can freeze-frame your videos.
It means wading through the rubbish to find the gems but that’s what professionals have to do.
It’s because I can’t rely on getting usable photos from the wild that I’m an opportunist. I get imagery where I can. It could be sitting in a cafe and playing with a kitten, or visiting an elephant orphanage.
I’m not anti-zoo, I’m anti-bad zoos. When I’m in SE Asia I visit Singapore Zoo because it’s world-class and I’m almost guaranteed to get a shot I can use at some point.
I am particularly interested in charismatic and glamorous animals. I can’t afford to indulge myself too much, I must draw the animals that people will buy, not just the animals I feel like drawing. That’s the minor drawback of selling your art for a living.
I draw people’s favorite animals and if any of these iconic animals have young I’m in heaven. The ideal is a classic mother and baby shot, with eye contact. It’s money in the bank!
As I said, cute animal drawings have their place, it’s how you approach it that matters most.
The subject matter is so important when trying to sell your work that I wrote a post listing the bestsellers to help other artists hoping to sell their wildlife art too.
Read these posts if you want to make some sales:
- 12 Wildlife Art Bestsellers (Use These Subjects to Make Money)
- 9 Farm Animal Art Bestsellers: Home Decor That Sells!
- 7 Bird Art Bestsellers: Best Wall Art Selling Guide
Of course, without a commercial constraint, you are free to draw anything you like. Lucky you.
How to Give Your Animal Drawing Movement
I drew this elephant with the intention of moving away from the tight style I’ve adopted over the last decade. Photorealism is all well and good but a more ‘painterly’ approach has more emotion.
This simple technique involves losing harder edges and breaking up prominent lines and, more commonly, used to enliven the outline of the subject.
Essentially, the “lost” areas are ill-defined patches, loosely rendered, erased, or smudged. The “found” areas are hard-edged, detailed, and well-defined.
The effect is to add drama and imply movement within the drawing. The “lost” areas recede and the “found” lines advance.
The effect can be achieved naturally using a loose and sketchy drawing style, but it can also be contrived and applied retrospectively to spice up and breathe life into an otherwise rigid drawing.
You can see the same technique used in this wolf drawing but admittedly to a less dramatic effect.
This is a looser version of a wolf I drew once before. I liked the pose and wanted to have another go. it has pending menace and one of the ways I achieved movement was with the “lost and found” technique.
There are 7 ways to add movement to a drawing:
- Use a blender or eraser to soften some edges,
- Vary the thickness of a line from thick to thin,
- Shade with sketchy hatching lines,
- Loosely sketch around a detailed focal point for an unfinished look,
- Adjust perpendicular lines so that they lean slightly,
- Add a sketchy background to a neat drawing,
- Sequence a series of lines to suggest a moving element.
How to Create Atmosphere in a Drawing
It’s all about light and shade. Strong cast shadows and highlights add drama and depth to a drawing.
Detail is often the enemy. I have a tendency to obsess over detail. I add too much and take too long, and inevitably I become precious and wish to preserve my hard work. This stilts my creativity.
There’s a well-used cliche “Less is More” and it holds true when trying to create an atmospheric work of art, especially in black and white. There really is no need to add detail to a strong shadow.
These 3 hacks will help you to create mood and atmosphere in your drawing:
- Tight crops and close-ups add intimacy to your art,
- Expanding your field of view with an exaggerated perspective adds a sense of grandeur to a scene,
- Increase the contrast when you’re editing your photos
You don’t have to darken your images, you can bleach out elements too. An isolated tree within a bleached landscape has more drama for less work!
How to Tell a Story in Your Animal Drawing
The most intriguing images have a narrative, in other words, something is happening to intrigue the viewer.
I’m not talking about storyboardIng or symbols and metaphors, the narrative can be much simpler than that.
Anyone looking through my work will soon notice that most of my subjects are making direct eye contact with the viewer. That’s no accident.
It may look arty to draw your subject looking wistfully over your shoulder or at the ground, but believe me when I say, you’ll get the most positive reaction when your subject is eye to eye with your viewer,
We are hardwired to react with eye contact. It’s a visceral gut emotion, never more so than when the eyes are young.
It’s easy to scoff and deride sentimental art but they work by exploiting the human tendency to respond to large eyes.
Mother and baby images work well, maternal intimacy resonates with women especially. You may wish that men were different but I’m talking about 20+ years of observing my customers, and most of my buyers are women.
The story is in the interaction, between the viewer and the subject or between the characters within the picture.
Touch, play, and even fighting, all convey a story taking place. Ideally, there is a question mark hanging over the scene:
- What are they doing?
- Why is it happening?
- What will happen next?
There is another approach to storytelling that has a more commercial intent.
The easiest way to sell anything is to tell a story. Many of my drawings have an interesting backstory and that’s enough to strike a chord with enough people to increase my print sales.
Short stories tip the balance in your favor if the customer is wavering. Emphasis on short. They’re like your best anecdotes, they improve over time.
If the backstory is dull you must find another angle. I like pointing out ‘secret’ techniques or hidden features, or simply making a silly joke, anything that helps me to engage with my potential customer.
All my art prints have titles and are displayed with a few contextual lines of text. These mini snippets offer another opportunity to connect with the subject
This post will help you: How to Name Your Artwork: Find a Title That Sells
One of my most popular prints is my proud lion drawing below.
It’s a very old drawing and still popular, and it’s not just because it’s an iconic animal, it’s also because of the title. It’s called “Head of the Family” and from my buyers’ perspective, it perfectly represents ‘Dad’, albeit in an ironic way. I also get some guys buying it for a tattoo design.
How to Give Your Animal Drawings Personality
Perhaps I should call it character. You can add subtle nuanced tweaks to your drawing that can make a big difference to the final results.
I see it time and time again, skillfully drawn illustrations that are flat, dull, or dead. Why is that?
It’s because the artist paid no attention to the animal’s spirit and too much attention to the technicalities of drawing.
It doesn’t matter how skillful the artist is if the subject looks depressed. To my mind, it’s so obvious, but it’s such a common mistake.
Honestly, who wants an overweight bored zoo animal on the wall? All the artist had to do was open the eyes, prick up the ears, and trim the fat…or choose a better reference!
- If the eyes are sleepy, open them wide,
- If the eyes are looking away, turn them around,
- If the eyes are dull, add a sparkle
- If the eyes are small, make them bigger
Here’s a tip for you, zoo animals come alive at feeding times so find out the times beforehand to maximize your chances of taking a good photo.
You can also try jingling your keys to get a response. Captive animals think it’s the keeper about to open the door.
You’ll find this post useful: Where to Find Wildlife Subjects to Draw, Paint, and Photograph
Posture and stance also add to the character of an animal. It’s sometimes necessary to raise the head slightly or give it a tilt.
Usually, it’s a limb that looks awkward, hidden or blurred. You can crop the missing detail out or find a similar pose online and add the missing detail from another source. I’ve done that many times.
At other times the character of an animal is revealed by adding a different background.
This Sumatran tiger was in London Zoo. Would you ever know that? I made the grass up, It’s out of focus so I didn’t have to worry about drawing the wrong type of foliage.
I drew half a head and the context brings the tiger to life. No one would want it in an enclosure.
I don’t always get it right. The image below was never as popular as I hoped because I got the context wrong.
I got most things right with this drawing. Baby elephants have mass appeal. The eye is looking sideways at the viewer, there are tiny details like the budding tusk, eyelashes, and the dribble of milk that add charm, it’s cute, plus it’s well drawn. So what went wrong?
It’s the bottle. This time the context and narrative were all wrong.
Why is this baby feeding from a bottle and where’s its Mum? It’s obviously an orphaned baby elephant. Not a great sales hook.
To me, it was charming because it was rescued. I saw the positive side of the story. To many of my potential customers, it was the reverse. Sadness is a hard thing to sell.
How to Draw Animals: A Giraffe Portrait
This is a summary of a step-by-step tutorial I wrote in another post. If you want to read the full post and learn how to edit your image with Pixlr.com you should check it out.
I’m my own worst enemy when it comes to the quality of my reference photos. I know what I want but forget how to use the camera! I’m always leaving it in the wrong settings. Like this one…
This is a dreadful portrait and badly exposed, and yet I could see its potential. Giraffes have facial expressions that are made for portraiture, They’re majestic, comic, and deadpan all at the same time. No wonder people adore giraffes.
This is a great pose let down by a poor photographer. Never mind I could see a giraffe drawing in the making. My task was to fill in the blanks and use my artistic skills to rescue this image.
I like to draw from a physical copy. I see other artists online copy from their computer screens but it’s not for me, and besides this the way I’ve always worked.
I make several printouts or photocopies in various sizes and choose the size that feels comfortable to me. I draw the image size for size, with no scaling. Why make life difficult?
You can use a pair of dividers to measure out the proportions of the drawing or you can do as I do and use a grid.
I start by drawing the main outline and all the key features. I will sometimes lightly block-in the main shadows with basic hatching. I use a Derwent HB pencil at this stage.
When all the proportions are in place I start with the eyes. and there’s a good reason.
The eyes are the heart and soul of a portrait, if this stage goes wrong, and yes all of us have off days, the drawing will never be any good.
It’s not the end of the world if you need to start again at this stage. I think this is one of the most important things to remember, but not everyone agrees, and it’s not only beginner artists, some professionals too.
I see other artists leaving their eyes until the last stage and I don’t understand the logic at all. Why invest all your time and risk failing at the last moment? It doesn’t make sense.
I use Pentel mechanical pencils to draw detail, they are great for precision drawing and less prone to pencil shine. Don’t be heavy-handed. Draw in layers of graphite and use softer pencil grades to obtain your darkest areas.
Read these 3 posts if you want to know more:
- Can You Draw With Mechanical Pencils? YES! Here’s How
- 9 Ways to Stop Pencil Shine in a Drawing and Save Your Work!
- How to Draw Realistically: 11 Realistic Drawing Tips
Don’t be tempted to press harder.
Bear in mind that you will need to adjust and erase your pencil drawing as you go along, indeed erasing is part of the drawing process. If you press too hard on the paper you’ll damage the surface and not only is the graphite harder to remove, the correction is harder to redraw.
I like to use a Jakar battery eraser to highlight the sparkle in the eye. Go and buy one, they cost next to nothing.
When I’m happy that the eyes are well drawn, of the right size, and properly aligned, I move on to another prominent feature. In this case the ears.
I like to build upon success in easy steps and with small wins. It gives me confidence. In this case, the ears looked easy enough to draw next and if I made small mistakes, no one but me would ever know.
After drawing the ears, the next logical step was to start drawing in the left side of the face, where I had plenty of detail to work with. Drawing such short fur was easy enough. I used the grain in the paper to add texture.
I continued to draw around the mouth and right eye. The small bristles were lifted out with a Tombo eraser pen. I extended further to the top of the head and drew the horns before attempting to fill the white space.
At this stage it’s easy to get confused by the detail and lose track of the bigger picture. I had to adjust the contrasts and tonal values so that each area blended seamlessly with the next.
When I was more or less happy with the face (perfectionists are never really happy) I continued to draw the creases in the neck, the spots, and the mane.
You’ll notice that the dark patches are not uniform. The edges are soft and the texture is irregular. I lifted out bumps and nodules with a piece of Blu-Tack, making sure to darken the left side to make it look real.
After goodness knows how many hours the giraffe portrait was completed. It’s hard to tell how many hours exactly because I don’t draw everything in one session. I draw in between customers. I stop and start all day long.
In many ways it’s why I am able to draw the way I do. Each customer is a mini break and there’s no pressure to get things finished. I use my ‘Work in Progress’ as a prop and talking point so if anything, there is no incentive to finish!
If you use pastel pencils Jason Morgan has some good drawing tutorials on Youtube and you can join his Patreon Channel for more help. Mind you, I’m not sure if I’d draw a vulture.
A Portfolio of Animal Drawings by Kevin Hayler
I’ve drawn a variety of animals over the years and not just wildlife, but farm animals, and pets too, and they’re not all commercial. I like to take the odd risk and when I get the praise without the sales I draw another elephant!
Hey, I’m an animal lover and I don’t really care.
This is a great white shark drawing. I went cage diving in South Africa, a dream come true and it was just as awe-inspiring as you can imagine.
This is almost certainly a female because it was big, 5-6 meters in size, and I know that because you could estimate its length next to the cage from above.
In truth, it was never a bestseller but that’s not to say there are no shark fans. It’s predominantly a male thing and many of my customers are young boys wanting it for their bedroom, that’s if Mum doesn’t object. There are too many pointy teeth for some Mums.
A different style, a different feel. These cats were drawn many years ago, sometime in the mid-90s. They were in Thailand. You can see how my style has changed. In those days I drew in a sketchier way.
I wasn’t obsessed with small details in those days, I was more concerned with simple shapes and forms.
That doesn’t detract from the image. It was my most popular print for a few years. I rather foolishly sold it as a limited edition, albeit a large edition of 950 prints. I shot myself in the foot there.
Fun fact: Polar bears have black skin and not a lot of people know that. This drawing is quite popular, two things about this drawing get mentioned by my customers. They point out the wet fur, especially on the paws, and how she is looking sideways, keeping an eye on what’s going on.
This was not a wild bear. I haven’t been to the arctic. It was in Singapore Zoo, many years ago. The enclosure was good, and she was much loved, and well cared for, even so, it’s hard to keep polar bears in captivity so when Inuka, the last polar bear, died in 2018, she wasn’t replaced.
This is my bestseller. If you want to make a living making wildlife art, draw or paint elephants and preferably a mother and her baby. The market is mainly for women. It’s a collectible.
Some women buy anything with an elephant theme or motif and what’s more, their friends and family join in and buy elephant-themed presents too.
There is an extra market for pictures of elephants with their trunks raised. It’s supposed to be a symbol of good luck.
I said I’m an opportunist. I came across this cute baby donkey in an African village. I don’t mind adding the occasional domestic animal to my collection, in fact, I should draw more. I’m leaving money on the table.
I get asked for horses and ponies all the time. Firstly, many young girls go through a phase of loving horses, and secondly, if you accept horse commissions you are serving an affluent audience.
I like the fur effect on this drawing. I used a smoother paper than I normally do and it worked wonders.
Going back to adding personality. This is a fun drawing. It’s a composite of the same two African penguins taken from different photos. I cherry-picked the best poses and joined them with a photo editor. It’s a great way to utilize mediocre images.
I find it hard to delete old photos that may contain some information I can use another time. It’s a good resource and a great idea to keep your rejected files.
This drawing is a fine example. The poses were great but there was one thing lacking, the eyes were half closed. All I had to do was look back through the initial series of shots to find a better reference. It’s an easy way to work.
Let’s end with a blatantly commercial drawing. This works on most levels. It’s a cute baby chimp, so it is the right subject with the ‘AHH’ factor.
The title is good “Fingers and Thumbs”. It’s a framable size, well-drawn, and has personality. Plus, it has a backstory in that it was semi-wild in Kenya and part of a rehab program run by the Jane Goodall Foundation.
It’s a successful drawing and one of my most popular images, yet I have one minor regret, and I see it every time I look at the drawing, I should’ve turned the eyes to look at the viewer. Why didn’t I do that?
Drawing Ideas of Animals: Final Thoughts
I hope you gained some insights into the way I work and the approach I take in finding ideas and turning them into the final animal drawing.
There are no easy drawing ideas here, but with luck, it has inspired you to develop your ideas further.
I have a very pragmatic attitude. I have a commercial mindset because this has been my living for so long, I must serve my market, but that’s not the same as selling out.
I’m doing what I set out to do, traveling the world to find wildlife subjects and selling my wildlife art prints to fund my lifestyle. I’m writing this in Sumatra right now.
Drawing animals is a fun and rewarding experience for beginner and advanced artists alike, you don’t have to fly off halfway around the world to find subjects, you can find animal drawing ideas all around you.
I started my drawing life by sketching my family pets. Later I drew the local wildlife and farm animals in my local area, and even now I will source Zoo collections and Rescue Centers.
Learn basic techniques in this very popular drawing course by Brent Eviston on Udemy. He has over 73,000 students!
Don’t be afraid to look around for ideas, keep a notebook, make sketches, and take photographs. There is always an element of luck when it comes to animals, especially spotting wildlife, but a walk is never wasted. There’s always something you can find and record.
I look for settings and compositions. I have a wish list of birds and animals I might see and I’ll imagine where I can place them in their surroundings.
I’ll take photos of anything that captures my imagination, it might be a gatepost, a hole in a tree, or waterside rocks. They might be the perfect settings for a drawing later on, or never, it doesn’t matter. It gives me a purpose and it’s fun.
The possibilities are endless.
Keep scrolling there are more goodies to come…
If you like the way I draw and want to try things for yourself, this is my basic kit
If you want to know how I made a living for over 20 years, this guide lays it all out for you.
If You Want to Sell Your Art
Check this out!
Psst…it’s only $12.99!
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Sorie Kim on my Drawing Classes Page
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Hi, I’m Kevin Hayler
I’ve been selling my wildlife art and traveling the world for over 20 years, and if that sounds too good to be true, I’ve done it all without social media, art school, or galleries!
I can show you how to do it. You’ll find a wealth of info on my site, about selling art, drawing tips, lifestyle, reviews, travel, my portfolio, and more. Enjoy