Before you set yourself up as a wildlife artist you’ll have a portfolio of ten to twelve pieces of saleable art. Easily said, but where do you find wildlife subjects to begin with?
National parks and cheap safaris are always going to be preferred but that’s not always possible. Alternative options include zoos and private collections, rescue centers, and orphanages, country walks, farms, and hiking trips, your backyard, and as a last resort, stock images.
As wildlife artists, we tend to enthuse about the natural world so let’s start with the most exciting options for finding wildlife and work down from there.
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.
Find Wildlife Subjects in Nature Reserves
Most of us live reasonably close to a local nature reserve and there’s little to stop us from taking time off to pay a visit. Getting to know an accessible reserve and discovering the wildlife that frequents the area is a great first step.
Ideally, there will be some viewing hides, and if so, they’re probably your best bet for getting to see and photograph some of the local wildlife.
Ok, you’ve got to be damn lucky to find a wild harvest mouse, especially posing so nicely, but that’s what artistic license is all about. Sarah Stokes has some charming wildlife art, find her on Domestika (affiliate)
I personally avoid weekends and holidays if I want peace and quiet, but having said that, nature reserves tend to attract quiet people so it’s not a big deal.
The trick to getting the most out of hides is patience. There’s often very little to see straight away and for that reason, most people come and go quickly. It’s the die-hards who get results. Bring a flask and some lunch and stake it out.
The best wildlife watching usually happens when you wait. We tend to think that walking will bring the best results but that’s not always so.
Wildlife can hear and smell us coming and, if they are shy, you aren’t likely to see them. Better by far to sit and wait at a likely spot.
You’ll need to take binoculars and a long camera lens, but neither needs to be top of the range. Wildlife artists need a usable image as a reference, not an award-winning one.
These are the binoculars I use Nikon Sportstar 10 x 25
The big advantage of arriving early at a hide, and staking out your claim, is having a dry space, away from the elements, and finding a space to set up your camera. If you arrive early, you can grab the best position and set up a tripod if you need one.
Visiting National Parks to Find Wildlife Subjects
Most of us dream about visiting the world’s best national parks. Who hasn’t got their own bucket list of places to visit and wildlife to see?
It takes more time, effort, and expense, but if you’re anything like me, the reason you’re a wildlife artist is to see the best of the natural world. This is your way to do it.
I love having a mission. It might be to find a particular animal or to visit an amazing place. It gives me a purpose. I can plan, save and most importantly dream. It keeps me going through the bad patches.
I spend the bulk of my profits on travel, I don’t make a fortune, I use the tax system to offset my trips. If I didn’t travel I would give a good chunk of that money to the government. As far as I’m concerned my travels are a no-brainer.
Getting to a National Park to Find Wildlife Subjects
As a Brit, I’m not blessed with any truly wild national parks on my doorstep and I have to travel abroad to find real wilderness. That means traveling elsewhere in Europe or further afield. Inevitably that involves flying to a destination and arranging things independently when I arrive.
I envy you lucky folk who can throw a tent in the back of a car and head off at a moment’s notice.
Find Wildlife Subjects on a Cheap Wildlife Safari
I’ll start with Africa because that’s what we think of first.
The Cheapest African Safaris For Finding Wildlife
If you want to go on a cheap African safari you must head for South Africa. Not only have they got some of the best national parks in Africa, but they also have the infrastructure to go with it.
Anyone visiting a South African park, for the first time, will be struck by how well organized and maintained they are. They are first-rate, with all the facilities you need to have a very pleasant stay.
They make their parks easy to visit and affordable. If you rent a small car (very cheap) and be prepared to camp, you can go on a safari for a fraction of the price of other African Nations.
If you are planning a lengthy stay, tourists can purchase a ‘Wild Card’, valid for a year, which permits entry to any of the 80+ parks, for any length of time. If you plan to stay more than two weeks, it’s a no-brainer.
This is by far the best deal you can get in Africa. At the time of writing a yearly Wild Pass in South Africa will cost the same as a two-day pass to the Serengeti in Tanzania. That says it all.
Cheap Asian Safaris For Finding Wildlife
If you want to photograph glamorous wildlife without the safety fears many people have about visiting Africa (for the first time), the Indian sub-continent might be the place for you.
Some of the parks are incredibly cheap to visit and where else are you likely to see a tiger? Indeed if you visit some of the best tiger reserves, at the right time of year, you are almost guaranteed a sighting.
India is a big place and there are 553 sanctuaries including 105 national parks. To say you have a choice is an understatement.
This post will guide you: Where to See Tigers in the Wild: 9 Best Places in 2023
India is a country that can overwhelm first-time visitors. Not because it’s dangerous, but because life is, hectic, chaotic, and loud. There are too many people and life is unequal. Some people have it very tough.
Don’t let that put you off. India is in your face but wow will you have some stories to tell when you get home.
It’s perfectly possible to find tigers:
- How to Plan a Wildlife Photography Trip
- Best Wildlife Watching in Asia: Top 10 Destinations
- Wildlife Photography For Artists and Illustrators: 15 Places to Visit in India
To see tigers head for the ‘tiger’ state of Madhya Pradesh. The top three ‘tiger’ parks are Kanha, Bandhavgarh, and Pench National parks, but Panna NP has recovered in recent years and Satpura NP has also got raving fans also and is the least visited.
But India has a lot more to offer than tigers alone. There are rhinos, bears, wolves, elephants, black panthers, and much much more.
If India feels a bit full-on for you. Then head for Sri Lanka and visit Yala National Park for leopards and elephants. Or Bardia National Park in Nepal for tigers, rhinos, and elephants. You’ll love it.
Find Your Wildlife Subjects in Rescue Centers and Orphanages
Let’s face it. It’s not always possible to see everything you want to see in the wild and if you do manage to see something, the chances are it was out of range and not posing for you. In that case, you will have to look elsewhere.
I got the original photos for my bestselling print called ‘Jumbo Family’, after visiting Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage in Sri Lanka. If you choose carefully there are many reputable places around the world to find wildlife subjects ethically.
My baby chimp called ‘Fingers and Thumbs’ was part of a rescue program in the Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Kenya.
And you are not confined to exotic locations. There are wildlife rescue centers and hospitals at home. If they are not open to the public a polite phone call with the offer of a small donation will probably open the door, and who knows, you might make some contacts.
Visit Zoos and Private Collections for Wildlife Subjects
There are zoos, and then there are zoos. Some have animal welfare and conservation at their hearts while others are exploitative and money-driven. Choose your zoos with care. You won’t be happy with your work if you feel complicit in the misery of your subject.
How to Get the Most Out of a Zoo Visit
Before you set off on a zoo visit, do some checks beforehand. It might save you a wasted journey.
Look at their website:
- What do they exhibit?
- How do they display their animals?
- Have any young been born recently?
- Are they on show yet?
- When are feeding times?
Don’t leave these things to chance, if you know what to expect, you can maximize your time. I like to make a full day of it and earmark the feeding times so I can be at the right place, at the right time, and in a logical sequence.
I avoid weekends and public holidays, they are too busy and kids naturally race to the front of every exhibit. Go midweek to avoid the crowds.
These posts will help with priorities:
- 12 Wildlife Art Bestsellers (Use These Subjects to Make Money)
- 7 Bird Art Bestsellers: Best Wall Art Selling Guide
Or look at these, there are 60 drawings: The Wildlife Drawings of Kevin Hayler
I want shots that showcase the animal. I want the eyes wide open and the ears pricked up, and I want that pose without unduly disturbing the animal. That’s why feeding times are so important.
It’s the 30 minutes before feeding time that offer the best opportunities for a good shot. It’s when the animals start to get excited and look most alert. You’ll see them eagerly watching out for the keeper.
The only trick I ever use to influence behavior is rattling my car keys now and then. It sometimes works, especially when the animal is getting hungry. They think the zookeeper is close by.
How Are The Animals Housed? It Matters
The design of the exhibit will also determine what kind of shots are possible. Many enclosures are totally unsuitable for photography.
I find looking down into a pen frustrating. There are very few compositions I want to draw from above. If I want anything, I want eye contact, if possible at ground level.
The best enclosures are slightly raised with a moat as a barrier. I don’t like dirty glass and certainly not chicken wire.
All you can do about chicken wire is to zoom in on your subject while you are close to the wire. That helps to diffuse the wire enough to get some reference shots. You can’t do much about dirty windows but a polarizer will help with reflections at least.
Remember you can’t use a flash on the glass either. Remember to set your camera to a low F-stop and/or raise the ISO setting. You need a fast shutter speed. As a guide, set the shutter speed at 1.5x the focal length. If you are shooting at 200mm, you will need to handhold at 1/300th sec.
If the light is very low you will need a tripod.
Go on Country Walks and Visit Parklands
What better way to spend a day. Long country walks are one of life’s great pleasures.
Keep your camera to hand and hope for some luck. There’s only one rule; if you don’t bring your camera you’ll see something amazing.
You never know what is around the corner, or up a tree for that matter. Just a casual walk will sometimes come up trumps. Don’t think that it’s always the quiet places that deliver the best results. Where there are people there are animals accustomed to people, like this squirrel below.
This photography class on Udemy by Villiers Steyn is the most popular. Check it out to get some fresh ideas.
“I could approach them on foot as long as I used a long lens and kept a respectful distance. I visited in October when the males were in full rut, and at this time of year the Stags are pumped up with testosterone and dangerous.”
A walk is never wasted. Something always comes out of it. If not a close encounter with wildlife, then reference shots of things like landscapes, cloud formations, and trees.
I look for background props that might, one day, make a good setup for a wildlife scene.
I might see a gate post and imagine a barn owl sitting there, or visualize a songbird perched on a bramble. Anything that takes my eye.
I will probably never use these references but I file them anyway, just in case I need a reference at some point.
A good walk frees your mind, at the very least you will return home with some new ideas.
What About Using Stock Photos and Magazines For Wildlife Subjects?
This is my last choice. Its last because I think it’s a poor option. No matter how you spin it, the image is never yours. And as I’ve discussed before, there is far more to a great picture than the image alone. There has to be a backstory.
I’m a professional artist and I want to sell my work, but even if it was still a hobby there would be little value in copying another person’s image. Where’s the creativity? Where’s the story? What can I say about the work?
People are just as fascinated with knowing how your art is created as they are about the results.
There’s also a more pragmatic reason why a 3rd party image might backfire.
This post relates: Can You Copy Art and Sell a Painting of a Painting? I Found Out
When you buy a stock image, umpteen other people have been there before you and bought the same thing. Your image will be elsewhere on the web. Maybe everywhere, and what does that say? It says, unoriginal and generic. Who wants that?
The only way you can legally use a 3rd party image without permission is to paint/draw the subject and sell it as an original with your signature attached.
You may not reproduce it in any way and that includes posting it on the web. Nor can you modify it and claim it as your own.
Don’t think the owner will ever find out. It’s very easy to do an image search on google and see who is using your images.
The only other option you might go for is working from photographs provided by your friends and family. Many people source their pictures this way. Not a problem. It’s better than using a stock image, that’s for sure. It’s still not your own though is it?
I suspect that Antonia didn’t scuba dive with whales, I could be wrong, but she probably improvised around stock images. Nice though eh? She’s on Domestika
How to Find Wildlife Subjects: Final Thoughts
Half the fun of art is finding something wonderful to draw or paint. That’s especially true for wildlife artists. We want to find wildlife subjects for ourselves and try to capture something of the magic we experience.
Embrace it, it’s part of the lifestyle.
If you like the way I draw and want to try things for yourself, this is my basic kit
Wildlife trips cost money and you can pay for them by selling your art. I’ve been doing this for over 20 years. Let me show you how!
If You Want to Sell Your Art
Check this out!
Psst…it’s only $12.99!
Other posts that will interest you:
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- Traveling Artist: How to Sell Your Art and Travel the World
- Is Drawing From Reference Photos Bad? Are You Cheating?
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Hi, my name’s Kevin and I’m a real person!
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!
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