Seek multiple sources for inspiration and knowledge
I am not intuitively good at drawing animals. I need to do some deep studying and work hard. (Just ask my grandchild about an experience I had trying to draw a cat for him. “Disappointing” doesn’t cover it.)
Here’s the behind the scene, practice and learning I go through to draw animals. In this case, a horse…
I study horses in motion to understand how they move. So much grace and power on narrow legs and relatively small hooves.
Before I begin sketching, I somehow gain visual access to the actual animal–with dogs and cats, it’s fairy easy! With horses, it took a bit more sleuthing…
In this case, a few years ago, I lived near a farm with some beautiful horses. I tracked down the owner of the land, and asked if he would allow me to sit in a chair outside the pasture and photograph and sketch his horses. I promised I wouldn’t pester the horses.
The first day, he met me there to see what I had in mind. At first amused, he later was kind of charmed seeing me in my folding chair in knee high grass week after week studying his horses.
Horses being horses, of course they were studying me, too. They would look up when they caught wind of me. They would watch me get set-up and then settle in. They usually would move toward me at the fence, led by the lead mare, to see if there were any food treats involved. I had asked the owner specifically if I could feed them and what he wanted me to share. So, yes, they usually got a treat. After that, they would continue to be curious for a little, and then go back to munching on grass.
They generally are quiet and docile. They spend most of their time eating or resting, usually while standing. They may even stand resting with their eyes shut.
As in most periods of observation, you can learn so much by being still and simply watching. No hurry. Just watching. The hierarchy in the herd, which is a matriarchy, is something you observe when you are quiet and can watch the herd socialize.
I also like to look at the skeleton of the animals I draw. Thank goodness for the Internet. I can generally find copyright-free drawings of most animals on Wikipedia. It is a huge educational bonus to actually see how the joints are put together. You can visualize why an animal is broad where he is broad when you realize how big his ribcage is, for example. And, you can see where the flesh is going to sink in if the animal is old or sick. (I know that’s kind of sad… but still can be helpful.)
Often my projects overlap. Like in this photo of a statue in New York of Joan of Arc on a horse. This is from the Library of Congress. Although it doesn’t give fine detail, it shows me a point of view of a horse that I otherwise wouldn’t be able to get– unless I was getting trampled. This way was a lot easier.
I am working on a major textile project of Joan of Arc, so it gave me an impression of her. And to see her horse as interpreted by this artist is a bonus.
You can gain an understanding from various art forms. In this case, early photography.
In 1878, Eadweard Muybridge, an emerging photographer of his day, was able to capture the motion of a running horse. He used an intricate system of cameras that were set off in a sequence. He was trying to solve the question of whether a horse’s four legs ever left the ground at the same time. Muybridge’s experiment proved that indeed the horse is airborne for a moment. See frame #2 and #3 below. Work such as this is also invaluable to learn how an animal moves. (Muybridge did similar studies on many animals.)
I also call on friends to help me in my quest to find photos of horses. A very good friend, Jill Bryan, shared with me a powerful photo of her daughter on a horse during a hunter/jumper competition. Hats off to Josie for her courage, confidence and expertise in riding! (Hats off to Jill, as the mom, for watching her daughter and her horse jumping fences!)
Josie once shared with me that when you are riding in dressage, in the perfect competition, you are on your own horse. A horse you know well and one who knows and trusts you. Josie said the connection between the horse and the rider is so perfect that the horse senses what you will ask it to do before you actually have communicated it. The horse “just knows” what you want in that millisecond before you tell him.
I am in awe. Such an exquisitely fused sensitivity between the horse and the rider is a wonder to ponder. It makes this photo even that much more magical.
And maybe lastly, I study, study, study, and then study some more, other famous artists’ work. I usually pick Renaissance artists, or basically “long dead artists.” I don’t want to be tempted to inadvertently come too close to the work of another contemporary artist.
I visit the digital collections of many museums, the Metropolitan Museum in NY is one of my favorite collections. You can search through the digital collection for any artist or any word, like “horse.”
It’s absolutely wonderful the inspiration you find through digital collections of museums, libraries, the Library of Congress, the National Archives, historical societies, and more.
While we’re on the topic of museums and other digital collections, I highly recommend that you make a donation to the museum or better yet, become a member and get updates on the collection, you are inspired by. The digital archives are available for you to use for inspiration at no cost to you — and they are a huge cost to the museums.
This is one example of how I begin to learn how about a horse and gain the intelligence and visualization to be able to draw it.
It’s like that before I draw any animal. I want to start with a realistic depiction of the animal before I consider abstracting it or creating a character of a horse.
Generally, for me as it turns out, animals are so majestic in their realistic form that I rarely get to the abstracting phase. And, because it doesn’t come easily for me. Working on the basics seems like a better place to focus.
I could probably work on drawing horses for the rest of my life and learn new observations every day. How about you?