I start a long way back before I pick up a pencil
Start by seeking multiple sources for inspiration and knowledge
I am not intuitively good at drawing animals. I need to do some deep studying and then to work hard at it. Just ask my grandchild about an experience I had trying to draw a cat for him, “disappointing” doesn’t cover it. It was a complete “head-shaker” to him that I was SO bad at drawing a cat.
Here’s the behind-the-scene, study, practice, and learning I go through to prepare to draw animals. In this case, a horse…
I sometimes 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 he was curious. Later he was amused and found it rather quaint to see me in my folding chair in knee-high grass week after week studying and sketching his horses.
Horses being horses, of course they were studying me, too. They would look up when they caught wind of me.
The horses would watch me get setup, and then settle in. They usually would move toward me at the fence, led by the lead mare, to see if there was any food or treats involved. I had asked the owner if I could give them a treat. So, yes, they usually got a treat.
After that, they would continue to be study me for a little, and then go back to munching on grass.
Horses generally are quiet and docile– when they are feeling safe. They spend most of their time eating or resting, usually while standing.
As in most sessions 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. The alpha female is usually the one who uses a strategic nip, or nudge to get inappropirate behavior back in line. Frequently a young colt is shunned to outside the herd temporarily to teach him to adjust his behavior.
Skeletons of the animals I draw. help tremendously with informing me of understanding the movement under the flesh and hide.
Thank goodness for the Internet. I can generally find copyright-free drawings of most animals on Wikipedia. It is a huge advantage to 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. As I am teaching about drawing and painting horses, I finished a major textile project of Joan of Arc. The textile project features Joan and her horse, among other symbols of her power: purity, humility, courage, victory, and commitment.
So, this photo of a statue in New York City of Joan of Arc on a horse helps me see a horse from an unusual point of view and gives me an interpretation of Joan from an atypical point of view.
This image is from the Library of Congress. Although it doesn’t give fine detail, it provides additional information that helps me understand Joan of Arc and her horse.
Likewise, you can gain insights to inform your background knowledge on horses or any animal, 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 as the horse tripped a string that pulled the shutter.
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, and on humans.
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, too, 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 unimaginable the inspiration you find through digital collections of museums and libraries, such as the Library of Congress, the National Archives, Metropolitan Museum of Art, National Gallery, historical societies, and many smaller museums are digitizing their collection and making it available online.
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 collections that inspire you.
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. So, just a suggestion, but acknowledge the museums in your work, and send them a donation with some frequency.
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.
So that’s the type of background work I do before I draw any animal. I want to start with a realistic depiction of the animal before I consider abstracting it or creating a realistic drawing of it.
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 drawing animals doesn’t come easily for me, committing to doing background work on the basics seems like the best place to start.
I could probably work on drawing horses for the rest of my life and learn new observations every day. How about you?
Have you tried watercolor painting? It can be tricky and unforgiving. And, on the other hand…. it can lead to magical moments in the flow; to astonishing discoveries about nature and complexity; and to a sense of accomplishment for creating something that reflects you and your point of view.
I have published a PDF on the 8 basic truths to watercolor painting. The goal is to make it simple, achievable and rewarding to everyone.
I have pulled these “basic truths” together in a PDF from my decades of watercolor painting and teaching. Some are sort of intuitive, and some I think are sort of “opposite thinking.”
Here is the link to download the PDF: https://chipper-builder-9492.ck.page/8-truths-to-mastering-watercolor-basics
And, I’m developing an online course focusing on mastering the basics in watercolor. Let me know if you want me to keep you in the loop on that. More details availalbe in the fall of 2021. For more information, DM me on Instagram at: janemmason
Thank you for reading. How do you prepare to draw something that is unfamiliar to you? 👩🎨