How I Usually Start an Animal Drawing

Sometime ago, I answered a reader who wanted to know where they should begin a drawing. In a follow-up post, I also described how I start a landscape drawing. Today, I want to round out the series by telling you how I usually start an animal drawing.

How I Usually Start an Animal Drawing

In the original post, I talked about general starting points like base layers, dark values, and light values. I listed them as three separate options, but they really work together on most projects.

The landscape drawing post described the way I draw most landscapes beginning with an umber under drawing.

At one time, I started most animal drawings that way, too. But over the years, I tried different papers and using more colored papers, so I had to find other ways to begin animal drawings.

How I Usually Start an Animal Drawing

The method I use to draw animals is based on the paper I choose for the project. Traditional papers like Stonehenge or Canson Mi-Teintes require a traditional approach to drawing. Watercolor papers can be used in different ways, and sanded art paper is even more versatile.

Let’s start at the beginning with traditional white drawing paper.

Traditional Drawing Paper in White

I start drawings on traditional white paper with an umber under drawing, and I begin by shading the base color into the darkest areas first. As I continue darkening the shadows, I also add lighter values.

However, it’s important to work with light pressure and build up the values layer by layer. Corrections and adjustments are easier to make this way, and you also avoid getting too dark too quickly in the darkest places.

Once the darkest values are in place, I develop the other values with additional layers.

I also develop the most important details, and then fine tune them.

Traditional Drawing Paper in Colors

An umber under drawing doesn’t work very well on colored paper unless the paper is a very light earth tone. Even then, I have the best success with light-colored papers that are cool in color. Stonehenge Natural is the best color for use with an umber under drawing.

With other light colors, I start an animal drawing by deciding on the base color of the animal. The base color is often the lightest color in the animal’s hair, and is most often (but not always) most evident in the highlights.

This portrait was drawn on a warm, light-value Stonehenge, and the horse was a palomino. The base color was a reddish-gold earth tone.

Then I started shading the same way I start an umber under drawing; by working first in the shadows, and then developing the middle values.

A full-length tutorial on this portrait is available for you to read here.

I also shaded the white blaze on the horse’s face so I wouldn’t work over it. The paper was just dark enough to make that possible. Otherwise, I’d lightly outline the blaze with the base color, and then work around it.

For darker papers, I start with lighter values and essentially draw in reverse by marking out the highlights and lighter middle values first if the paper is very dark.

If the paper is a medium value, such as Canson Mi-Teintes Steel Grey, then I begin with whatever color and value works best with whatever animal I’m drawing.

No matter what color of paper or pencil I use, I almost always start by shading the shadows, and then working into the middle values.

Watercolor Papers

The beauty of watercolor papers is that you can do the base layers with watercolors or watercolor pencils. Those mediums do not fill the tooth of the paper and they fill in paper holes much better.

I don’t usually start with an umber under drawing because reapplying water reactivates the layers underneath. So I choose an overall base color for each area, then apply that with water-based mediums. When that dries, I continue with dry color, layering colors just as I would on regular paper.

In this sample, the background has been developed more completely at this stage than the horse. Part of the reason for that is that I needed to work around the edges of the horses and wanted to do that before working on the horse. Just in case the background didn’t turn out!

I wrote a two-part tutorial based on this drawing for EmptyEasel. You can read more about this method here.

Sanded Art Papers

Sanded art papers are actually more versatile than any other paper I’ve ever used. I’ve started drawings with an umber under drawing, with a more direct method, and using water-soluble media.

The method I use depends on the color of the paper and the color of the animal I’m drawing.

I started this horse portrait with an umber under drawing because it’s on white Clairefontaine Pastelmat.

I’ll use a more direct method with another portrait because I chose Sienna Pastelmat as the support.

There are Other Ways to Start an Animal Drawing

In fact, I sometimes don’t use any of the methods described above. Much depends on the subject, the color of the paper, the type of paper, and how much time I have to finish.

And as I’ve said about so many other topics, there really is no one-size-fits-all way to start a drawing.

But I hope you’ll find a method that works for you among those I described above.

If not, I hope you’ve at least discovered some ideas that get you started looking for your own best ways to start your animal drawings.

3 Replies to “How I Usually Start an Animal Drawing”

  1. I had an idea…. what about turning the photo you are using into a black and white or sepia version to better see where to put the umber under drawing? Then go back and work from it in color.

    1. Gail,

      That’s a good idea. I sometimes do that if a composition is very complex or when I’m having trouble seeing the values.

      I sometimes also convert a reference to gray scale for the same reason. Just to see the values without having to look through the color.

      But I save the color version and the gray scale or sepia versions as two files, so I don’t have to go back and forth. That way, I can scan or photograph the artwork at any time, convert it and compare it to the appropriate values only image without having to convert the reference again.

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