How to draw animals: 55 brilliant tips

16 of our favourite illustrators discuss the techniques they use to create incredible animal artworks – whether digitally or using pens, pencils or brushes.


[The secret to creating great illustrations of animals is] getting their essence down on paper and not making them lifeless. Sometimes when I try to represent them too accurately they become a bit soulless. It's only when I add in some of my own designed visual language that they start to take on a life of their own.

Owen Davey (UK)

Draw animals with shapes and try to think of their body or head shapes as a whole before getting into the nitty gritty details. Once you have the overarching shape of them pinned down, the rest comes much easier, and you don't end up with a strange skew-whiff version of the creature.

Owen Davey (UK)


I pretty much always work from a collection of reference materials. Never work from one, because you may stumble into copyright issues, or at a more basic level, have accidentally chosen a weird-looking animal that is not representative of it's species in terms of colouration or something.

I tend to collect visual reference from documentaries, films, books and the internet. Sometimes I collect reference of poses from similar shaped animals to help me get exactly what I want from the creature I'm illustrating.

Owen Davey (UK)

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When illustrating animals I always sketch them out first. I like to try and think in shapes as I work. To try and simplify down their essential features whilst I draw them. It makes it much easier for when I move into the digital phase, working with Photoshop to render them.

Owen Davey (UK)


I find it interesting to think about the negative space something occupies, whether that be an object or an animal. You could begin an illustration by drawing the shape around an animal, rather than the animal itself. I really enjoy adding pattern to animals, such as spots and stripes, so it was fun to add in these extra details once I’d finished the shape of the leopard.

Lorna Scobie (UK)


Practice drawing animals from real life to get a greater sense of how they carry their weight and move about. Animals are all around us, so although it’s interesting to draw exotic animals when it’s possible, don’t forget pets and birds - even pigeons can make good subjects.

Lorna Scobie (UK)

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Rather than focusing too much on whether the animal is proportionally correct or realistic, you could explore the personality of the individual animal you are drawing. This could be shown in their posture - perhaps they are grumpy and, so lower their shoulders slightly.

The materials and technique you use can help express the personality of your animal. If they are energetic and full of mischief perhaps you work quickly with oil pastel to create a very gestural drawing. If they are neat and calm perhaps a simple watercolour and careful line.

Lorna Scobie (UK)


Animals are, of course, very complex. You might want to break your drawing of an animal  down into it’s simplest forms and shapes. With this snake, I didn’t look at any reference material, but focused instead on what makes a snake, a snake. I associated black, red and white stripes, a flexible body and a forked tongue with snakes, so this is all I drew. In fact… I didn’t even draw the white stripe, so it became an even simpler image. Sometimes it’s effective to just draw the essence of an animal.

Lorna Scobie (UK)


When I was illustrating The Variety of Life – a book about the natural world written by Nicola Davies – it was very important that the animals were anatomically accurate as the text highlighted specific species. So through research, I identified the individual characteristics that made each species unique. Some had particular markings or shape to their face, so I was sure to include this in my drawing.

When your animal drawings need to be accurate, it might be useful to also look at different ages and genders, as this can have an effect on how the animal looks. Rather than just a ‘penguin’, what type of penguin are you drawing? What age is it and what gender?

Lorna Scobie (UK)

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If you are drawing lots of animals on one page, it could be useful to choose your colour palette before you start. You could limit yourself to 3 or 4 colours for a very graphic, striking image, or perhaps you choose many colours, and create an image full of life.

As I was working on this under the sea painting, I tried to make sure there wasn’t too much of one colour in each area, to keep it balanced.

Lorna Scobie (UK)


I create all my drawings by hand, using a variety of materials. I like to draw the basic shape of the animal in something like ink or watercolour, as it means I can fill out the mass quite quickly. I then like adding details - facial features and texture - with finer materials like a sharp pencil or ink pen.

Working on paper means you can work quite spontaneously and ‘happy accidents’ can occur which is great. Some ink might smudge and then suddenly… you have a monkey with a hairstyle you’d never have expected.

Lorna Scobie (UK)


For me, I find drawing legs super challenging when drawing animals realistically. That’s why photo referencing and really studying the anatomy of the animal you are drawing is so important. You want to make sure all those joints are in the right place.

Natasha Durley (UK)

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I begin by working out the basic structure of the animal. The aim is to strip it down to a few key shapes that not only represent the animal but also work well as a composition. Character is so important when bringing life to an animal drawing. For me, this comes in the final stages when adding the texture.

A few tweaks around the eyes and mouth can transform a drawing from something quite flat to something that looks like it could get up and move around. One of my favourite parts of illustration is playing with colour. I usually steer towards the bright and saturated side of things as I just enjoy fun playful colour palettes.

Natasha Durley (UK)


It would be nice to get out into nature and draw from real life but in a busy working day, that’s not always possible. I usually draw from reference materials, using a combination of photographs and old scientific illustrations. I have watched a lot of animal documentaries in my time so that helps understand the way an animal looks and moves

Natasha Durley (UK)


After completing initial sketches, I begin scanning both found and hand made textures that I think relate to the animal I’m drawing. I primarily work in Photoshop, where I draw out the basic block shapes in flat colours.

Then comes the fun part. I layer up my textures and tweak the colours until I’m happy with the final feel.

Natasha Durley (UK)

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Nowadays I sketch on a Wacom Cintiq, I think the first sketch is the most important, however rough and unfinished it is, it’s where you can get a sense off movement and character before refining the final drawing.

Tim Bradford (UK)


Draw quick thumbnail sketches, don’t be precious try to get down what you want quickly, then enlarge the best one(s) and use that as a model to improve on, redraw three or four times if need be this is all part of the learning process and will bring out your own unique drawing style.

Tim Bradford (UK)


I like to simplify my characters so every line and shape has to have the right balance and form, I play around with proportion to convey different things about the characters, whether I want them to appear slow or fast, happy or stupid a lot of this can be achieved by how bulky they are or where you put their facial features.

Tim Bradford (UK)

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I love angles and curves, I test things out all the time, does it look good if a bacoon has a square shoulder or a rounded nose?… sometimes a little tweak here and there can give a character so much attitude.

Tim Bradford (UK)


I like to create a simple shape using photographs as reference. I find adding in a few lines which are 'cut in' to the shape adds interest.

Naomi Wilkinson (UK)


Don't get too hung up on using colours that are accurate to nature; especially when the animals are slightly anthropomorphised. Using a limited palette when depicting a large range of animals helps keep the image cohesive.

Naomi Wilkinson (UK)

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If you're using photographs as reference material make sure you look at a range including photos with the animals moving.

Naomi Wilkinson (UK)


I start by creating a mashup of photographs of the chosen subject, I manipulate, merge and create something different to everything I put in. I’ll then draw directly from that with a Pentel pencil or a thicker softer one depending on the texture I’m aiming for.

Jamie Mitchell (UK)


I scan it in, using a setting I’ve honed to get the best from my drawings. Add colour to the point where it feels finished, using textures, overlays and painting directly onto it and changing the opacity to ensure it’s not overbearing. I struggle to draw something unless I can see it. I like to include a lot of detail, and it’s hard if you’re making it up.

Jamie Mitchell (UK)

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I love animals. The thought behind my illustrations normally goes something like this: ‘okay, I like this animal, what could it be doing in my drawing?’ I always pick the animal first. I like to have a zingy colour involved too, so I usually try and pick an object or an item of clothing which will contrast with their natural colour.

Jamie Mitchell (UK)


Life drawing practice is really important. It trains your eye-hand-mind coordination. After that, it's mostly finding and using the right reference images, and knowing how to interpret those reference images into illustrations that are then usable for animation (or otherwise).

Lilian Darmono (Australia)


It's important to draw what you can see, not just what you know, or even worse, what you think you know, but in the case of not being able to find the right pose for the image you're trying to create, you need to know how to extrapolate what images you can find, into something usable in your mind.

Knowing basic anatomy, mechanics of joint and wings, and things like that, is very, very useful. I go to zoos a lot in my spare time, not even drawing things from life, but just taking photos a lot, and seeing and staring without the pressure of having to record what I see.

Lilian Darmono (Australia)

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First of all I gather reference materials. Photos, clips, videos, wikipedia entry, and so on. It's important to get the right info of the species, including behaviour. With human characters I tend to secretly name each person I draw, and give them little backstories in my head, I think it really helps with context and making them feel real.

This is the same with animals. What are their preoccupations? What do they like? What are they scared of? And so on.

Lilian Darmono (Australia)


After that, I usually either sketch directly in  Adobe Photoshop, or draw lots and lots of rough sketches with pencil on paper, to find a pose that I like. Once I get that, I either redraw it roughly again in Photoshop, or scan and trace it in Illustrator, then export the layers to Photoshop for final texturing and any other adjustments.

Almost always I start with Illustrator, then move on to Photoshop after the sketch round is done.

Lilian Darmono (Australia)


I bring out an animal’s character through pose, mostly, but also by adding other elements that are related to that species. It could be plants that make up its natural habitat, or other animals that are its prey or food. Nothing exists in isolation in nature, so you have to bear in mind exactly what sort of 'personality' this animal has, through the things it cannot live without.

Sometimes anthropomorphising works well too. Who would this animal be if it were a person? Try imagining what kind of person it would be. What sort of name it would give itself? What kind of music would it listen to? What kind of housemate would it make? Would it be the selfish type who eats all your food? Would it be the polite-but-deadly type? 

Lilian Darmono (Australia)

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The key to any successful animal Illustration is balance. For me, finding the right balance between the complexity of patterns, segments and colours is crucial. I tend to use a grid of geometric shapes to construct my composition whilst using an invisible frame to place visual elements around my drawing.  

Casiegraphics (Germany)


Focus on the eyes. Animals, like humans express themselves predominately through their eyes and their gaze. Giving enough expression in this area can really make or break the whole illustration.

Casiegraphics (Germany)


As a stylistic choice I tend to keep my illustrations within a maximum of five colours along with black and white. The colour selection is almost always performed during the initial sketching stage from my selection of swatches. As my sketching develops, the colour choices are ever-evolving alongside.

Casiegraphics (Germany)

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Invest in a good graphic tablet and editing software as they will be indispensable in the final stages of your illustration. Even if you are more of a fan of traditional techniques, any crucial final changes or adjustments can be made digitally during this part of the process.

Casiegraphics (Germany)


Sketching the characters first to see what I can come up with. When I am satisfied with the basic lines, I scan the rough pencil work and continue with Photoshop to refine it. Creating a setting – a world for the character to exist in comes next. Keeping things simple is one of my main concerns. When I make an illustration, I see the setting more like a theatrical stage and not as a whole world that I have to draw every tiny little detail.

Danny Chatzikonstantinou (Greece)


I digitally paint my artwork using Artrage and Photoshop. I use a lot of real life scanned paper because I love the texture and feel of it. When I finish with color, I remove the pencil work, as I don’t want it to be part of the illustration. Occasionally, I use a bit of collage in my work if I think it would be an improvement.

Danny Chatzikonstantinou (Greece)

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When I’m working on a narrative piece, like a kids book, I have to consider what the text is asking the characters to do and how much I might have to anthropomorphise them. For example a cow standing in a field is pretty straight forward, but if he’s later driving a car and dancing the lindy hop I need to work out how this can be anatomically possible and still retain some continuity.

Kate Hindley (UK)


Get out and about as much as you can – visit nature centres or local parks - you can never have too many references! Pinterest and Flickr are the best at-the-desk ways to find out which way horses legs bend, and discover new obscure animals that might spark ideas. The biggest challenge is often getting the anatomy right. I’ve found Youtube is a great resource to find videos of animals in motion.

Kate Hindley (UK)


I think fur and markings are good fun, and can really change the personality of your characters. Short dots and dashes usually denote short hair, whereas long strokes suggest something silkier or shaggy.

The medium you are drawing with will make a difference too. Something rough and bitty like a pencil crayon enlarged on the photocopier looks quite unkempt compared to shiny silky strokes make with a soft brush and ink.

Kate Hindley (UK)

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I often start with the ‘bare bones’ of a character; it’s basic shapes. I add the eyes and the mouth holding the expression I want and the body language is then drawn to support the facial expression.

I do ground them if necessary to help with where the weight of the character will be distributed and a simple shadow can do wonders.

Emma Levey (UK)


Drawing from life is really important. If you’re drawing animals it can be difficult to find the ones you want to draw or they often move too quickly to get them down on paper. This is good to capture the ‘essence’ of them but if you’re after detail then books, the internet and wildlife programmes are great tools to research animal traits and habits.

Emma Levey (UK)


When I first start on a new bird illustration, I use Google’s Image Search to try and get a feel for how the bird looks, and moves. I’ll spend a good while watching videos too and keeping my finger hovering over the pause button to capture an interesting angle. Once I’ve collected enough reference material I start sketching in Photoshop.

Andrew Lyon (France)

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I prefer to sketch digitally with my reference on the screen as it allows me to easily edit my sketches.

For me, the rough sketching phase is the most important part of building an illustration. If I’m not entirely satisfied which my thumbnail sketches I know that the illustration won’t work as a finished illustration.

Andrew Lyon (France)


I aim to capture the movement and elegance of a bird using simple forms rather than feel that I’m constrained by reality. I try to decide from looking at the reference material what feeling I want the bird to convey. In the case of my swan illustration it was elegance, so I built the bird in my sketches using long simple curves to reflect this.

Andrew Lyon (France)


Create a few basic geometric shapes and use them in combination to solve the animal’s form.  This may seem limiting at first but it’s incredible what you can make using a small arsenal of geometric shapes.  Limiting yourself with a set of ‘rules’ in this way means you have to come up with new and alternative solutions rather than just drawing something true to life.

MUTI (South Africa)

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Pay particular attention to proportions. If your chosen animal is something that is small or quite nimble, then make sure the features represent that: small paws or feet, dainty or pointed features to retain elegance and weight.

Marcus Reed (UK)


With larger animals, bigger bolder shapes to instil a sense of scale, power and size. Illustrating in a stylised way, I tend to think more in shapes and symmetry – creating geometric and angular shapes for a stronger defined look, which works well with this lion.

Marcus Reed (UK)


For creating muscle groups and definition, a good basic understanding of anatomy helps – as it does when drawing anything organic, human or animal. But like anything in life, you'll get better with practice.

Marcus Reed (UK)

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I always start a drawing by hand to find the essential characteristics of the animal. I use one or two colours to create depth – selecting colours that complement each other for strong visual impact – and make use of symmetry to repeat elements to speed the process up.

YoAz (France)


I principally work with Illustrator, using the pen tool and build up the illustration with geometric shapes, and visual symbols.

YoAz (France)


It helps to look at resource material. I usually begin by browsing old animal fact books and sometimes google image search, to view animals in different poses. Raw sketches come next as I begin to find the optimal reduced shape of the animal.

How geometric can I go without losing the typical animal shape? The difficulty is not to draw the animal like it is in reality, but how to reduce the forms whilst still recognising it.

Jamie Aspinall (CH)

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The second step is to turn the the draft into a wireframe vector drawing. At that point I am looking for the perfect shape and balance.

Jamie Aspinall (CH)


Next I colourise the animals in Illustrator. I add some gradient textures over the drawings to create depth and to make it more unique.

Jamie Aspinall (CH)


In this case, I then used the animals in a huge landscape forest illustration.

Jamie Aspinall (CH)

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