When Things Don’t Go Your Way: Sketching Animals (at the Fair, or Anywhere)

September 13, 2009


Above: Chicken sketches made during the Minnesota State Fair Sketch Out. I started with the sketch at the left but when that chicken became totally frantic over what was happening in the next crate I moved on down the line. On the right I did a quick sketch of a large rooster to get a feel for the shape and proportions. I then took some notes and left space for my admissions ticket—which I glued in place that night. Faber-Castell Albrecht Dürer Watercolor Pencils used dry on 9 x 7 inch piece of Fabriano Artistico 300 lb. HP watercolor paper.

One of the exciting things about sketching animals, whether or not you’re at the Fair or a Zoo or at home or at a dog park, is that animals do the unexpected.

You can let this frustrate you and end your sketching session, or you can keep working and learn something. You all know which I favor.

I want to encourage you all to give in to the moment and really look at the animal before you, hear and smell its breath (unless it is of the large predator variety and then get the hell out of there) and settle into its rhythms.

Don’t try to sketch right away. Watch. Watch. Watch. Then when you do start to sketch you’ll have a sense of how the animal is moving. I've written about sketching at zoos where the animals often follow a pattern of movement. This allows you to start several sketches in rotation on your page, and work on each for a few seconds as the animal passes that position again. In enclosed spaces like barns or animal pens animals will also repeat positions and behaviors in a smaller area.

As you watch an animal be aware of your own energy. Are you agitated and overly excited? Frustrated and nervous? Take a deep breath and calm yourself down. Animals pick up on energy and will get nervous (maybe even panicked).

Let go of the need to create a finished piece. If you do manage that it’s a plus. If you don’t you will still have a lot of observation time put in. You will still end up with a lot of reference material. Even gesture sketches that look like nothing to anyone else will be valuable to you when you recall the day and the animal’s aspect. Every moment you put into that observational phase will help you the next time you sketch out with animals (or people for that matter). It’s all valuable.

And all this time you spend watching, then making sketches that are unfinished, making gesture sketches—all of this prepares you for being better able to judge that moment to start sketching the next time you’re out. It all helps you find the moment that leads to the finished sketch.

Students are always talking to me about issues of perfection. They detail conversations with internal critics that are immobilizing. I tell them to turn that off, to let it go. Come up with a code word if you have to which will get your mind back focusing on the task at hand (observation) instead of critical commentary about your sketch. You might tell the critic in you left brain to just “stop it.” You might tell that critic you’ll listen when you get home that night and look at your drawings, but for now you just have to keep drawing because you aren’t finished yet and the comments aren’t appropriate.

It doesn’t matter what you do to turn off that naysaying voice. Just turn it off. And if it switches on again, switch it off again. As many times as it takes. You have more important things to do than listen to it: you need to be sketching.

090901ISheep Left: Sheep barn sketches. Everyone petted the one sheep I had picked to sketch (center). Since I was standing well back this not only blocked my view it made the sheep change her position constantly. I ended up doing the other quick sketches around the page. I focused on little details that interested me, like the deck of hair on the sheep at the top left, and her soft eye and the dark, rolled recesses of her ear; or the E.T. like neck of the original sheep I had been sketching (top right). One of the other Sketch Out participants was nearby and pointed out the man sleeping on the hay bales. “I’ve just drawn him in the judging audience, also sleeping,” he said. We both drew him quickly in this position, despite the fact that pen fencing and poles blocked much of our view. Faber-Castell Albrecht Dürer Watercolor Pencils used dry on 9 x 7 inch piece of Fabriano Artistico 300 lb. HP watercolor paper.

In part it’s about momentum. If you allow your internal critic to start a chat with you while the clock is ticking, chances are you won’t finish much of anything. Keep going, keep sketching.

Embrace your false starts and unfinished sketches as part of the process and your internal critic won’t have a way to get in to stop your process. It's time to void your internal critic's all access pass.

Certainly there is a time to apply a critical eye to your work, but in sketching that time is at the end of the process. You can plan and give a thought or two to composition before you jump in, yes that type of analysis is possible and appropriate, but then it’s all about observation. Until you’re finished.

Keep that in mind the next time you sketch out with moveable subjects. You’ll find yourself going out more and more. Your happiness level will increase. Your journal pages will show the joy and energy of your journey.

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