Camp & Draw: Sketching Animals from Life

By C. Wu

Why from life?

Along with videos, photos, and anatomy books, drawing from life is an important aspect of learning to draw animals. It’s frequently frustrating, as many models will not stay in the the same pose. Even so, life drawing is both valuable and enjoyable in achieving images that feel alive. You also directly reference your subject without photos, diagrams, or footage as the intermediate.


  • As animals in the wild that are approachable enough to draw can be hard to come by, places like zoos, farms, stables, aviaries, and homes with pets are ideal places in a pinch. (Below, my friend’s cat Milo is a willing but restless model.)


Tips for Sketching

  • Focus on gesture: lines of action and big shapes. Detail is hard, especially with moving animals. This also applies to drawing animals in general. A caseless pencil is helpful when filling out large blocks of color or shadow.
  • Starting out, it can help to find models that don’t move around very much. Sleeping animals are also easier to draw! The sitting rhino and the dozing lion were the easiest to draw at the zoo.
  • Be both quick and patient. Try to capture as much of an animal as you can before it moves, then start a new drawing. Often, animals will return to similar poses that can be used to resume previous drawings. Another possibility is to adjust drawings as you go. For example, I was drawing the paws of a resting lion when he moved his head. Since I hadn’t drawn much of the head yet, I erased what I had and drew the new position.
  • Don’t be afraid to leave unfinished, messy sketches. Sometimes they move too fast, never return to the position they were in when you began drawing, or disappear completely!
  • Capture action: while a still animal is the easiest to draw, it’s fun and interesting to challenge yourself to draw a moving animal, like a walking crane or a climbing baboon.
  • Take photos and videos. Sometimes a promising pose or movement is worth returning to after your drawing session. It also doesn’t hurt to look up more reference images to finish a drawing.


Drawing animals from life provides a first-hand perspective on their anatomy, movements, and behaviors—not to mention an excellent excuse to spend more time with a friend’s adorable cockatiel!  Share some of your experiences sketching animals from life below!