Sunday, December 27, 2009

Owl feathers and facial masks

Studies for the crucified owl painting and the current one.

Some thoughts on sketching feather coats. Even finding good ways of making thumbnails is hard with all the variety of coats, limbs, etc., but I think that certain feelings which are typical of an animal's appearence should be given even in the crudest doodle. Birds often give the impression that they are covered by few broad sheets rather than many individual feathers, so I prefer to sketch them like that.

The facial mask is the most typical feature of a barn owl. From the front is looks almost flat, but from the side it reveals a quite complex 3D shape.

(from Wikipedia)

I don't like drawing anthros with a true beak, so when drawing anthro birds I usually give them a mammal's mouth with the upper part of the beak on top of it. This gives them a very flexible mouth while keeping the appearance of a bird or a gryphon.

But for barn owls the proportions and the shape of the mask are important, they are a big part of the appeal to me. Barn owls also have a few feathers on both sides of the beak which hide away most of the mouth, so that the mask surface is smoother and it can do a better job of focusing sounds. For me small functional details like that one are part of the appeal of animals.

The head shape I've settled on is more or less this:

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Getting ready...

I'm taking a short break to fulfill Christmas duties, as you can see... all reindeer have a lot of work to do tomorrow!
Merry Christmas!

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Studies from last year - Gesture drawing for animals

Gesture drawing is a classical drawing exercise which is somewhat related to the line of action concept. The idea is to sketch human figures very quickly (like 30-45 seconds), without detail but trying to capture the essence of the pose/movement. has a very good Flash tool for that.

I wanted to do the same with animals, so I used a slideshow program to show random photos from my collection for 30-40 seconds each, and the first attempts sucked quite a lot - how can you draw an animal you have never studied before in just 30 seconds and have it not suck?

Boobies with Issues & deformed cats!

But later I go the point.

30 seconds are not enough to draw a body, you can only draw a few lines and shapes in that time. That's what gesture drawing is about - training the eye to break down poses and movement so it can quickly pick up the most important shapes and ignore the rest. It's learning to analyze a body without getting distracted by details like fur texture or colors.

Starting to figure it out?

Learning to see the individual shapes is as important as seeing the harmony of the whole body and it's even more important when you have to rely mostly on photos and videos, which is the only practical way to draw exotic animals on a regular basis. Photos are cluttered by useless details and this kind of exercise forces you to ignore it and look only at the essential stuff. Which makes it easier to learn and remember the looks of many different species.

Gesture drawing is well known in art academies but again I found almost nothing about doing this with animals. In future posts I'll review the artists I found who have studied the topic, however none of them has gone into much detail, even Glen Vilppu, who has done the most thorough studies of animal gestures so far. And nobody worked on truly exotic animals either - most artistic studies of animals are limited to horses and a handful of other common animals.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

"Harvest Moon" WIP 1

With witches being associated to owls I liked the idea of an anthro barn owl witch. I wanted to make a painting of such a witch with a large moon behind her, but couldn't come up with a good concept. I made many attempts to sketch a night scene with a very large and bright moon. Point of view from the bottom, as if the viewer were a scared paesant and the owl (with cape) was casting a spell on him with a meancing claw gesture.

Boring. The owl should be naked and display lush feathers, for a start. Naked owl girls are better.

But it's just a random character striking an odd pose and "casting a spell"... meh.

I found the right idea (right for me anyway!) thinking less about magic and more about the role of owls in farm life. Owls have been hunting pests like rats in our fields for millennia, along with cats and many small predators like snakes and foxes. Before pesticides were introduced their hunting skills saved countless humans from famines and diseases brought on by rodents. In spite of this many humans were quite ungrateful and considered owls to be evil spirits and signs of ill omen...

So I'll paint an owl which looks a bit like a witch, because I still like the idea, but she is not casting any spells. She is just reminding proudly to the viewer that owls have done a lot to kill mice and protect our crops. She is sorrounded by a flock of barn owls standing on tree branches, each holding a dead mouse in the beak.

I no longer do precise sketches before a painting because it's very hard to copy a precise sketch to the canvas, but this is a body shape I'm not familiar with and I wanted her to have a rounded look which reminded a caped figure, so I did an accurate sketch of her, and also plans for the owls on the background:

Wednesday, December 9, 2009


Back from a day of fundraising for the WWF. My local group is selling animal figurines crafted in Ecuador from dried nuts of the Tagua tree. Some of them are quite interesting because you can tell exatly which species they are, in spite of being exotic animals stylized in an unusual way.

This is a very recognizable frigate bird. The dots on the front even remind the sparse feathers seen at the borders of the bird's air sac when it is inflated:

This is especially interesting. The black spots are enough to make me think of an orca immediately, even though the orca pattern is very different from this one. Without the spots it would look like a weird generic whale, but the most well known cetacean with a visible black pattern is the orca, so even a small spot immediately reminds of it. The rounded forehead and the shape of the muzzle also are very similar to an orca's, even thought the proportions of the rest of the body are warped.

A porcupine. I don't know them well enough to tell if it's one species in particular but it's carefully carved to show that the spikes only cover the front part of the body.

The design of this one is just amazing. I wonder how many western artists could come up with such a beautiful stylization of an insect. There were two kind of grasshopper figurines, very similar but with different heads, so again I wouldn't be surprised if they were based on two particular species from Ecuador. They show well that the author is familiar with all sort of critters and is used to observe them closely.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Studies from last year - More line of action ideas

That's a tern photographed with a high speed camera. She was caught during an extremely complex movement which involves most parts of her body, and that's the kind of motion which makes a tern look like a master of flight and not a chicken. They are probably the most skilled fliers in the world along with hawks and owls.

How do you even begin to study poses like this one?

These were my early attemps to extract LOAs from photos of birds (last part of the batch of sketches with crappy text, I swear!):

When birds are perched the tail is often an important line.

I tried to reduce each pose to a minimum number of lines (in red, the red number is the lines count). But the resulting stick figure has nothing to do with the original, if you look at the red lines alone you could never tell they represent a bird during a wing beat...

Often the most visible lines of birds in flight are the edges of wings and in fact birds are often simplified like this:

That's easy to recognize but also very anonymous. The supreme elegance of the tern's wingbeat is gone.

These are new from yesterday, tried again with the tern photo:


The right one is the best I got so far, I'd start from a scheme like this to design a tern in flight. It's very different from a classic LOAs scheme, but it's just three lines and it keeps the lines and proportions I see as most evident in the photo. The left one looks odd because the wing line on the right is too parallel to the body line; both the left one and the center one show the body too large so it doesn't look like a tiny bird at all.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

"Crucifige" finished

I added on the owl's body mor thin glazes of gray, gray + ultramarine and gray + natural sienna, with different value depending on the spot. I worked especially around the facial mask which looked weird. I also added more layers to the background (gray, sienna, magenta) but it looked a bit dull and confusing, so I later decided to cover it completely with desaturated magenta, and also darken the areas of black + ultrmarine on the top and bottom right.

And this is the final version, after adding more glazing (especially sienna on the body and wings) and puttin gin more pure white for highlights and black/dark grey + ultramarine for deep shadows:

Color corrected to look more like the real one, although its look depends a lot on the lights of the room.

PS: just found a photo of the real thing...

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Studies from last year - Line of action for animals

I first learned about the "Line of Action" (shortened "LOA" in my notes) reading John K.'s excellent animation blog ( ). The concept is summed up in this picture by Preston Blair:

Arguably the most dynamic-looking poses are those which can be synthesized with just one or two lines of this kind. There is much information about using LOAs to draw human and human-like bodies in motion, but I couldn't find much about using it for animal motion, such as running horses or birds in flight seen from od angles.

So I found it very instructive to study animal photos and decide out which lines stand out in each pose for me. They are the lines which might serve as LOAs for drawing that pose. (Sorry for the unreadable notes in the pictures - these were the last sketches I did like that before sticking to uppercase.)

Solid red lines are the lines I see most prominent in the original. Dashed red lines are the ones I used, which I thought made the pose slightly better looking.

Things I noticed in these first experiments:
- Drawing with LOAs in mind is useful when using photos as references, to avoid the temptation of just copying exactly the photo.
- If at the end of the main line there is a part of the body pointing in a different direction, e.g. a muzzle or a limb, it adds to the feeling of movement. See the bats and dolphin. If the muzzles followed the solid line the bodies would look a bit too simple.
- Making a LOA turn into a spiral is necessary to draw certain animal bodies, especially when odd tails are involved. There is no way to draw a nice chamaleon using just the Blair rule of slightly curved lines...

Monday, November 23, 2009

First post!

This new blog is for sharing sketches and studies. My old blog is still visible on but will no longer be updated. I used to post mostly finished art there, but that wasn't very useful, so I got better organized to share pictures all the way from the initial idea to the finished piece, and also ideas which might not make it to a finished picture.

Also I did a lot of basic exercise during 2009 - life drawing, composition studies on animals, etc. - and I'll be scanning and posting them along with the current pictures. I hope this will be interesting for other artists who are facing the same problems I wonder about when I draw animals and anthro animals, for example how to exploit tails and wings for composition, how to apply the classical rules of composition to animal bodies without distorting them too much, how to make an animal's species recognizable in spite of stylization, and so on.

But first some work in progress on next painting!

In some country areas there is this stupid tradition of nailing owls to the barn doors in order to keep back the devil and ill luck. Probably it is still done in some places. Not sure how it is done in reality, but I got this idea of an owl nailed by the wings, as it reminds a lot of a cruficied human.

The preliminary sketches. Nowadays I decide almost all details of the pose with thumbnails and geometry studies like these, especially when I'm not sure about the anatomy of what I'm drawing. Started out trying to do a profile but the final version is shown at an angle so the wings and the expression can be quite visible.

Copied by sight on the canvas, on a basic desaturated underpainting. Since most of the plkumage is white I started by deciding where the highlights will go exactly. This painting is done in acrylic gouaghe. I need to work on colors so I'm using a simple palette: titanium white, PBk11 black, natural sienna, ultramarine, plus bits of quinacridone magenta.

The first approximation of shadows and main shapes, for now I'm using mostly black and white with a bit of sienna.

I lost some control after that as I'm not yet able to handle value gradients well. Also the strong highlights should have been left for later. I'll continue from here trying to improve that - also the flash of the camera is disrupting the colors though, the white and blue are not so blinding in RL!