Animal Studies:
Authenticity and Character

I grew up on a farm in New England, where my family kept horses, cows, pigs, dogs, cats, guinea pigs, and even a few fish. Larger predators like coyotes, bobcats, and bear were also in abundance, along with an endless array of songbirds, owls, deer, flying squirrels, mink, and chipmunks. I became familiar with the distinct personalities and individual habits of every creature I saw, whether wild or domesticated. When I wasn’t expected to be working in the barn (i.e., shoveling, brushing, polishing, cleaning, carrying, and so on), I became fascinated with drawing the animals that surrounded me every day.

This was especially true of the horses and cats. I’d sketch them whenever I had the chance, but after a few years, I found that my approach was becoming increasingly formulaic. At the very moment that improved technique began to support artistic freedom, I fell headlong into the trap of mindless replication. As a busy teenager with lots of homework and a schedule filled with activities, perhaps I was too distracted to take the necessary time with my drawings. As a young child, though—especially during the summer—I had taken all the time in the world.


Think of Dürer’s hare, or Rembrandt’s elephant. Neither animal would readily be confused with another of its kind; each stands alone, an individual in possession of its own character, its own inimitable essence. Only at second glance do we notice the unmatched quality of the work and the hyper-realistic detail—sometimes achieved by a counter-intuitive economy of line, sometimes by the fact that the artist simply allowed breath and life to enter the form. Our impression is received as a direct conveyance, from the artist’s mind to ours, of the animal’s true nature.  


Do you ever find yourself returning to rote gestures or shortcuts in your work? A lack of care and connection will be immediately obvious to your audience, and they will absorb, on some level, exactly how you felt when you created the piece.

To sidestep this issue, be sure to take all the time you need with each of your subjects. Never rush. Notice the life force of the animal, then identify opportunities with the potential to lead you forward in the areas of line, energy, vibrancy, and shadow. Become lost in your subject, relax, and let the work materialize in its own way. If the act of drawing is sacred and precious to you, authenticity becomes a given.

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