There article was originally published in DP 01 : 2019.
Earlier this year I was commissioned by the Munich Zoo to create forty plus illustrations for their new exhibit, the Hellabrunner Mühlendorf. Like most projects the client needed the artwork quickly and of high quality. When taking on a big project like this I print out e-mails and, with this one, a large .pdf-file the Zoo kindly sent me. I read through what they need, take notes, and highlight important information. This for me is a time to organize and plan plus to clear up anything that might be confusing. The zoo often wants a combination of realistic and stylized or artistic, so it is important to understand what look they want and which direction they feel it should go. Pro tip: Don’t be afraid to contact your clients to ask questions especially in those budding stages!
With the pressure of a tight dead line I still took time to do some research and collect references onthe animals and invertebrates they needed for the displays. The zoo was great and got me started with the references they had collected, which I saved along with all the pictures I found myself. I use Google Images and Pinterest when collecting references. Pinterest is nice because you are essentially creating a mood. The images are all saved online which makes it very easy to share with a client or co-worker when they request to see your references and inspiration.
After organizing the project, researching, and collecting references I then start the designing phase. Yes, finally! By this time, I am eager to get the pen to the paper. For the domesticated animals, I was given the direction to draw them all in a profile position facing left. I begin sometimes with studies of the animal, for example, for the MurnauWerdenfelser Rind I started with photograph studies. Depending on the deadline or how I’m feeling that day I will sometimes start with a quick pen sketch of the pose, then do a few studies. Because the zoo needs specific animal breeds it’s important that I take the time to do the research and studies. Being aware of specific details such as a white or creme snout along with black horn tips on the Murnau-Werdenfelser Rind, is important information for the final illustration. Knowledge is power when it comes to illustrating animals! When I have figured out an interesting pose that aligns with the specs given, I then scan or take a photo of the sketch and bring it into Photoshop. It’s a great tool for quickly adjusting problem areas that otherwise would have to be drawn out again traditionally (disclaimer: I do however recommend you learn how to fix problems by learning how to draw them correctly first! The reason using the lasso tool and warping works is because I know how to do just that. Photoshop is a tool, not a skill!). Using Photoshop, I move the legs, tweak features such as horns, and correct the proportions.
When the initial design for the animal is finished, I then print it out and transfer it to the final paper. For this project I used my scanner, an A3 LED light table, and good 300 lb (640 gsm) watercolor paper. Before the pencil hits the new paper, I print out all the helpful references for what I am wanting to capture in the final illustration. Having physical references when working traditionally is especially helpful because with a number of tangible images right in front of me I tend to make faster decisions about where my strokes go. After the project, my references and sketches are saved in large spiral folders which are easy to store, plus they will likely come in handy later. I then transfer the design to the final paper using two mechanical pencils, a .5 with B lead and a .7 with 2B lead. From here I add more information to the drawing using knowledge from teaching, research, my animal models, and the reference images.
Take a break
Before starting to ink, I like to let the drawings sit overnight. The reason for this is to give my eye and mind time away from the work. The next morning, I allow myself to be critical of things that need to be changed. It depends on the deadline, but I feel the time spent away from a piece is just as important as the time working on it. To me, it’s a lot like the silence in a symphony. You can’t have noise all the time. Do keep in mind, for this project I worked on multiple animals at once.
Now that the hard work – designing – is done, I can move on to the rendering stage. When I was in university, I found that the rendering part of picture making was the most daunting stage. However, I learned from my friend Joe Weatherly that if you take the time to plan, prep work as the rendering phase will more likely flow out of you. Mind you, this isn’t the case all the time! Some pieces are a struggle all the way up to the final mark. For the Mühlendorf project, I didn’t have much of a choice because of the time frame given. This is where the time spent on prep work and experience comes in. All those hours doing studies at the zoo, in museums, at home with models and skulls, sketching my daily sketches, and, yes, even drawing over students’ work again and again, this is the pay off.
Mapping the animal
It’s time to pour the ink, play that new audio book, and jump in! When I render, I use black ink and high quality brushes size 0 through 3. The ink is waterproof and resists erasing which is good for building up values. I begin with a light-middle value thinking about where the lighting is coming from and how it hits the form. When I teach my Animal Drawing courses, I show my students how to break down the animal into simple threedimensional shapes such as boxes, tombstone shapes, spheres, cylinders, cones, and so on. This approach helps to simplify an animal into something that is easy to remember. I begin by looking at the skeleton, then draw the basic forms, add the muscle groups and how they are in relation to the boney landmarks, then finish by adding the external anatomy such as fur, feathers, scales, etc. This method of drawing is, as mentioned above, all about the boney landmarks. This is where the bone is the closest to the surface on an animal and even on humans. Yes, we are vertebrate animals, too! This is what I consider the map of the animal and helps with gauging proportions and where muscle anatomy is placed, so their origins and insertions.
One also learns how the basic shapes connect to one another and how to draw through the drawing, which helps you understand what is happening on the other side. It’s one thing to look at a model and copy the shadow shapes. It is another when you can make good design choices by understanding the form and rendering the animal from the inside out. Again, the hard work pays off! This is the information going through my head while I am putting my ink washes down and building up the form with values. I work quickly when I want a wet on wet look or smooth transitions from one value to the next.
While making these urgent choices, I am thinking about the direction of the form. I work big to small because it helps the piece feel together. It sometimes is tempting to start only with the head, however it might look different, if you render the crap out of that area and then later go on to the body. Think of the animal as a whole. You are also designing the shadows and each stroke is there by intent. Yes, all of this while the audio book is playing and definitely with a hot cup of coffee.
When I am happy with the brush and ink stage, I then bust out (perhaps it isn’t that exciting) my fine liner ink pens. Because the zoo asked for each animal as a graphic, I added a light outline around the contour. It helps speed up the alpha channel (essentially creating a transparent background, so no white) separation process later.
When adding more detail to the design, I again want each mark to be intentional. To reiterate, beginning with big shapes and going to small is important. Think about the entire thing you are working on. Next comes the scanning! Each image was scanned as an RGB file at 300 dpi.
In Photoshop, I delete the white around the animal, creating a transparent ground, so that it is a clean graphic format as requested by the zoo. I then work with the levels to darken or lighten the values. From there I add a color to the inked image using a new layer, so I am not working on straight black to color. Working with dark, middle and light value colors for the underpainting is something I learned at university as a student.
I was also taught to be rather allergic to pure black, but one could argue this. Anyway, some old habits stick around.
When adding color to the inked image, I don’t have to worry about the value because it has already been established. For each color layer, I add a clipping mask so that it doesn’t go outside of the outlines. Hey, I was mentioning old habits above, and I suppose this comes from coloring in coloring books as a kid. Jokes aside, I allow play when working with the color. My background in painting traditionally and understanding how colors look and how they work together really comes in handy here. Due to the cow being a tan, almost orange brown I felt that a blue (complementary color) would look good in the shadow. I added more orange brown on top of the blue layer to desaturate it and some saturated red in the areas where blood flows to the surface such as the muzzle, wrists, utter of course, and ankle – very similar to that of a human. The next color added is yellow, almost raw sienna to pull the orange back. The last bit of color is again the tan orange brown and this time not being afraid to saturate that color up. I wanted her to look natural in all her cow glory!
If time allows, I again let the image sit overnight so I can look at it with fresh eyes in the morning. The other thing I do is ask trusted friends to look at my creations for feedback. I try to fit these two things in before sending any artwork to a client. Again, silence in a symphony.
At times, I am asked by the zoo to create stylized illustrations for merchandise and the information displays. Mainly information signage is to inform the visitors to do or not do something and must be eye-catching.
For the Humboldt Penguin illustration, I began with thumbnails as requested by the zoo. I first printed the email with the information on what the zoo needed, references they sent, and then created a Pinterest board just with Humboldt Penguins. Well, there might be a few Jackass Penguins in there! I chose not to do any studies before starting the thumbnailing because I didn’t want any details the animal has, such as color patterns or eye placement, to get in the way of designing. i sometimes feel that too much information can get in the way of a good design, so i must be careful here and just trust myself with the knowledge i already have. when generating ideas, i write along the edges of the paper and i try to get as many of them out of my head and onto the paper. some of them worked and some not, but that’s okay! the only way you are going to know if an idea works is to get it drawn out. (sometimes the things that pop in our heads seem awesome, but when on the paper they are not fully thought out, not fully matured. keep working with it!)
Terrible? Perhaps awesome soon …
If it’s good, then it goes into Photoshop for refining, and if not, don’t take it personal. Sometimes those not so good or even terrible ideas create the path to an even stronger composition. I remind myself as best as I can to stay open at this stage, so I don’t fall in love with the first idea in my head or drawn on the paper. In the end I selected five different ideas for the “Do Not Throw!” sign for them to choose from. Once I get feedback from the zoo, I start to collect more references that are more specific to the picture’s needs. With this illustration I found plenty of swimming penguins underwater photos and Youtube videos. I found some good video footage of penguins in enclosures swimming around. The other thing, much more specific, was collecting skull references, faces, and beaks that were opened. The face is the sweet spot, so taking the time to collect helpful pictures pays off!
With enough aides collected, I began my photograph studies of the skull and face. I focus on things like proportion, where the eye is placed, the shape of the eye, how the beak moves, the tip of the beak, the inside of the mouth, face patterns, and funny subtleties like where the nostril is placed. I usually visit the zoo to do on location studies, however it was cold and rainy when the job came in. Fortunately, I have done many studies and demos of these penguins in the past and was able to rely on previously stored references. As my instructor David Colman would tell us, “it’s all about mileage” and sometimes the mileage (or practice) from the past comes in pretty handy in more ways than one!
Let’s get serious with penguins
After spending some time on my sketchbook studies, I then proceeded onto the final painting. I created this image in Adobe Photoshop using my awesome, and somewhat aged 21” Cintiq. Yep, old school, I know, but hey, it’s all about the final image! I first set the canvas size to the A3 format as requested by the zoo. I then brought in the chosen sketch and resized it to fit the image size. I made a new group for the new drawing layers that went over the initial sketch but found that my first attempt at design was boring. Here, I moved a bit too fast – the face ended up being the focus and the body fell apart. When I find myself struggling with any final image, I like to look back at my original thumbnails and for this project the sketch that was chosen. Why was the original dynamic but not this pass at drawing? I stepped back from the Photoshop file and sat down to do some video studies of penguins swimming around. I had the time, so I used it to fix the boring composition. When I study from videos, I try my best to capture a pose that is similar to the one I imagined with the sketch. What I found is that the heads and necks move around when the animal is swimming and gauge the proportion space between the flippers (wings) and the head. I looked back at my first drawing again and found that the flippers (wings) were symmetrical and the head and neck were straight. How boring! But hey, it was a start. As mentioned before, it isn’t personal, and the first drawing helped set a course to the next. I remind myself especially in my sketch dailies that it is okay to start over, that it is okay to let go, and that the next drawing will be better. You will learn from each attempt, even in client work!
So instead of poking and trying to “polish a turd”, I started a new drawing by dropping in the color of the background in with the Paint Bucket tool first and then painting the new penguin. I left the body at a diagonal but pulled the neck and the head up. Much better! The other thing I did was pull the body of the penguin closer to the viewer in the picture plan, which helped break up the symmetry that was happening in the flippers (wings). I then proceeded to paint the water and found how much I enjoyed it. Being that the penguin was the focus of the illustration, I placed expectation on myself to design and render it well (which explains why the first pass wasn’t that great). The splashes, ripples, and bubbles didn’t have any expectations attached to them, which helped me go into rendering them with a relaxed and opened energy. I found myself curious and wondering how it all worked. That is sometimes hard to maintain in a project for a client. Time, pressure and expectations are going to be there and tend to blow things out of proportion. I know it sounds cheesy, but go with the flow. Keep your eyes open. Expect nothing and accept everything. I feel it’s an art in itself to know those willy expectations and let them go so you can enjoy the process of making the picture. Sometimes it just takes a few failed attempts. Or, just painting water and listening to the Sega CD “Ecco the Dolphin” Soundtrack.
I often draw from my childhood inspirations such as the game “Ecco”, or films like “Happy Feet” and “Surf’s Up”. I went back to rendering the penguin and things were flowing again. I added more information to the form of the animal, color, and really rendered out the face. Again, the face is the sweet spot! I looked at references I had collected to capture the texture of the beak and tongue, and to add life to the eye. When drawing animals, I find that doing extra studies on the ears, nose, mouth, and eyes adds so much to the piece. It’s just like practicing for drawing human portraits. We typically look to faces first, even in pictures with animals in them, so keep this in mind. I’ll also suggest here to do plenty of studies of the hands and feet, or hooves, and paws of any critter you want to illustrate or paint. The old masters did it too, plus bad hands and feet are just annoying. After the penguin was in a good place, I began to add more depth to the environment. I paint with big brushes at this stage, keeping my Photoshop file zoomed out. When the environment was good, I started to paint the bottle cap. It’s funny, I think, because the bottle cap had more layers than the penguin!