Monkeying About & Sketching the Seals – Learning to Draw at the Zoo

Spring time has finally arrived in Auckland City, and the time has come for some new hobbies other than huddling around in front of the fire, committed to a steady diet of red wine, cheese and crackers. Not, of course, that there is anything wrong with a nice brie – but it was time to get outside and enjoy the sunshine & freshly blooming flowers. Drawing is a hobby I have dabbled in throughout my whole life, having an artist for a mother; my partner on the other hand comes from a background of spending much of his life believing creativity didn’t run through his veins – not in an artistic sense. We have since been on a mission to prove it wrong, and to spend quality time together developing our drawing, sketching & doodling skills; with the aid of a special book  this has become an enjoyable and refreshing break from sitting at our laptops working on our business plans together.

Getting to know the animals in ways I hadn't known before was a real highlight - from the swinging spider monkey to the knobbly kneed flamingo.
Getting to know the animals in ways I hadn’t known before was a real highlight – from the swinging spider monkey to the knobbly kneed flamingo.

The Drawing Book

(Drawing Lab for Mixed-Media Artists: 52 Creative Exercises to Make Drawing Fun (Lab Series))

This little treasure chest of ideas removes the complications of drawing – no longer is it technical or about perfection, now it is entertaining, fun and enjoyable in a free & childlike sense. Working through the chapters it feels like a game, however without even realise it, the fundamentals of drawing are being taught, and skills are being developed. Beginning with animals – moving into people, places and beyond ; this book focuses on mixed media, and is a fantastic introduction to artistic styles, different tools, and interesting techniques you may not have thought of. A friend is a very talented mixed media artist – her studio is full of fascinating art books, and every visit to house ends in myself, child like daze, flicking through the pages of all her wonderous books, mesmorised at all the exciting new possibilities of art & creativity. This is exactly the position I was in when the ‘drawing lab’ first caught my eye.  I felt like I was in a candy store – page after page of eye catching illustrations,  I couldn’t get enough. I became obsessed – I must have this book! Fortunately, my very perceptive partner in life & crime picked up on my latest fascination and I received this book as a thoughtful birthday present. Ever since, we have been working through the exercises together; Him learning the joy that art & creativity can bring, and myself remembering a long lost hobby.

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Sketching at the zoo
Watching the movement of the creatures as you capture it with quick sketches is excellent drawing practice.

Learning to Draw at the Zoo

One of these particular drawing book exercises is titled ‘a day at the zoo’, and as the name suggests involved spending a very pleasant afternoon wandering around Auckland Zoo.  We packed out bags full of sketch books and mechanical pencils – nothing complicated or difficult to come by, and made a beeline for the zoo cafe to begin our exploration with a latte and game plan. This is a very quick & effective way to get good at sketching, understanding form, movement and practice blind contouring. All of the animals have such different shapes – begin with the semi circles of the tortise – the shapes patterned on its shell, the lines its wrinkles form .. an easy place to start and a wonderful ‘still life’ model, the tortoise isn’t going anywhere in a hurry. For the experts – the spider monkeys. Watch them dangle, weave, play and fight their way around ropes, trees and toys. They use their tails like little hands, and see if you can capture the pendulum motion as they swing across the ropes course, a series of many quick sketches will help you to understand movements in your drawings. There are many other animals to sketch of course, and they all bring their own shapes, lines, movements and challenges. My favourite thing to draw was the flamingo – I fell in love with these unusual birds and their chaotic honking, their graceful stilt-like balance, how they wobbled on their long knobbly knees and their  ballerina like movements. Their arched necks, fluffy pink feathers and scoop-like, curvy beaks were a delight to draw. I enjoyed how they would ‘pose for me’, holding positions long enough for me to capture their form, but moving often enough to keep things interesting. I pulled up a stool and watched the flamingos with my sketch pad in my lap; it only took 15 minutes of sketching for my abilities to noticeably  increase. Spending time to observe these odd creatures, listen to their sounds & watch their interaction gave me an insight into their personalities – all elements of my drawing that I wouldn’t have gained from a still photograph alone.

Tools you need The beauty of this exercise is that it’s entirely up to you, make it your own! You don’t need many things, and they are open to interpretation:

  1.  Something to draw on. I used a sketch book. I like ring bound ones sized A5 – convenient to carry around. It makes no difference though – draw on what YOU feel like – maybe you have an art journal, a sketch book, index cards or loose pieces of paper. Some people like to draw on card, others on watercolour paper. Be creative if you like: draw over old book pages, on napkins, on pieces of plaster board. This exercise is only limited by your own imagination!
  2. Something to draw with. I used a mechanical pencil for some drawings, and softer artists pencils for others. I captured movement in charcoal, but you can use whatever you want! What you draw WITH can be just as inventive as what you draw ON. Of course a pen or pencil is the most convenient thing to carry around, but don’t let that stop you: pens, crayons, pastels, felts, ink, paints, chalk – this is mixed media, and it’s all about YOU, use whatever you feel drawn 
  3. Something to draw. The zoo is a wonderful place to find a great selection of moving and playing animals. If you don’t have a xoo or the spare cash to visit one, try having a closer look at your local neighborhood. The duck pond at the park is full of bird-life, or maybe you have a friend you could visit who has a few different, interesting pets.

Other things to consider: Snacks or a picnic, plenty of water to drink, umbrella, sunscreen, portable chair/stool, camera & notepad for other interesting things you find.

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Even more reasons to draw at the zoo

  • It’s a date! Going with your significant other, potential love interest, friend or even children is a lovely day out, full of fresh air &  interesting conversation
  • See the animals in a whole new light: drawing animals allows you to see them in an entirely new light, and appreciate them for it. How often do we really look at animals? I would say, for most people, not often enough. When you are drawing your subject, you feel like you really get to know it – the way the creature moves, how it eats, whether it likes lounging in the sun or darting through the bushes with its playmate, you will gain a new understanding with this fascinating little creature that you have chosen to sketch.
  • Get some exercise: Our day trip to the zoo ended up spanning around 3-4 hours, and may have lasted longer if they didn’t close in the evenings! We spent a small amount of that time sitting, and a majority of it on the move – strolling around, looking at animals, pulling out our sketchbooks when we saw something of interest. Not quite high intensity cardio, but it certainly counts as good exercise & time outdoors getting much needed sunlight & oxygen.
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Going to draw at the zoo? Already done it? I would love to include some photos, stories and blog links to other people who have done this – so if you fit the description, send me an email or a tweet .

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