I get questions now and then asking for tips on how to make animals appear more expressive in their paintings, or in some cases how to dress them up as people like I do with my samurai animals.
Disclaimer: people go to school for this kind of thing, and I am not one of those people.
Also, there are a lot of different styles to anthropomorphism in art. For me, I don’t want to change the structure of the animal too much, but I understand that to put a kangaroo in dungarees, compromises will have to be made. So that’s my general approach; realism, but not at all costs.
Skeletal Structure and function.
In my opinion, if you want to make an animal appear more human without obliterating the animal structure, you have to understand how they’re put together. One of my pet-peeves is when someone basically draws a human figure, and then just sticks an animal head on it. That’s called a minotaur and mankind is still upset about it.
I think if you’re clever about it, you can make just about anything believable, but generally something that has recognizable humanoid features is going to help you out (arms, legs, toes and fingers, visible eyeballs, etc.). Just something to keep in mind.
I usually draw a few very rough sketches like this, to map out the basic structure and posture I have in mind. I keep these drawings around as reference for more substantial projects in the future.
Animals, even four legged ones, tend to carry their weight in focused regions. Dogs for example, carry most of their weight in their front legs. Their back legs are basically rudders and turbo boosters.
I find weight distribution helpful to ascertain early on because in drawing, weight is everything. Communicating weight effectively is what makes a drawing convincing or not.
If you’re going to change the structure of an animal so that they can stand up and hold a bazooka, think about where the animal’s weight normally is, and what changes you’ll have to make in order to make their new posture convincing.
I usually do a few sketches like these:
A hippo can become a ballerina, but you’ll have to stack their body convincingly so that their weight makes sense in this new posture. It’s not a perfect sketch, but it’s more convincing than if I’d just stacked them up carelessly.
Think of it like balancing rocks on the beach. If you put a lot of weight in one place, you need counteract it somewhere else in the figure.
Opposable thumbs are the worst.
Unless the animal you’re drawing is an ape of some kind, you’re going to run up against the issue of thumbs. There’s a reason we don’t see pandas opening jars, and it’s because they can’t.
Cartoonists have been solving this problem for years by just giving animals humanoid hands. I hate that.
It’s fine for the cartoons, I know Bugs Bunny needs his thumbs. But in my personal work, I like the challenge of trying to maintain as much structural integrity as I can.
But that still begs the question: how do you make a canine grip a sword handle?
Most terrestrial animals have a few digits to work with (you’re on your own with snakes and hoofed animals), that are laid out relatively similar to a human hand. Sort of.
I do a lot of side-by-side drawings of human hands and animal paws/claws/slimy-little-grippers/etc. I don’t focus on making it exactly accurate, I just like to try and keep the motions recognizable. Hands have attitude, transferring that ‘tude to the animal kingdom is fun.
Something like this:
I keep these little maps around for future reference.
If you want to see what I consider to be phenomenal “animal hands”, watch Zootopia, especially the Godfather scene:
I mean, look at this art. Incredible.
In all seriousness though, the art in that movie is my favorite and if you like this sort of thing, go watch it and keep your sketchbook handy. They’re the pros.
This is the fun part, I think. Just like with the figure and the hands, it’s helpful to do a lot of studies. I draw a lot of stuff like this:
These aren’t great, or even good, but I think you get the idea.
And it’s my experience that you can always tone it down once you ramp it up, but it’s hard to push the limits once you’re past the first or second draft. So start crazy. As you move through the iterations of your drawing, you can tone it down and find a facial expression that works for your project.
Alright, that’s it. I hope I didn’t break some sacred rules of cartooning over here. Just sharing some things I’ve figured out, and the fun challenges I’ve found on the way. Send me pictures of your animal drawings, I’d love to see them.
Unless you’re using this info to draw furries. Use this post however you like, but don’t e-mail me any furries. I’m not prepared for that.