Drawing at Zoos and Aquariums
…or “How to Become a Bullet Proof Artist.”
I love drawing at zoos and aquariums. However, the first time I tried was one year ago and I hated it, at first.
I was coming off an arm injury and still had pain in my elbow and fingers. I hadn’t drawn from life since college, and the day I chose to get back on track turned out to be Princess Day at the zoo.
Parents, stay with me. There’s a happy ending. 🙂
I was uncomfortable and nervous to start and then about 100 extremely excited children and their families flooded the exhibits 15 mins after I’d arrived. I had a mini mental meltdown and nearly walked out in the first hour. I knew there would be crowds, but this was epic. Needless say, it was most definitely a trial by fire, which I am happy to have endured.
I bring this story up because it taught me, in one intense session, the core of drawing at public places in general.
This is what I learned from Princess Day – and days after.
1) It will always be overwhelming at first, even on slow days.
There are lots of people, new lighting conditions, new sounds, new smells, and new sights. Take a deep breath and try to focus on your drawing. Try not to think too much. Try to live in a little world with your drawing. These first ones are warm ups. If you are like me, you will feel all sorts of uncomfortable, nervous, and rusty.
2) Your first few drawings will probably suck.
It’s okay, there are dozens of unfamiliar things around you. Just keep drawing, and don’t give up.
I go through an uncomfortable period at the start of every single drawing session and it’s a lot worse if I’m at a public place. Work through it. It does pass. Mine lasts about 30 mins now. On Princess Day, I think it was a solid 3 hours before I relaxed.
3) Animals have habits.
Lots of times animals will move around in the same pattern. If you’re drawing mammals, they’ll probably move their head, and then move it back. They might walk away and then walk right back to a similar spot (fish do this too). You need to be patient. Draw, wait for the animal to return to it’s original position, draw, repeat. This doesn’t work all the time, but it’s important to wait for a few minutes after the animal “ruined your pose”. They might go right back to it.
4) Start with easy animals to draw.
Right out of the gate, don’t go for the tiny reef fish, the playing monkeys, the swimming otters, or the hyper birds. Start with easy stuff. My zoo has farm animals and it was my first decent sketch of a goat that kept me drawing. Draw pigs, cows, and sheep. Reptiles are usually great to draw because reptiles don’t move unless they have too. Draw anything that’s asleep. If you’re near fish, draw the bottom dwelling fish and fish that hunt by staying still.
Alternatively, working from stuffed animals at museums is another great way to get started, which is what I did here.
5) Once you feel comfortable, draw some faster animals.
But be ready for gestures! Faster animals are a whole new game.
6) Take a photo for touchups at home
If you want. I like doing this because you can do the most Important parts of the drawing from life and add things like shading at home, while chilling on the couch. This method also lets me draw more creatures done since I don’t waste time on site.
7) Its not critical for studies, but it’s not a bad idea to think about arranging the animals in a cool way on the page.
Draw one animal or view of an animal to be the focal point, draw everything else to enhance it. Basic composition will make your studies more appealing.
…or just say “screw that” and focus on your anatomy and proportion (more important anyway)
8) Get a Nomad
You can get one here.
This is the best sketching-related purchase I have ever made. I’m serious. If you treat yourself to one item, have it be this one. It’s worth every cent. I can sketch comfortably anywhere now. Plus it makes you look super professional and people will respect you more. No more kicked shins or shoulder checks. (No worries if the expense is simply too much, I have cheaper options in the links on the bottom of the post.)
My Nomad setup for my first outdoor zoo sketch session of 2016.
9) Draw with pens
Don’t be timid and don’t move backwards. A pen won’t let you erase it, so the only way to fix a mistake is to keep moving forward. These animals are moving, you have no time to look back and erase.
10) Buy a Membership Pass
All the places near me will let you put the cost of your day ticket into the purchase of a yearly pass. It just makes it easier to go all the time, and you also get an added bonus of members only events.
If you’re near the New England Aquarium, I highly recommend this. Their member events from 6:30-9pm are a fantastic time to draw the fish. Everyone is kind and excited to see your sketches. I’m so excited to go to more. But check all the zoos, museums, and aquariums near you for this sort of thing. They all have it, with various levels of cool perks.
11) Know thyself
Overwhelmed? It’s time to move to a quieter area. There are always quieter areas. Find them. Other people paid to be there too. You can’t quit and leave though. Take a lunch break or spend some time simply looking at the exhibits. Do what you need to do to keep drawing.
12) Don’t stop going!
It gets easier with practice. Now I can draw while talking to kids and parents about what I’m drawing, and I sincerely enjoying doing it because I’m excited about drawing animals. I’m grateful to have reached a point where I can communicate that to others.
As a note, little kids will always come over to you, way more than adults. If you can, as I can now, show them your work, because we should all be good to each other and that’ll make them happy.
13) Bring water and snacks.
Being thirsty and hungry makes for bad drawings. I bring two big water bottles, but I fill them with tea because that’s how I roll. Keep one bottle in the car for the ride home. I like energy bars for a snack since they fit in a pocket. Often, memberships will get you a discount to the food court too – if they have one.
Do you have any tips for drawing at the zoo or the aquarium? Have any interesting or funny stories about drawing on location? Post them here!
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How to Win at Creative Adult – The Two List Method
After hours Members Only Event at the New England Aquarium this year. It was a fantastic time, with a lot of cool people and creatures.
But, why? Why should I go through the trouble of drawing from life?
Every professional artist well tell you that drawing from life is super important and in 3 bullet points I’ll break it down why it’s important for me.
1) No noodling – aka No obsessing over details that don’t matter. The pose will end, the animal will move, the facility will close, and you don’t have time to get lost in insignificant details. This is very important for getting the “core” of the drawing correct and that’s the most important part.
2) Huh? I didn’t realize it actually looks like that – Our brains are liars. Working from life makes us see what’s actually there.
3) Bullet proof artist – if you can draw in the sun, while thirsty, with screaming kids, near barking dogs, in a sea of sweaty humans who just don’t smell that great anymore, you can draw anywhere. (It’s usually not that bad, but if it is, be sure to go find a quieter place if you need to)
Why is drawing from life or on location important to you?
Besides my nomad, this is what I take with me.
If you’re looking for a good art bag but can’t afford a Nomad, I’d recommend these. I own the backpack – for long hikes – and a very similar messenger bag – for shorter ventures. Both are great!