How to Draw Mammals

Mammals are exciting subjects to sketch and paint. We feel a deep kinship with other mammals and seem to find something of ourselves in their eyes. Because they can not fly away (well except for bats) many species hide during the day, coming out to feed at night. When you do find a mammal in the wild, take advantage of the moment and get sketching. Do not worry about making a pretty picture, try to learn something new. Learning how to draw mammals will open new doors to observation and discovery.

Having an understanding of mammal anatomy is tremendously helpful. Understand the skeleton and know a few of the most prominent muscles and how they show through the fur. Once you have the body blocked in and have identified the major muscle groups, you can attend to drawing the fur and other details of the body. Studying domestic pets is great practice for encounters with wildlife and is delightful in its own right.

This page gives you an overview of mammal drawing basics and links you to detailed tutorials for each step.

Start With A Fast Light Framework

Before adding a drop of detail, start with light guidelines that block in the posture, proportions, and the angles of the body contours. These early lines are some of the most important in the drawing but no one will ever see them. This is your chance to make sure that the legs are not too short, the body too long, or the head too big or to far away from the body. double and triple check these lines before you plunge into detail. A small correction at this stage in the drawing takes only seconds but can save the drawing. I have created step by step tutorials of my approach to creating this initial structure for a deer and a bear. Study the tutorials and the rationale behind each line and the differences between the two. Then modify this approach to suit your own drawing style. You do not have to follow this approach exactly but if you decide not to take one of these steps, be intentional and clear about your reasons. The process helps make sure you are checking important features and using an array of drawing techniques to get a great result with little time wasted. This approach also incorporates using negative space, the most powerful, and under used trick in the artist’s toolkit. Click to enlarge images.

The Skeleton

Compare the skeletal structure of the three basic mammal stances.  Learn the basic skeleton and how it differs in plantigrade, digitigrade, and unguligrade mammals. Click on one of the images below to enlarge the image and see a slide show of comparative skeletal anatomy.

The Muscular System

Compare the musculature of the three basic mammal stances. Click on one of the images below to enlarge the image and see a slide show of comparative muscular anatomy. For more detailed analysis of the muscles, download the muscle worksheet and follow the step by step tutorials in the anatomy blog posts for the bear, mountain lion, and deer.

How to Draw Fur

I have prepared three blog tutorials with step by step instructions to draw the fur of a bear (long hair), a mountain lion (medium length hair), and a deer (short hair). These demonstrate techniques with pencil and an overlay of watercolor. Here are a few of the key points to remember.

  1. Do not draw individual hairs, draw the pelt by showing the cracks between clumps of fur. The thicker and deeper the fur, the more prominent these cracks will become. Many mammals have particularly deep fur behind the thigh, along the belly, and in the front of the chest. Look for deep cracks in these areas.

    Vole showing out to in flicks or "Bill Berry marks", suggesting breaks in the fur.
    Vole showing out to in flicks or “Bill Berry marks”, suggesting breaks in the fur. Note that these marks are also used on internal contours such as around the head or the back of the folded forearm.
  2. Suggest breaks in the fur or cracks along the contour or edge of the animal by strategically placing out-to-in flicks or “Bill Berry lines” where the contour abruptly changes angle or where the fur stretches over a prominent bulge. Make little flicks of the pencil, heavier on the outside and flicking in. These are cracks not individual hairs, they are cracks in the fur. Avoid adding these marks all along the contour of the body and do not make them symmetrical either in size or spacing. Be consistently inconsistent.
  3. Suggest the shapes of muscles below the fur with shadows and highlights. Note how the highlight on the upper edge of the vole adds a lot of dimension.
  4. If the fur is glossy like that of a horse, add sharply contrasting highlights.



9 thoughts on “How to Draw Mammals

  1. georgette says:

    Hope Covid 19 ends soon because I would really love to learn from you at an in-person, live class.
    However, that being said, I had to kill during the quarantine and discovered your wonderful classes!
    Thanks for the great seminar and your generosity in sharing.

  2. Gloria says:

    Dear John,

    I am one of your fan from China. Your lesson is great, I go through many those already. I can’t find where to download the muscle worksheet so that I can practise to draw the muscle on the bone. Can you email the attachment, Thanks againfor your great lesson.

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