Understanding the “basic” whale will help you identify and sketch whales in the field. To help you do this, study the whale form below the water. Some portion of this form is exposed when the whale surfaces. To help you understand the whale structure, we will draw four baleen whales found of the California coast. By comparing the similarities and differences between these whales, you can get an idea of the typical whale form and where to look for differences between species. From top to bottom the species being illustrated are the Minke, Blue, Humpback, and Gray Whales.
Click on the first image to start a step-by-step side-show.
Start with light loose lines to block in the basic shape. The body form is a long oval.
Whale bodies taper at the front and back. Head shapes are variable. The taper in the tail starts near the dorsal fin and slope more on the top than the bottom. The taper is gradual in most species, but in the Blue Whale, the tail stalk remains thick for most of its length, then suddenly snaps to the tail: thick, thick, thick, thin! Note the sharp face of the Minke, the scooped throat of the Humpback, and the blunt face of the gray.
The shape of the pectoral fins are species specific. Note the long fins of the Humpback and the rounded fins of the Gray.
The shape of the flukes is also variable. The Minke and Blue have slender “T” shaped tails. The tails of the Gray and Humpback are deeper and more “Y” shaped.
Baleen whale mouths hook down under the eye. The line of the mouth will also be closer to the top of the head than the bottom.
Each whale also has its own nuances in the shape of the dorsal fins or other structures. The dorsal fin of the Minke is a tall crescent, that of the humpback is a sloping “mesa”, the Blue a smaller crescent and the Gray, a bump followed by a “ridge” of knuckles. Also note the Humpback’s warty head and “Kirk Douglass Chin”.
Humpback and Blue Whales have prominent throat groves. These are shorter in the Minke and fewer and hard to see in the Gray Whale.
Many Humpbacks have very dark backs with irregular white markings, often the edge of the pectoral fin is lined with white.
Other Humpbacks have more extensive white markings. The pectoral fin may be entirely white.
Blue Whales (not to scale) have an airbrushed smooth skin with minor mottling.
Gray Whales have gray skin with extensive encrustations of barnacles and whale lice. The skin is heavily scarred where the body has been scraped or barnacles have fallen off.
The Minke Whale is a stunner. Each individual has unique patterns of white and black airbrush swirls and lines. The pectoral fin has a distinctive white mark.