Animal Drawing: Anatomy and Action for Artists

Animal Drawing: Anatomy and Action for Artists

by Charles Knight

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A master of animal portraiture presents an extensive course in creating lifelike drawings of a host of creatures: great apes, tigers, lions, dogs, bears, horses, crocodiles, snakes, fish, and many others. Subjects include animal musculature, bone structure, psychology, movements, habits, and habitats. Suitable for commercial and fine artists, painters,


A master of animal portraiture presents an extensive course in creating lifelike drawings of a host of creatures: great apes, tigers, lions, dogs, bears, horses, crocodiles, snakes, fish, and many others. Subjects include animal musculature, bone structure, psychology, movements, habits, and habitats. Suitable for commercial and fine artists, painters, sculptors, and students. 123 illustrations.

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Anatomy and Action for Artists

By Charles R. Knight

Dover Publications, Inc.

Copyright © 1947 Charles R. Knight
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-486-31873-8



The word "mammal" is intended to convey the image of a warm-blooded, four-legged creature, usually covered with hair, and capable of most diversified size and proportions in the different species. Man himself belongs to this group, or order, of living things; but he and occasionally the higher apes walk not on all fours but erect on the hind pair of limbs, the arms being comparable to the forelegs of the rest of the mammalian order. As a consequence of this change of posture, certain anatomical features of man's make-up have altered slightly from the usual plan. Chief among these is the position and shape of the shoulder blades. In four-footed animals these bones stand almost upright or lean slightly inward in a normal pose—and are of great importance in the silhouette of the body, from either the front or the side view. In man, however, they lie across the back, being barely visible on the side profile, and are completely hidden when regarded from the frontal position. Apparently because of this (to us) unusual skeletal variation there is apt to be a certain vagueness in the mind of the student as to just how he should indicate the shoulder blades when he attempts to draw an animal. It is well to keep in mind as a guide to one's memory that most mammals walk on the toes of both their front and hind feet, in contrast to man, whose heels are planted firmly on the ground in walking or standing. Bears too exhibit a phase of this unique structural feature and are therefore able to stand and walk, on occasion, much after the fashion of a man, though it is of course not their usual mode of progression. A realization of the foregoing facts will be of great assistance in future study and will help to clarify many otherwise puzzling problems in animal anatomy. As we are now to observe the particular forms and peculiarities of various species and groups of mammals, it will be as well to emphasize the advantage of a certain method in our approach to the subject.

For the purpose of the artist, a profound knowledge of the deeper muscular anatomy is not absolutely necessary, though some of us may find pleasure and profit in such a line of research. What we should all like to know, however, is the general structure and proportions of the bony skeleton and the principal overlying sets of muscles that cover it at almost every point and control the actions of the bones themselves. The proposition before us really resolves into four or five divisions in the case of most of the animals under discussion, of which the following are typical examples.

1. The bony structure—its proportions and characteristic attitudes in the different species of animals.

2. The principal muscles and tendons covering this skeleton—their shapes, sizes, and general functions.

3. The actual appearance of a given animal in life—its color, hair disposition, and character—and the effect of the underlying structure on the exterior as a whole.

4. The psychology of the animal—a very important feature, for without accurate knowledge on this point we are unable to visualize properly the creature as a living emotional entity. Each species will naturally exhibit its own peculiar attributes in this respect.

5. The artistic possibilities of certain animals, some species being wonderful in color, others in form, still others in mere picturesqueness or grotesque qualities.

Animals are all solid, three-dimensional, animated beings and must be so regarded by the artist and treated accordingly in his paintings and models.

Great Apes and Other Monkeys

First and foremost among the mammals by reason of their close resemblance to man, both mentally and physically, are the great apes, who occupy a unique position in the animal world. Gorillas, chimpanzees, and orangutans are all most interesting creatures, highly developed on the mental plane and almost painfully like us in their skeletal and muscular anatomy. Outstanding among the group for size, bulk, and dramatic appearance is the great brute known as the gorilla. Found only in two or three highly restricted regions of Africa, this massive animal was long regarded as a more or less mythical being, and weird tales of its strength and ferocity were related by numerous travelers to the Dark Continent. They seem rather shy and retiring creatures in their heavily forested habitat in Africa, and the family usually consists of but a few individuals, an old male, a female or two, and perhaps several young. The males are truly enormous, weighing when adult as much as 500 pounds. As they mature, they become suspicious, morose, and at times aggressive.

At present there are several splendid male specimens in captivity, notably the great gorilla Bushman in the Lincoln Park Zoo, Chicago. A glance at my drawings of this beast will bear out my contention that for general devilish and sinister appearance he would be hard to surpass. Also, one sees how very man-like is his general anatomy, especially in the squatting position. The huge crest at the back of the head is characteristic of the adult male, and the thick, enormously powerful body and arms are well shown. The standing position, however, is not especially human; for he is resting on all four feet, the usual mammalian attitude, and furthermore he is supporting himself on the knuckles of his hands, the short thumb not touching the ground. The gorilla can and quite often does assume the erect position characteristic of man, but in this pose he is unable to remain upright for any length of time and is not fully able to step boldly forward from the hips but instead shuffles about in a very awkward and inefficient manner. Note also the widely splayed great toe on the hind foot, set off so boldly from the other four digits.

Incidentally, after several harrowing experiences with this dour individual I can assure the student that in drawing some of these savage and morose creatures one really becomes a martyr to the cause of art. Fortunately for the public, a thick glass screen serves as a protection from the shower of fruit, vegetables, and everything else movable that issues from Bushman's cage whenever he is annoyed or irritated. This deplorable condition is becoming chronic with him as he grows older. During my last visit, I was obliged to draw him from the front of his cage instead of at the back as formerly. He was indeed a most alert, cranky, suspicious beast, and really dangerous too, rushing at me when I approached the bars, beating his great breast with his powerful clenched hands, and hurling or rather pushing out at me with lightning speed everything he could find at the moment. It was a nerve-racking experience, and one I shouldn't care to repeat.

Chimpanzees from Africa and orangutans from Sumatra are also dour and dangerous creatures as they mature. Naturally, they haven't the potential power of the gorilla, though they are perfectly able to injure one very severely, even fatally, if so inclined. Chimpanzees, however, while young can be trained to do any number of wonderful and interesting tricks, and their actions and expressions are so delightfully manlike that nothing else on earth can quite compete with them as a public attraction. They laugh, cry, scream, make talking noises, and perform trapeze and other extraordinary exercises with speed and precision. Such monkeyshines are all accomplished with a very good grace and evident enjoyment on the part of the clever brutes, so that the spectators' feelings are in no way outraged.

Chimpanzees walk on their hind legs with greater facility than the gorilla, but the usual gait is still on all fours. The legs in all the species—gorilla, chimpanzee, and orangutan—are much shorter than those of a man, and the arms longer, as befits a tree-living animal; but in general construction they are all exceedingly manlike, and your knowledge of human anatomy will be of great help in drawing them. Orangutans in the wild state are almost completely arboreal, seldom or never coming to the ground. They make huge nests on platforms in the trees and pass their entire lives feeding on the fruits and leaves by which they are surrounded.

Quite different from the preceding species are the baboons—those sinister, bizarre, ferocious creatures which live on the rocks and in the forests of certain parts of Asia and Africa. In some forms the males are brilliantly colored on part of the face and body, a decoration that gives them a strange and terrifying appearance. The male mandrill, for example, has two intense blue pieces extending on either side of the long doglike nose, the tip of which is a magnificent scarlet shade. This supertinted mask is more than matched in glowing effect by the opposite end of the animal, where lovely hues of violet, carmine, turquoise blue, and yellow vie with each other to create the most fantastic posterior known in all the realm of animal life. This color is of course not hair color but the skin itself, which appears on close inspection to be covered with a pastel-like film. The pigment, however, is really beneath the first skin layer and is guaranteed not to fade. Still other species of this singular race are equally strange in form and color, but they are all fierce, alert, sagacious brutes, habitually walking on all four legs and running in large groups, presided over by the powerful male animals.

Other species of the monkey family, while differing greatly in size, color, and length of hair and tail, are not specifically different anatomically from the preceding types.

Certain races, however, such as the spider monkeys of South America, possess long prehensile tails, which they use as a fifth arm and hand, swinging through the branches of trees with the utmost ease and speed.

Naturally, all the members of this highly developed family are of the greatest interest to us because of their near relationship to the human stock. In their diversified silhouettes, proportions, and manlike emotional attributes we see grotesque and caricatured presentations of our own personalities.

The Feline Group

The wonderful class of mammals known as the "Felidae" are represented throughout the world by numerous species differing greatly in size and color but all singularly alike in character. As a type, they have great interest for the artist because of their striking color patterns and the grace, power, and ease of their movements. They are without exception flesh eaters, or carnivores, securing their prey by stealth and killing it in one quick rush by means of their sharp claws and long canine teeth. The sense of smell is not particularly well developed in the cats, but their vision and hearing are very acute under certain conditions. As examples of power and grace combined with fierce and intractable dispositions they are almost unique in the animal world.

All the cats, with the possible exception of the lion, are very lithe, capable of twisting their bodies into all manner of strange and interesting positions under the stress of fear or anger or in the pursuit of prey. Their movements are always subtle and complicated, so that they make difficult models for one not accustomed to analyzing their actions. Fortunately, in our common house cat we have a perfect representative of the whole family, one who in every motion, action, and reaction is identical with all the other members of the group. This is a good point to remember when one is called upon to paint or model any individual of the class. We may be sure that each movement of our favorite tabby can and will be duplicated by the greater members of the family. If Puss licks her paws in a certain way, or hungrily crouches in rapt attention at the approach of a victim, then the lordly tiger himself will assume those same positions under the urge of similar emotions. Study your house cat therefore in all its varied positions, and you will be surprised to note how much these observations will assist you in your understanding of the group as a whole.

All the large cats pace when walking, i.e., they advance both the fore- and the hind leg of one side at the same time. Their movements are then deliberate, graceful, and undulating because of the soft and flexible muscles which ripple and glide under the bright and shining fur. Angularity is distinctly not a characteristic of the family, and we should be careful never to impart this quality to our drawings of the beautiful creatures. There is power behind all their actions, however—power, and in the case of the lion and tiger a certain ponderous and assured something difficult to describe.

Owing to the protective coloring of most of the cats, both the general form and the muscular anatomy may be very much concealed by the maze of stripes, spots, and irregular markings that constitute a great number of their skin patterns. For this reason it is advisable for a novice to study the lion and the puma, whose almost monotone coloring discloses the muscular form to advantage.

If the family, as a whole, are deliberate in their more serene moods, they can on occasion move with tremendous speed and agility. In springing on its prey or fighting with an adversary, no other animal quite compares with the cat in ferocity and violence. Under these emotions the creature seems transformed into a veritable demon, as with claws unsheathed and jaws distended it hurls itself upon its adversary. Perhaps nothing in the whole realm of animal creation can vie with an angry tiger for sheer terrifying effect, as at such times the long, sharp fangs are bared, the ears are laid back, a greenish fire glows from the eyes, and snarls issue from the mighty throat.

To anyone who has not observed the cat in all its transient moods the changes in expression caused by different emotions are well-nigh incredible. For those of us who specialize in such things nothing is more thrilling than to witness one of these physical exhibitions. But, as artists, we must be prepared to analyze just what happens in the creature's anatomy so completely to transform a quietly beautiful and relaxed feline. A glance at the drawings that illustrate these points will help more than any verbal description to clarify the problems presented.

In contrast to the dog or canine family the cats grasp their prey with the sharply curved claws of the front feet, and this peculiarity gives a decided and unusual character to their feeding and fighting poses. This is one of the points to be looked for in a study of animal life—these differences in construction that alter so tremendously the attitudes and customs of one type as compared with another. The crouching and creeping motions of a cat are of outstanding interest to the animal painter since they seem to exemplify the very soul of the beast in its search for prey. At such times the body is pressed closely to the ground, and the animal advances by a series of stealthy movements of the limbs until the game is within reach, when, with one tremendous leap, the hunter pounces upon its victim, seizing it with both teeth and claws and killing it when possible to do so. However, should the spring be unsuccessful and the quarry free itself and dash for safety, the affair is finished, for the cats cannot and will not run after the prey unless it appears to be badly hurt or temporarily helpless. None of the feline family, with the single exception of the cheetah, seem fitted for pursuit in the sense that a dog or wolf tracks down a deer or other game. Indeed, they soon become breathless and are easily discouraged by a failure to accomplish their object at the first rush, while their running speed is very inferior in comparison with that of most wild animals.

It may easily be gleaned from the foregoing how many things are to be looked for and appreciated if we are even roughly to understand the movements, form, and character of any given species of animals. This must not discourage us, however, in our search for the truth. On the contrary, it should make achievement in this field all the more interesting. Closer study of the splendid creatures of the plains and forest can only fill us with enthusiasm and zest for a still greater knowledge concerning all living things, with their application to art in its multiple phases.


Excerpted from ANIMAL DRAWING by Charles R. Knight. Copyright © 1947 Charles R. Knight. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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