Welcome to Drawn to Animals

blog of Dr Susan Poole VPSGFA UKCPS

Drawn to animals. This blog is about animals and art, particularly when the art relates to animals.

This Blog grew from interest in my recently published book, Drawn to Animals; an artist’s encounters, which includes drawings, watercolours, etchings and sketchbook studies of animals, both wild and domestic, made first-hand from my travels across many continents or closer to home in the UK. It includes over 100 illustrations, with more that 60 in colour.

It also has fascinating facts about each animal, 12 of which are endangered and seven others vulnerable to extinction.

My book is available on line from Waterstones, Foyles, or Amazon. “This beautifully illustrated book at the hand of a skilled artist will appeal to artists and animal lovers alike” (the Leisure Painter, August 2021).

Egg tempera painting of Kudu antelope

Kudu Antelope seen in Botswana, egg tempera.

Look out for my articles on painting in egg tempera which will appear in the Leisure Painter magazine in November and December and includes a detailed explanation of how I made this painting of the Kudu.

How to make gesso boards for egg tempera paintings

Painting in egg tempera requires a rigid surface.

Traditionally wood has been used, but that is not entirely stable in varying climatic conditions, and good flat sheets are difficult to source. I have always used MDF. It is less likely to bend or warp and is readily available. However, it does need to be prepared for egg tempera use, and the best surface for this is gesso. Not the Acrylic gesso that has now become common. That will not do for egg tempera as it is not absorbent.

The correct gesso surface consists of a glue combined with whiting, a chalky substance. The best and most traditional glue is rabbit skin glue, available from good art suppliers.

The details I give below are for preparing boards with this surface, the best for egg tempera. Explanations about how to make egg tempera and some of the medium’s techniques can be found in my articles published in the January and February editions of the Leisure Painter available in the shops from November and December respectively.

Materials you will need:

  1. Rabbit skin glue. This is sold in granules or already mixed, as in the first picture above. I have used both forms, but the glue already mixed and ready use is easier. I bought this pot by mail order from Cornelissens in London.
  2. Whiting. This is a chalky ingredient and the main constituent, with the glue, of true gesso necessary for egg tempera. The more recently invented Acrylic gesso is not suitable for egg tempera as it is not sufficiently absorbent for this medium.
  3. Titanium White, in powder form. A small amount of this added to the mix will make the gesso that bit whiter and more brilliant, creating more luminous colours in the final result. But not more than 10% of pigment should be added or the gesso will not be strong enough. I used just 10% in my mix. I purchased both the whiting and the Titanium white online from Cornelissens, but other stockists could supply these.
  4. Some sheets of MDF board. I find MDF the best for my egg tempera work. These boards provides a sound surface when properly sized and gessoe’d. I still have boards I made over thirty years ago that are in perfect condition. I prepared three boards for this demonstration, each half an inch thick. Two were size 30 x 42 cm and one size 42 x 60 cm. I had them pre-cut and delivered, but you can clearly cut your own sizes to suit.
  5. A double boiler or steamer. I used a steamer (used for steaming food) but if you don’t have that or a double boiler just resting a bowl in a saucepan would do. The important thing, when melting the glue or keeping the mixed gesso warm, is not to ever let it boil as I understands that weakens the glue.
  6. Sandpaper. You will need different grades, a medium grade to sand and give slight tooth to the MDF before sizing it, and a fine grain (about 600 grade) to gently sand the final coat of gesso, or between coats if you wish.
  7. A bowl for mixing the gesso. I used a glass one as it was the right size for my steamer and easy to clean (which should be done immediately after you’ve finished using before it sets hard).
  8. House painting brushes. For applying the sizing and the liquid gesso to the MDF.
  9. A set of weighing scales. These are needed to weigh the quantities of glue and whiting before mixing.

Preparation of your board:

Lightly sand the surface of your board with medium grade sandpaper, front and back, then wipe away the dust with a cloth or kitchen paper.
Spoon a small amount of the rabbit skin glue (a jelly-like substance) into a bowl that can tolerate being heated on the steamer. Add a little water to the glue. It should be three parts glue to one part water.

Dissolve the glue in your bowl on top of the steamer, with the water simmering gently below.

When the glue has completed dissolved remove it from on top of the steamer. Be careful not to burn your hands on the steam still rising as you do this. The bowl will also be hot so should be placed on a mat next to your board. Then paint your board or boards whist the glue is still warm and liquid, painting the front, back and as well as along the edges thoroughly but carefully leaving a smooth surface.
MDF panel sized and drying.

Making the gesso and coating the panel:

First you need to measure the quantities of ready solution of glue and whiting/Titanium white mix. They need to be equal quantities by weight. For my three panels, two 30 x 42 cm and one 42 x 60 cm, I measured out 500 grams of the glue and 450 grams of the whiting together with 50 grams of Titanium white. For my three pieces of MDF this quantity enabled me to paint six coats on the fronts and three on the backs. A minimum of six thin coats is needed and up to ten.

When you have decided on the correct quantity dissolve the glue in a bowl on your double boiler or steamer, or just by resting the bowl in the top of a narrower saucepan, as long as it heats without boiling.
Then slowly sieve in the whiting/Titanium white mix, to eliminate any small lumps, and stirring gently as you do this.
When all the whiting mix has been added continue to stir the liquid gesso gently for a while, maintaining its warm temperature, tapping it occasionally to try an reduce the number of air bubbles, perhaps breaking a few on the surface as they come up. This is now ready to use.
The first layer should be applied with a scumbling motion to eliminate the chances of air bubbles or pin holes. this can be done with the brush, or even more smoothly with the hand (as below).
However, this has to be done quite quickly for this thin layer of gesso dries rapidly and then becomes just sticky and difficult to smooth. If in doubt just use the brush.
The second and subsequent layers need to be painted on in smooth parallel strokes, not going over the area just painted, and firm enough to eliminate any air bubbles along the way. Each layer needs to be applied when the preceding one is touch dry, but not left to dry for any length otherwise the next layer will not adhere properly. Some artists suggest a light sanding with fine sandpaper (e.g.600 grade) between layers, and damping the preceding layer. I only sanded the second to final layer before the finishing sand. And I found that each layer being just touch dry didn’t need me to damp it down before applying the next layer.
This shows a board with just a few layers of gesso put on. Brush marks can still be seen. Thin layers should be painted on, each going at right angles to the last layer. The backs and side of panels also need to be painted but the backs need only be given several coats. The back can be done the next day but should not be left longer than that after the front is painted. Spare gesso can be kept in the fridge overnight, but not for longer, and the skin will need to be fully broken up again when it is re-heated. A minimum of six layers, and up to ten, should be applied to the fronts of tha panels, the surface you will use for your egg tempera painting, and make sure you write down the number of each coat as you put it on. It is easy to lose track of how many you’ve done! Applying my layers took several hours. A good section of the day needs to be set aside for the whole process, including cleaning up afterwards.
The gesso mixture will cool a bit each time you’ve finished giving a coat to your panels. When it does cool a slight skin forms on top. The dish containing the mixture needs to be returned to the heat, where the skin is easily broken down as it warms through properly again before painting the next coat. I kept the water in my lower saucepan simmering or warm throughout the process of doing all my layers, turning the heat back up periodically to heat the mixture through again more thoroughly. The picture above shows the mixture after I had used it for a number of coats.

After adding the final coat of gesso give it a light sand over the surface, using 600 grade sandpaper. I used wet and dry and did wet it to smooth out a couple of bumps, but be careful to use this lightly.

Then to get the surface really smooth use a damp cloth and go over it with gentle circular motions.

Finally when it is dry, you can buff it with a clean dry cloth to raise a sheen. The panels should then be left for a few days before a painting is begun on them. The gessoe’d boards can be kept for many years before painting if wished, but they should be stored flat.

Cleaning up: Brushes and spoons etc can be cleaned with warm soapy water if not left to dry for too long. likewise with any splashes that may have reached cooker or floor! Any remaining mixture left in your bowel should, as much as possible, be scooped out and put in the bin. If you try and flush it down the sink it will begin to clog your pipes! Finally, good luck with your painting!

Tiger etching made from my sketches

Tyger, Tyger. Two coloured etching from one plate (27 h x 32 w cm). Whenever I think of tigers the words of William Blakes’s poem run through my mind, so I have included the first few line on this as part of the background here.

(above left) Print table used for inking up etched plate. (above right) Copper plate, etched, ready for inking up.

Sketches of tigers in preparation for etching

Materials used to make the sketches. Because of the striking coat colours of tiger, but I also needed a medium in which I could work quickly. I chose something I had never used before, Inktense pencils. These are water soluble coloured pencils that dissolve rather like coloured inks when water is added. When dry they are permanent and so can be overlaid with other colours.

I used five Intense coloured pencils for the tiger sketches (Bark, Baked Earth, Willow, Mustard, and Sun Yellow) together with a travel sharpener that contains the shavings and a travelling water brush, filled with water, with a water tight cap.

Tigers as subjects

Tigers are extraordinary subjects that I had previously avoided tackling, in part because of the complexity of their markings but also because I had failed to see any first hand in the wild. I went three times on tiger observation trails in India a couple of years ago but only succeeded in seeing very fresh and tantalising foot prints of a tiger (though I did see a Honey Bear, which I was told was a rare sighting). As I had already made drawings of several of the Big cats I decided that I should be more determined to add the tiger to my collection. I thus sought them out at two different zoological parks and, as a result, made the sketches above.

The more I looked at the tigers the more they fascinated me. Two things particularly struck me. One was how their massive bodies were. They are the largest of the Big cats, ranging from six to ten feet long and can weigh up to 660 pounds. Their bulk is very evident and exudes power. The other was their familiar markings, their stripes, so often caricatured. These began to fascinate me and defined their very shape as I sketched.

How have other artists portrayed tigers?

Three very different interpretations of tigers have appealed to me.

  1. Thomas Bewick (c.1753-1828) made a number of beautiful and sensitive wood engravings of animals. I’ve owned a book of his work for some years. His Tiger is one example. Printed in 1824 it is currently housed in the Victoria and Albert museum, London.
Thomas Bewick’s wood engraving of a tiger

2. For a highly imaginative and colourful version I have always enjoyed the oil on canvas painting Tiger in a Tropical Storm. Painted in 1891 by the so called ‘Naive’ Post-Impressionist Henri Rousseau (1844 -1910). It can be seen in the National Gallery, London.

Heri Rousseau’s Tiger in a Tropical Storm

3. The engraving by Herbert Dicksee (1862 – 1942) of a Prowling Tiger is a very impressive ultra realistic work, exemplifying the powerful muscularity of the tiger. Published first in 1915.

Herbert Dicksee’s Prowling Tiger.

Some tiger facts

Tigers live 8 – 10 years in the wild, though longer in captivity, often14 – 16 years and sometimes 20+. They are solitary night time hunters of deer, wild pig, antelope and buffalo. In short bursts they can run 49 – 65 kilometres (30 – 40 miles an hour) to catch their prey. They are also good swimmers, unlike most of the cat family. According to National Geographic fossil remains of tigers have been found in China believed to be two million years old. Sadly, hunting and habitat loss has severely reduced the tiger population and it is now an endangered species.

The painting of a leopard

I decided to make another picture of the leopard I had seen in Botswana. The one I had included as a pencil drawing in my book. I watched him jump into a tree to rest languidly wedged between branches. I had plenty of time to study him. I made a couple of very rough sketches to work on back in the studio.

Painting of leopard in tree seen in Botswana, egg tempera

I decided on egg tempera as a medium. This medium has always fascinated me. With an egg yolk and a few small amounts of powdered pigment a painting can be produced that will harden and last for centuries (if desired). It will not fade or yellow with age. This was the main medium used before oil paints were invented. Sadly photographs never pick up is the beautiful luminous quality of this medium, which is built up in thin layers over a board coated in genuine white gesso which shines like light through a painting.

Video of leopard painting stages in egg tempera

Video showing development of leopard painting, egg tempera

Because of the patterned textures of the tree trunk and background to this painting, together with the complex markings of the leopard’s skin that I wanted to get right, I drew in the composition of this work more carefully than I usually do. Above is a video of the paintings main stages, which also shows the versatility of egg tempera in that I was able to completely change tonal quality of parts of the surrounds (from dark to light) during the process.

(above) (far left) One of the head sketches of the leopard in preparation for the painting. (left) Egg yolk and white separated for mixing yolk with the powder pigments. (middle) Powdered pigments on a glass palette before mixing: yellow ochre, burnt umber, ivory black and Naples yellow. (right) Jars of the pigments, showing cerulean blue which was also used.

Zebra pencil drawing

Video

Preliminary stages of zebra head drawing, pencil
Video showing stages of my watercolour painting, Sleeping Lion, seen in Tanzania, which appears on the front cover of my book

Stages of resting lion in watercolour

The posture of the sleeping lion appealed to me. I was surprised how gentle it made him appear. With his paw resting under his muzzle he was an enormous, if awesome, cat at rest. He lay so still that flies rested undisturbed on his face.

Here’s how I made the painting (video)

  • Using pencil sketches, and my photos, I looked at the many colours I could see in the lion’s body and surrounding background. Then I looked for key points in the pose. I liked this lion’s mane, which sticks out like a worn brush, and I loved the curve of his lower limb resting diagonally across his body, especially the crook where the paw bends.

Check out the stages in the video.

Image 1

  • I first drew the shape of the foreleg using a pale line of Payne’s grey. Then, as well as delineating his mouth, I used the same colour to wash in the shadow under the lion’s paw, and the other dark shadows where the chin and nose touch the ground. I also painted some on the mane’s dark area with Payne’s grey. Cadmium yellow, Naples yellow, and yellow ochre (sometimes mixed with a touch of Indian red) were used to map in more of the mane, especially where it joined the head; this gave me a frame to the face. The main tonal areas were then established.

Image 2

  • I continued to build up the tones to develop the lion’s shape and shadows. I could see this was going to be a predominantly ‘warm’ painting, comprising mainly reds, oranges and yellows, but it was important to retain a minority of cool colours to act as a counterbalance. Lemon yellow provided a cooler yellow for some of the body tones. Cobalt blue was added to give some brighter cool tones to the foreleg, and belly, and more sepia was laid on the shadows under his paw.

Image 3

  • Mixtures of the colours used in Stage 2, forming blues and greens were introduced as washes of increasing colour strength around the edges of the focal areas of the lion to suggest the grassy background. A Payne’s grey and yellow ochre wash outlined the lion’s curved flank. I also drew round the outer edges of the lion’s ragged mane with two paler green washes, carefully leaving some fine white lines of paper exposed to suggest individual hairs both here and around the paw; I always try to give attention to the edge of an animal’s skin, fur or hair which can contribute a great deal to the overall sense of his or her surface texture.

Image 4

  • More washes were laid, often the underlayers drying before others were added because I was constantly moving around the image. But if they didn’t dry and the colours bled into each other that was fine too, and added painterly interest. Some cobalt blue was added to the face near the mane edge and, combining it with yellow ochre, was also used on the lion’s paw to help bring it more forward in the picture as a central focus. Some dry-brush streaks of a varying mixture of sepia and Payne’s grey were added to the mane to increase the hair-like texture, and the same colour mix was used in greater intensity to enhance some of the darker shadows.
  • Most of the finer details were painted at this stage. A touch of diluted rose madder, ideal for animal noses (especially young ones), was washed onto the lion’s nose, but then toned down with some Indian red. Finally, some tiny streaks of white paint were applied to suggest more hairs on the lion’s chin, where it had been difficult to leave blank paper without breaking the flow of the line on the upper edge of the paw. Some white paint was also used to mark a few blade of grass in the foreground.

(left) My travelling paint box. (right) Preliminary sketches I made of a lion in Tanzania.

Lions as subjects

Lions are good subjects to draw because they spend a great deal of time lying still, snoozing or basking in the sun. They may rest up to 20 hours a day. I saw many of these carnivores, often at quite close quarters, in both Tanzania and Botswana.

Lion facts

  • Lions live on grassland, scrub or open woodlands where they can more easily see and catch their prey, namely the large grass eating animals like zebra and wildebeest. Lionesses do the hunting for the pride. They hunt mostly at night and so spend daylight hours resting, sometimes not far from and very visible to animals who they will later catch when they are hungry again. Most wild lions live in Africa, though a few Asian lions are still present in India. In the last 25 years the number of lions in Africa has halved. They are now classified as vulnerable to extinction.

Landseer and lions.

Sir Edwin Landseer, a prominent and talented British animal artist of the 19th century, whose work is now rarely seen, was fascinated by them. He made may drawings and paintings of them.

(above) Sketch of a lion’s head by Sir Edwin Landseer.

Landseer also designed and carved the huge lions that were cast in bronze and sit around Nelson’s column in Trafalgar Square, London. John Ballantyne painted Landseer working on one of the lions (below), which also shows preliminary Landseer drawings in the bottom right of this painting and on the far wall behind the completed lions. Ballantyne’s painting now hangs in the National Portrait Gallery, London.

Edwin Landseer carving his lion for Trafalgar square by John Ballantyne,

Pencil drawing of Langar monkeys – video of stages.

Video showing stages in making the coloured pencil drawing of a Langur monkey and young a number of which I saw in India.
One of the initial sketchbook studies used to draw the Langur Monkey.

Langur Monkey facts.

  • Langur monkeys are Old World monkeys native to the Indian sub-continent. According to National Geographic they are trained in New Delhi to scare off aggressive rhesus monkeys and other wild animals that might roam into public spaces and cause mischief. They are highly valued. Hindus revere them as a symbol of the monkey deity Hanuman – the Langurs’ black faces and extremities are said to call to mind the burns that Hanuman suffered in the course of his heroism.
  • Grey Langurs are herbivorous, feeding on a wide range of plants from leaves, fruit, shoots, roots, grass, bamboo, ferns, coniferous needles and cones, mosses and lichen. They also develop mutualistic relationships with ground-dwelling herbivores such as cattle and deer, who can feed underneath groups of foraging langurs to eat food dropped or dislodged by the monkeys.

Wildlife seen in my garden in the spring.

  • Hedgehogs, distant relatives of shrews, are widespread in Britain and Europe. They inhabit mainly woodland, hedgerows, fields, parks, town and country gardens and live off slugs, snails, caterpillars, beetles, earthworms and birds’ eggs. They have a distinctive spiny coat, and long coarse hair on their face and underbelly. They are primarily nocturnal, sleeping by day under shrubs or in hedgerows. They can live up to six years.
  • Hedgehogs are one of the few mammals that are true hibernators. During hibernation they are not really asleep, instead they drop their body temperature to match their surroundings and enter a state of torpor, slowing down their bodily functions and preserving energy.
  • Hedgehogs have changed little in the past 15 million years, but are now considered to be a vulnerable species in the UK, steadily disappearing from the wild. Old names for them have been ‘urchins’ and ‘hedgepigs’.

http://www.hedgehogstreet.org/about-hedgehogs/

  • The ladybird above (seen in March) is a seven spot one, measuring up to 8mm it is the larger of the two most common ladybirds (the other being a smaller two spot measuring up to 5mm). Surprisingly, 40 other species of ladybird can be found in the British Isles.
  • Ladybirds don’t usually emerge from winter hibernation until April (when they emerge to look for a mate) so, in this slightly warmer climate of Devon, it is out earlier here in March, albeit late March. The RSPB tells us that the bright colour of ladybirds warms off predators like birds, ants and people because they have a bitter taste (who thought of eating ladybirds!).
On the last day of May I came across these ladybirds mating on our young Oak tree.
  • Ladybirds are good to have in the garden as they eat aphids and small insects, thus a natural insecticide. The larvae which hatch from the ladybirds eggs, steely blue with creamy-yellow spots do not resemble the adults, but eat aphids voraciously. 

http://www.rspb.org.uk/birds-and-wildlife/wildlife-guides/other-garden-wildlife/insects-and-other-invertebrates/beetles-and-bugs/ladybird/

The Horse in Art

Carriage Horses (detail) – coloured pencil, one of a number of studies I made of carriage horses at the Royal Windsor Horse Show.

The horse has appealed to artists throughout history.

Two paintings that fascinated me as a child, long before horses came into my life, were Horse Frightened by Lightening, by Theodore Gericault, in the National Gallery London, and Lion Attacking a Horse, by George Stubbs in the Tate Gallery. Neither particularly nice for the horse! But both with a sense of drama.

(left) Horse frightened by lightning, Theodore Gericault, the National Gallery, London. (right) Horse attacked by a Lion. Enamel on copper, George Stubbs. the Tate Gallery, London

  • According to the Tate Gallery George Stubbs, perhaps most famous for his studies of horses, was obsessed with the theme of a lion attacking a horse and made at least seventeen works on it. Mostly oils on canvas. In preparation he made first-hand drawings of the lions then kept caged at the Tower of London. The theme was said to have been inspired by a scene he reportedly witnessed in North Africa during his return by sea from Italy. To have observed such an dramatic event which could well have made a significant impact on this lover of horses.

I now enjoy looking at the many sketchbook studies of horses made by Leonardo Da Vinci (below).

  • There is a wonderful energetic painting by the French female artist, Rosa Bonheur called The Horse Fair. I recently discovered a delightful preparatory drawing for part of it (below).

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Grey carriage horses, detail of a larger pencil drawing by Susan Poole.

Dr Susan Poole VPSGFA UKCPS

Susan is an award winning international artist. She has an MA in Fine Art and a PhD in Archaeology from University College London, with work published on art from the prehistoric Aegean.

She has shown at many national and international exhibitions, including at the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition, The Mall Galleries, The Bankside Gallery and the Westminster Gallery in London. She is Vice President of the Society of Graphic Fine Art (who will have their 100th annual Open show at the Mall Galleries, London, July 2021). She is also a Silver Signature member of the UK Coloured Pencil Society, a member of the Association of Animal Artists, a member of the Fine Art Trade Guild and of the Association of Art Historians .

She has a particular interest in animal subjects and her work is held in collections at home and abroad.