We’re all going to the zoo, zoo, zoo!

I have a personal rule, which is I don’t paint animals I have not encountered – generally cows, pigs and cats are my thing. I need to express how they make me feel and try to capture more than their anatomy, so I need to have a deeper understanding of what makes them tick. So when I spied the chance to go sketching at London Zoo with Art Safari (www.artsafari.co.uk) (would have preferred a trip to Kenya, but hey, ho), I thought I could legitimately expand my portfolio.

Last Saturday, I met up with the lovely Mary-Anne and 13 fellow students and spent an exhausting day drawing in the cold. Boy do those animals move about! But what amazingly good practice. Trying to capture a pose in just a few minutes, before the camel gets the hump, really makes you look, see and distil the information to what is important.

We drew all sorts – camels, llamas, giraffes, tamarins, otters, lions, roul-roul partridges, toucans and penguins. It was very frustrating and the drawings are not much to look at, but it has inspired me to put away the camera and really observe at my subject.

So now the fun begins and I rather fancy developing my ‘London Zoo collection’. I have started with the toucan, as that was the bird I really, really wanted to draw. The classic toucans all went and hid as I arrived with pencil in hand, so I concentrated on the more amenable red-billed bird. Tonight, having spent three days editing, I have rewarded myself with a painting session.

First I got my sketches and a reference photo for the colours:touc1

Then I sketched it out, as the beak is deceptively tricky and rather crucial. If you can look for a close up of a toucan’s eye – utterly amazing!touc2

Yum, time to start with the paint. I used burnt Sienna and Ultramarine for the darks, but let the blue come through to give highlights. I used cad red and quin gold on the beak and a touch of turquoise here and there. I usually add a little gum arabic to help with transparency and lifting.

A few weeks ago I painted some grebes and blew their crests with a straw. Why had I never done this before for feathers? So I wanted to use the technique again.

Before I started I had done an idle google search to see how other people approach the subject and was delighted/horrified to find a painting just as I had imagined. I thought I was being original, but apparently not. I almost didn’t go ahead, as I don’t want to be accused of plagiarism, but then thought there isn’t really anything new in the world, so I did. Have a look at http://eriksherman.deviantart.com/art/Toucan-335439213. You should check out his work, it is wonderful and he has done some amazing speed painting videos on YouTube.   touc3Putting the eye in really helped. I usually do eyes first, but I wanted to get darks in because the contrast is so great in the toucan. I thought I had made it too shaggy, but it was a blooming cold day in London, so that’s my excuse and my lung capacity is obviously better than I thought.


Now time for the background. I wanted to capture the excitement I felt on seeing the bird and some of the passion and colour I imagine in its habitat. I wanted to echo the blown shapes of the feathers, so rather than the original washes of colour I had planned, I created these explosions of colour – quin gold and cad red. Lots of puff later and I was quite worried – hold your nerve and let it dry………


I rubbed out pencil lines and really liked the idea of letting the area under the chin fade into the background. I also faded a rather hard edge on the top of the beak to give the impression of light. Leaving areas up to the imagination, gives people a reason to look again and fill in the gaps, don’t you think? I felt it needed dark in the background but did not want to over-do the blowing (and I was getting a bit light-headed), so thought that maybe a splatter would do the trick. touc6

Just masking off the bird with kitchen towel keeps things clean, though you should see the table cloth!! touc7

And here we are: touc8

Having let it dry overnight and checked again in the morning to see if anything needs sharpening up or indeed, fading down, I am happy. Here is better photo in natural light:


The first in my London Zoo series is complete. Now to do a Ricky the rockhopper penguin – any excuse to do more blowing!! Then a hairy camel or two……

2 thoughts on “We’re all going to the zoo, zoo, zoo!”

    1. Thank you. I really want to paint Emporer penguins, having been bowled over by the penguin series on tv, so now I am in a quandry – stick to my principles or not?? Thank goodness for google images!

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