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Eraser Drawings from a Photo Reference

First, though, a note on copyright. Illustrators and artists have long relied on photographic references when drawing or painting animals. It’s important, though, to be sensitive to the photographer’s copyright when you draw from a photo found in a book or online; basically, you don’t want to copy any image exactly, especially if you plan to sell your artwork. (The copyright issue is one reason I don’t often draw and paint realistic animals; when I do, it’s usually just for my own personal practice in my sketchbooks so that I can take this knowledge to any stylized creatures later.)

Copyright law is complicated! But my understanding is that I can rely on photographs to remind me of certain features of an animal, but it’s best to first look at a large selection of photographs so that you can really get a feel for what the animal looks like, as a whole. Then, pick one or two images in similar poses to work from, and make your drawings from those (but with all the other animal knowledge tucked inside your head and hand). Also, I tend pick fairly generic poses, looking only for animal clues (I wouldn’t copy a photo’s composition, for example, unless I asked permission from the photographer.)

In the end (and you’ll see at Step 8, below), there’s always a point where I abandon my reference and finish the drawing on my own, giving it little touches that may or may not be in the photographic references.

Supplies Needed:
— a piece of tissue paper or regular white computer paper
— mechanical pencil with eraser

1. Decide on an animal to draw and go to the library or online to find photo references. Spend a few minutes looking at a large variety of images before deciding on your pose. Pick one or two images to work from (I worked from a book I found recently at a thrift store: “Creative Techniques in Animal Photography“).

2. While looking at your reference, scribble a mass on your paper with your pencil.

2. I don’t usually get very far before I start erasing. Using the pink eraser on the end of the mechanical pencil, first lightly go over your graphic lines with the end/flat part to “smear” them, then start digging down deeper on lighter areas with the sharper edge. Vary your eraser pressure to achieve different lights and darks.

3. More pencil lines…

4. … and more erasing. Back and forth, back and forth.

6. Every so often you might need to use a piece of scrap paper to “clean” your eraser off.

7. Even when working specific features, just pay attention to lights and darks as much as you can; try not to think “eye” or “nose,” but just look at the shapes. In this case I had to keep going back in with more graphite to try to pull out the eye and nose, because I kept accidentally over-erasing. Just keep working the eye, for example, until it “feels” right.

8. Keep repeating Steps 3-7 until you are satisfied. There is usually a point toward the end where I abandon my reference altogether and just look at my drawing: Does it work? If not, I will add, subtract, or smear the graphite until I like the result.

Here’s the final, scanned with a white piece of paper tucked behind the tissue paper to show the contrasting values.

Art Giveaway!
Today I’m giving away this erased cat, which was drawn from imagination using the techniques, above:

So leave a comment below for your chance to win! I’ll pick the winner randomly on Sunday, October 7. The winner was, incredibly, commenter #1 — Paige!

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This post is part of a Two-Week Book Release Celebration for my new book, “Drawing and Painting Imaginary Animals: A Mixed-Media Workshop with Carla Sonheim.” For the schedule, which includes book and art giveaways, contributing artists features, tutorials, and assignments, click here.