custom 3 row grid

Draw a Capybara

Here's a quick lesson to get your head wrapped around something you can do creatively.

Pre-Covid I agreed to illustrate 18 animals and create signing for a new Rainforest exhibit at the Brevard Zoo in Melbourne, Florida.

Color added to Capybara drawing

When the executive director and director of education talked to me about what they could expect stylistically for the illustrations I explained that my art would be interpretations and not photo realistic. Thankfully, they were fine with this.

The zoo had professional and talented amateur photographers in the area that love to photograph their animals. However, the animals are only a few feet away from the visitors and my art was going to be used on educational signs. It just seemed to me that an exact photographic image or precisely accurate illustration would be redundant and wouldn't be as strong an element as an interpretive hand drawn artwork.

How to think about your drawings.

Most of all, I'd like you to draw what you see, not what you think others want to see. It doesn't have to be accurate, anatomically correct, or even the exact colors.

Picasso illustration one line
Picasso's one
line Camel,

In this case it's a Capybara. It could just as easily be a landscape, a house, or an umbrella on the beach.

It's what you see. It's what's in your head. Not mine. Or your significant other's, your mom's head, or the opinionated board member next door. For once, it's all about you, and you are always right when you draw. Just ask Picasso >

First, find reference images

Capybara reference animal

I can't draw animals out of my head. My memory is terrible. I've tried. It always ends badly. I forget where the tail attaches or how close the ears are to the nose. Without reference material, my drawings look ridiculous. In the design business we call reference material 'scrap'. You can say to your parent, teacher, or spouse, "I'm going out to find some scrap," and this will make you sound very 'woke'.

One morning I went to the zoo to do some quick sketches of the Capybara, but the Capybara weren't feeling particularly cooperative. This isn't unusual. Animals have other things on their minds than posing. And the visiting humans were very distracting, too.

I did a quick search on my phone and found the stock example above.

Waste lots of paper or pixels when you sketch

Sketch for yourself. Avoid tracing. Paper and pixels are cheap. I like softer charcoal pencils (HB to 6B). I wanted the Capybara face and body to be more gestural. You can see I wasn't worried about accuracy. I just wanted to capture a gesture or body position.

Don't tell me you can't draw. You can. Look at what you're drawing carefully. Pick out things that stand out. The Capybara has a big snoot, little ears up top, a round body, and short legs (I have a good friend that has the same physical qualities). Don't worry about proportion. Just sketch. Waste paper or pixels. Erase and try again.

Capybara sketched animalJames Audubon

Happily the very sharp director of education at the zoo looked at my sketches and said, "good, that works." We were off and running stylistically.

I have found that when you don't try to draw animals as accurately as naturalist painter John James Audubon (see the image of the long-haired 19th century artist pictured nearby), people aren't as picky about feather shapes and nose hair colors as you'd think..

Second, pick lines and shapes in your sketch that you like and outline or ink your sketch.

I'm more of a cartoonist in my style. I outline and ultimately fill with color. When I work with my iPad I have a sketch layer and an ink layer [and then a color layer.

You can add definition with a darker ink, marker, brush, or even a crayon. Since most of my art is reproduced for a graphic design project I make sure I have as much control over the final art as possible.

You may want to just keep a journal, post something online, or hang something on a wall. Find a way to firm up your sketch that's comfortable for you.

Capybara inked animal

(BTW, this is where you ask your parents or spouse for the new iPad Pro with the big screen and the $125 pen that's easy to lose.)

Adding definition helps you hone in on the animal shape. This forces you to make decisions about the shape of things and where lines fall. Again, don't be worried about an exact reproduction (unless that's what you want to do, of course). The more you fuss over little areas of the drawing - like the ears, for example - the more awkward the entire drawing looks. If you have a loose style make everything loose. If you have a tight, controlled style, be sure to be tight and controlled in the your outlining or inking.

You can outline your sketch on copier paper or figure out a way to transfer your sketch to Bristol Vellum (a heavier white paper that you can find at an art or office supply store). The ipad makes this easy. It's just a screen.

A quick note: with an iPad or tablet you don't feel the texture of the paper. I started my career laying ink on paper. Drawing on an iPad is nowhere as satisfying as laying a brush full of ink on a sheet of vellum. But life moves on and I've adjusted to working on a screen. The advantage of an iPad - commercially - is that you can 'export' sketches and final art to your client. If they make a change - and assuming you've used 'layers' - revisions aren't hard do make. FYI, I use Procreate on my iPad. It's cheap at $9.99.

Now, add color: lighter and darker colors give your Capybara dimension and shape

I know what you're thinking: he just threw the color on the animal! What a rank amateur! But, there's method to my coloration technique: I'm impatient.

I like to start with a wash of color ... a lighter color that I can add darker or lighter colors to. You can see this wash of lighter color under the belly and at the top of the face. Lighter colors work better since colors darken as they dry.

Color added to Capybara drawing

I add darker colors for shadows and lighter colors for highlights. You'll notice that I wasn't too particular about accuracy. I just wanted my Capybara to look alive and 3-dimensional.

You can also see that I colored outside the lines (a mortal sin in elementary school art class many years ago). I even added hairs over the black outline. The shame! Mrs. Anderson would have sent a note to my parents.

Above everything else, have fun & don't be critical of yourself!

This is your drawing. I've been drawing for years and still don't like three-quarters (maybe four-fifths) of what I draw. If you show your drawing to someone and they turn up their nose, don't fret or be deterred. What do they know! Keep a pad of paper (or your iPad) in your backpack or in the glovebox of your car and look for things to sketch.