There has always been this obsession with the others we share this planet with.
We communicate with them on certain basic levels and yet they inhabit a plane so different from ours: savage, instinctive, a life of sheer survival. At the same time they can do things beyond human abilities: fly through the skies, swim the oceans, apply the physical strength of a dozen strong men. They survive and thrive where we would perish. Yet animals cannot tell tales of their experiences. When we speak of an animal, even our beloved pets and friends, we can only imagine their emotions, thoughts, and inner lives.
Is it then any surprise that from cave paintings to cereal mascots—animals and art are inseparable?
From the beginning of recorded time, animals have been immortalized in pottery, statues, been worshipped as gods, and had fables and myths created in their image. Seventeen thousand years ago, in a cave shielded from the sun, a Cro–Magnon artist raised her bundle of split reeds, dipped them into charred black soot, and began illustrating an opus of animal life: stags, cats, bears, birds. Five thousand years ago, Egyptians integrated animal features into creation myths, and used them as hieroglyphs, adapting the recognizable forms of vultures, bulls, cobras and lions (among others) into a communication system.
Today, in every culture across the globe, animals serve as mascots for sports teams and cereals. We have Tony the Tiger and Toucan Sam. Anthropomorphized animals star in movies and comics. My Little Pony has amassed groups of Bronies. Animal cosplay is mainstreaming into mass culture. It all still begins with a child given that first crayon who immediately begins to sketch the familiar forms of cat and dog.
Animals are intrinsic to creativity and art—but why are they so satisfying to observe, mimic, and draw? What is the power they maintain over us to the extent that so many feel an actual spiritual connection with a particular species of their own extended family—cats, dogs, wolves, dolphins, raptors? While so many feel this connection, artists seem particularly sensitive to the presence of their animal spirit kindred and guides.
Why are artists so drawn to animals?
Visually, animals are beautiful and compelling subjects.
Animals are an efficient subject. Identifying characteristics can be drawn and recognized easily— cat eyes, elephant tails, butterfly wings, bunny ears: all unique visual traits. Powerful physical capabilities lend themselves to artistic expressions of motion. The long fluid moves of a deer, expressively captured with a few expert lines. Quick brushstrokes sketch a hyperactive monkey. Heavy pen lines suggest the static power of a stoic elephant. Physical similarities help artists develop a quick visual shorthand for a specific species—but unlike humans, animals that look alike often behave similarly. While anyone who’s ever lived with a pet knows animals have individual personalities, it’s not over–simplifying to state that each type of animal has its own range of specific behaviors and attitudes. It’s this species–by–species predictability that draw individuals to become fond of a particular animal. Just as an artist may prefer certain subjects or materials, so do artists become fascinated with the idiosyncrasies of a species.
Emotionally, animals express primal urges and desires.
Animal personalities are predictable. Tigers are fierce, squirrels are nervous, sharks are stealthy, hippos are lazy. Compared to the complexity of human behavior, animals are simpler beings. They behave according to instinct, not reason. As such, they serve artists well as ciphers for emotion. It’s not just art that allows us to connect spiritually with animals. It’s easy to observe, in ourselves and others, subconscious similarities between personal behaviors and the characteristics of a favorite animal. We’ll call a clever person a fox, or a stubborn child a donkey. A sweet guy is a puppy dog. A sexy lady is a minx. An angry, stubborn man is a bull. Animals serve as elements of our visual and written language.
Humans explore our own instincts through animal art.
Using animals in art, we recognize the most beautiful and terrifying parts of ourselves—our instincts. Society and language are important for humans, but when we feel urges or emotions beyond what is widely accepted or understood, both of these creations fail us.
When we talk about “spirit animals,” it can be in a magical sense, the idea that an essence we can’t see is guiding us through our lives. Or it can be an affinity for a species we find our instincts connecting with. Perhaps we have a fondness for the way they move, finding them fun to draw. Maybe we can imagine the world through their eyes, running, flying or swimming at top speed. But perhaps we see something more than the animal. We see ourselves.
Animals provide a bridge between the alien and familiar, allowing humans to recognize ourselves in strange forms. We can represent our fears and our desires expressed without reserve. Through animal eyes, we can acknowledge the oddness and the fallibility of humanity. Featuring animals in art, we can interpret many spiritual aspects: the primal and the innocent, the beautiful and mysterious. As long as we share a planet, artists will look to our Earth companions for inspiration and understanding of ourselves.
I personally have been drawn to animals my whole life and my earliest pictures were always of wildlife. I think artists see the world through different eyes than most and the things that fascinate us speak to us on a deeper level. Animals are an enigma, they have intelligence and their own means of communication and yet we can only hope to understand and be a part of their world. If you've seen my gallery you know I clearly have a fondness for big cats, I find everything about them to be beautiful and awe inspiring. My art is a way for me to get close to these animals in the only way possible, I’ll never be a zoo keeper (because I know myself and I wouldn’t be able to respect the boundaries they do and I’d get eaten—that’s a fact) and I’ll never own one because it goes against everything in their nature to held in captivity as a pet. It can be a very intimate experience to draw an animal in detail and it makes me feel close to them and privileged to show a side of them that others may not see. Any great animal art in my opinion has to come from a deep love and respect for the subject first and foremost by the artist, and what follows is their tribute.”
I think people gravitate toward depicting animals in art because they are simply aesthetically stunning to look at. Humans are very visual beings and we have always enjoyed striking colors, beautiful patterns, flowing lines and powerful forms. All animals have something which can be appreciated. Like for example dramatic plumage, or the intricate silver and black patchwork that is the coat of a snow leopard. To capture that on canvas is something many artists find alluring.”
- What animal do you find yourself drawn to in your art? What about this subject is so ennobling that you would seek to emulate?
- What personal qualities do you possess that drive you to feel a shared connection with a particular animal?
- Do you have vivid dreams in which you become, or run with, your “spirit animal”?
- Over time, how has your understanding of this animal evolved? Has your perception of the creature changed?
- What are some challenges you’ve experienced in terms of drawing animals, and how have you solved them?
- How does drawing an animal compare to drawing a human?
- Who are your favorite animal-focused artists in the DeviantArt community?