Things to Do at the Memphis Zoo: Sketching Tutorial
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Things to Do at the Memphis Zoo: Sketching Tutorial

This summer, we asked some of our favorite artists to some to the Memphis Zoo and create something. After their visits, we asked them to share their creations, as well as how they did it.

Jeff Atnip

There is nothing like drawing outside on site. It is always an adventure with the sights, sounds, and people. All of the senses are engaged. The Memphis Zoo is a wonderful place to sketch and practice your drawing skills. The animals are a treat for the artist with all of their strange, funny, and yet beautiful shapes.   

Getting past your fears  
You may be worried that people will look over your shoulder and find out you are just a beginner. However, the number one reaction I have observed from people is that they want to draw too! They may even beg you for a piece of paper! So I encourage you to dive in and just do it. Learn to enjoy people looking over your shoulder. You will find that most of your interactions with people will be very pleasant and encouraging.   

I like to use a spiral bound sketchbook that allows me to turn the pages completely over. You can keep your pencils in your pocket, but I attached a zippered pencil holder to my sketchbook with a couple of twist ties. In the pencil holder, I keep some good soft-lead pencils and a kneaded eraser. Any good soft-lead pencil is good. Make sure your paper is acid-free. That way it will not turn yellow and become brittle.

Start to draw  
Let’s dive right in and draw an elephant. Elephants are big and they move slow, so it is a good subject for a beginner. 

This is how I do it:    
First, hold your pencil like this between your thumb and forefinger.

Marie Helen Reneau demonstrates proper pencil holding technique.

The idea here is to make big bold sweeping lines using your elbow instead of your wrist. This way you keep your marks big and are forced to look for the big shapes. It really helps, even though it feels awkward at first. We always want to go for the details too soon and we must resist the temptation.   

Now look for the big shapes and lines that make the elephant. Forget that it is an elephant and just think about it as a big shape. Don’t look at the details. We will save those for later. Keep looking quickly up and down at your paper and the elephant.     

The biggest mistake you will make is to look down at your paper too much. Keep checking back and forth until you get it right. This is actually the hardest part of the drawing. If we can get this right, everything else will be a lot easier.   

Now we can begin placing some of the major shapes within the big shapes….like the ears and the tusks, then we move on to the smaller details such as the eyes and mouth. Now you can hold your pencil however is most comfortable. All this time we are constantly checking the placement by looking at our subject. As we look at the animal, it helps to draw imaginary lines between parts to see how they line up with each other. Hold your pencil at arm’s length and use it to check your placement of each part.     

Now that we have our animal drawn out, we can sketch in some shadows to give it some depth. Look at the direction of the light and notice where the shadows are. You can use the side of your pencil or a quick series of parallel lines to indicate these shadows.   

If we have time we can add some background. I like to be very light, sketchy and quick with this. It helps to give your subject a sense of place. Make sure the lines of your background do not interfere with the shape of your subject.     

Dealing with a moving target  
My animal keeps moving! How can I ever draw it! This is a challenge, but there are some things that will help. In a zoo, the animal’s movements are limited by the size of their enclosure. If you wait, they will usually come back around where they were before. Another thing that will help is when there are numerous animals of the same type. Go from animal to animal finding one in a similar pose.   

Or try drawing just one part of the animal, such as the head. Sometimes you just have to give up and start a new pose. Your sketchbook will have numerous unfinished animal parts. The good thing is that each attempt is a learning experience and the exercise is forcing you to become quicker and better.     

Here is another elephant drawing. You can see I didn’t draw him quick enough to get her back legs before she moved away.  


Near the elephants are the ostriches. As before, I quickly drew the major shapes that I saw.   

Now the fun part…all those feathers and funny legs!     

And the final:       

I also had fun drawing the pandas. This panda was resting on a large rock.     

A few more details:           

And the final:                  

Here are some more of my finished zoo drawings just for fun:   

A lion       

A Capybara   

A Jaguar   

A Crested Screamer   

The best way to improve your drawing is to draw a lot. Fill up your sketchbook and start another one. You will see steady improvement. Have fun!       

Click here to see more of Jeff Atnip’s art.            

Posted by Zoo Info at 10:00 AM