Shape vs. Structure: Integrating two ways of drawing

Here is a video of one of the nature journal club workshops where we explore two ways of drawing: understanding the form and structure of your subject vs. looking at it as a collection of interlocking shapes. I use both of these approaches in any drawing.


How to Draw Snakes

Study the shapes of snake facial scales to help you identify and draw what you see.

Thamnophis elegans terrestris

Snake bodies are covered with overlapping scales (see previous post for tricks on drawing body scales). The scales of the head of many snakes are larger and important clues to identification. Study the shapes of these scales to help you draw them in the field.

Lets learn the major facial scales. The specific shapes and numbers of these scales will vary between species.

Facial diagram

Chart the patterns of scales on a snake’s face. If you do not know what species you are looking at, these scale shapes can be used to later identify the species. Note: only try this if you are confidant in identifying all of the venomous species in your area.

Gopher Snake sketch

How to draw scales

Learn the geometry of snake scales to help you sketch in the field.

Don’t drive yourself nuts trying to copy every scale exactly. You can suggest scales with the X technique (demonstrated below), add a few details and you are good.

Scales 1bDraw an x pattern over the back of the snake. Each of the scales will fit into one of the spaces between the lines. The body scales of the Ring-necked Snake below are simply an X hatch overpainted with watercolor and little  highlights added on each scale with a white colored pencil. The effect is convincing and fast.


X hatch lines are often at an oblique angle forming small diamonds instead of squares.

scale symmetry

scale rows b

Flattened section of snake skin showing rows of shingle-like back scales and long belly scales (scutes).

X hatch scales turn to interlocking S curves when they foreshorten and wrap around a cylinder. However, many snakes are more triangular than round in cross-section and the scutes or belly scales interrupt the S pattern on the bottom of the body. Still, you often see a subtle deflection of the hatch lines as they approach the back. You can also just stop the X pattern just short of the edge as the foreshortened scales are more difficult to see.

Thamnophis sirtalis infernalis

Having realistic expectations of what you can get in the field will help you work more efficiently and be happier with what you do. The snake heads on this page are scientific illustrations. They were drawn over several days with extensive reference material and a comfortable chair. In contrast, the studies below, showing the body colors and patterns from the dorsal line to the scutes, took only minutes to complete and convey lots of information about patterns on the snakes. This is a great approach for field sketching.

snake pattern sketches

My favorite website for reference material is California Herps. I am grateful to Gary  Nafis for letting me use some of his photographs for reference and step-by-step tutorials.

Drawing Reptile and Amphibian Eyes

Look carefully at the patterns, colors, and structure of reptile and amphibian eyes. You will be surprised by the beauty and variability. Snakes have no eyelids so the eye is round round. Amphibians and most lizards (exceptions geckos and night lizards) have eyelids and so may have round eyes or an ellipse from squinting.

Note the pupil shape. Some are round but you will also see horizontal and vertical pupils. Geckos have wild pupils.

The highlight and reflected light make the eye look wet or glossy. I often put the highlight at the border between the iris and the pupil to help show that it is reflecting off the surface above both the iris and the pupil.

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The eyes from top left to bottom right: crocodile, viper, western toad, gecko, garter snake, newt, spadefoot toad, snake in process of shedding.

How to draw reptiles and amphibians (video workshop)

This video of a reptile and amphibian drawing workshop was filmed on December 10, 2014 at the Santa Clara Valley Audubon Center in Cupertino CA. As I spoke the first great winter storm approached and took out the power about 3/4 of the way through the talk. We kept on going with a whiteboard and no lighting. I hope you enjoy the lesson. I will post a series of detailed posts about drawing reptiles so you can see some of the material I would have presented.

Studying Salamanders

salamader faceAmphibians have moist glandular skin. The wrinkles, warts, and folds of the skin are often important details for identification and to include in your sketches. Some species have a hairline crack between the lip and the nose. Also look for a flap of loose skin under the head that makes a fold behind the jawline.

salamader body

Think of the eye as a solid sphere. You need to wrap the eyelids around this shape. Seeing of the eye as a three dimensional form will help you get the look onto your paper.

How to draw a frog, step-by-step

DiceIn this step-by-step demonstration of how to draw a leopard frog we will explore watercolor technique and learn how bands and spots show the contour of limbs and the orientation of body planes. We also explore how to suggest amphibian’s moist and shiny skin with crisp white highlights. This demonstration is a good example of the way that watercolorists add layers of paint, starting lighter and working progressively darker. 

On the die, observe how the shape of a round spot changes to an oval on the surfaces that are not facing you. The same is true of spots on this Leopard Frog.

Click on the first image to enlarge it and start a step-by-step slide show of how to draw a frog.

How to Draw A Salamander

Learn how to draw a salamander in this step-by-step tutorial. Yellow-blotched Ensatina, Ensatina eschscholtzii croceater

Editor’s note: I have chozen not to spell check this post to let my readers see my unedatid spelling. I am dislexic and grew up with the shame that came from not being able to spell like my peers. For part of my childhood I was convinsed that I was stupid. By leting you see my speling I hope to let other dislexic kids out there know you are not alone. It gets beter and you will find ways to cope. Your spleling is not a reflection of your inteleagence. Find your strengths and give generosly to the world. You are breautiful have so much to offer.

One way to create light paterns on a dark background is gouache. This opake paint handles much like watercolor and can be easily used in the field. If you allready have a watercolor palete, you do not need a full selection of colors. Get a tube of permanint white gouache and a few other light colors (yellow, tan, light green, etc.). You can paint these over dark washis of watercolor. When you need a dark just use the watercoler. If your first layer of gouaoshe is not opake enough, you can add additional layers once it had dried.

Click on the first image to enlarge it and start a step-by-step slide show.


How to Draw Frogs and Toads

Understanding frog anatomy and structure will both help you observe and be able to draw what you see. Study and look for these important anatomical details in photographs and live frogs to help you learn how to draw frogs and toads. Frogs that are adapted for jumping will have a prominent sacral hump on their backs.

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As you make your preliminary sketch, align the eyes and the contours of the sacral hump. Click on the first image to enlarge and see the relationship of the preliminary lines to the compleated drawing.

Understanding the skeleton

There are four characteristics of the frog skeleton that are helpful for artists.

  1. The broad head has limited mobility and relatively no neck.
  2. The forelegs are internally rotated so that the toes point toward each other.
  3. The pelvis is elongated and hinged at the spine. This is what causes the sacral hump.
  4. The tarsus of the hind leg is well articulated and makes a distinctive angle before the webbed toes.

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Toad skin is covered with large warts. These are skin glands, not the result of a virus and are not contagious). The parotid gland is a large protective poison gland behind the eye and above the eardrum. Toads are less adapted to jumping and have shorter back legs.

toad faces blue gland

To suggest the skin texture, add a highlight on top of each wart. If it is surrounded by a dark ring, make the ring a little larger on the near side as the wart will partly block the view of the far side.

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