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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Iris in Colored Pencil

Layering and blending colored pencils builds rich colors and values. Combine this with embossing and outlining the drawing with a hard Verathin pencil to precisely control detail. Outlining the drawing at the start helps to contain the subsequent pencil strokes, making it easier to make a crisp and clean drawing. Detail is the last step. Had it been applied early in the process, it would have been smudged by the Odorless Mineral Spirits and lost beneath layers of deepening color. Click on the first image to start a step-by-step slideshow.

How to get started with Nature Journaling

The trick is to dive in but that is not as easy as it sounds. Here are a few thoughts to help you get started and keep at it.

Moving the goal post

Do not focus on trying to make pretty pictures. That just leads to journal block. Open your journal with the intention of discovering something new. Use the process to help you slow down and look more carefully. If you notice something that you otherwise would not have seen, remember it more vividly, or start asking yourself more interesting questions about what you observe than the journaling is a success. Embrace this idea and go. This gives you permission to make lots of pictures. If you make lots of pictures you get better. Art is a side effect of the process of journaling.

The first page of a new sketchbook

A brand new sketchbook is a beautiful thing. It if full of possibilities and potential energy. It can also be intimidating. All those perfectly white pages, how can you make a mark in that? Many people also feel pressure to make something pretty on page one. If you have trouble cracking in a new book, try this. Get a pen and write your name and contact number on the inside cover in case you loose the book. This also helps break it in and make it yours. Then start on page two and go from there. At some point you will feel inspired to fill in that first page but untill then you have a lot of journaling to do.

The first page of the day

I know a lot of folks (including myself) who have brought their sketchbook with them on a hike with all good intentions but spend the whole day without getting it out. It is just dead weight in the backpack. At a certain point you feel  “oh I should have been journaling and now I have missed so much good stuff that I might as well forget it for today.” The book stays in the backpack. We are creatures of habit- even in a single day. Once you get your book out and start to explore, you will do it again and again and go home with pages full of discoveries. It is the first entry on the first page that starts the cascade. To break in the first page, open your journal at the trailhead and write the location, date and weather. Just this is often enough to get more material to follow. I will often make a warm up sketch or two right there as well (see Sacrificial Pancakes below). Start playing with your journal early and you will sketch all day.

Sacrificial Pancakes

When you start to make a batch of pancakes, the first one off the griddle invariably are a mess.  Perhaps the pan is not the right temperature our has uneven heat. If you stopped then and said “I can’t do this, making pancakes is too hard” you would never have a satisfactory breakfast. Cooks know that the first ones are the sacrificial pancakes but that they make the way for the perfect pancake. So too with drawing. Every day when you start to draw you need to warm up. Do not expect the first sketch to come out the way you expect. You need time to reconnect your eye, brain, and hand. So plunge in, knowing that you need to create a few drawings just as a warm up exercise and do not expect them to be a work of art. Choose something interesting and explore it as a diagram, adding written notes, side views, and enlargements. Focus on seeing something new, not making a pretty drawing but get yourself drawing none the less. By the time you are done, you are warmed up and ready for a day of sketching.

 Journaling with friends and family

Nature Journal Club outing & Elkhorn Slough - Moss Landing, CA,What if everyone on your family had a journaling kit and you made sketching and exploring in nature a part of the way your family connects with the world? We are social creatures and love to do things together. Just as you are more likely to keep to a diet or exercise program if you do it with a partner, having a journaling support group keeps you going. When you are feeling a little off, you only need to look to your peers to get respired. When you are on your journaling game, you inspire them. Together you keep the habit going and progress much more quickly. Make his a part of your families’ practice or home-schooling curriculum.

Forming a nature journal club

Another way to get going and keep your momentum is to join (or start) a nature journal club. These groups meet throughout the country and if there isn’t one nearby, you can start your own. Having a regular schedule will allow members to put the events on their calendar in advance. Change the locations or topics every month to keep thing varied and interesting. Social media platforms such as Meetup or Facebook are good ways to connect with journal club members. You can also hang notices in local art supply stores, nature centers, or museums. Provide some social time on the events to help people get to know each other. A portable potluck lunch is a great way to bring people together. Towards the middle and the end of each outing, encourage people to open their journals together on a table. Look at the ways that other people are document, and describing the same place. Instead of just appreciating pretty pictures (an unproductive way to stimulate your inner critic) use the opportunity to actively steal ideas about what to observe and how to record it. Copying ideas or the style of another person does not make you less creative, on the contrary, it helps you see through new eyes and expands your repertoire of what it means to journal.

Layering and Blending Colored Pencils

There are two colored pencil technique secrets to building up layers of colors. The first is to maintain the texture of the paper. Choose a paper sith some tooth or fine texture for pencil drawings. The tooth of the paper catches and holds the pencil. As long as this tooth exists, you can add layer after layer of color. Use a light or medium touch when applying color.  If you press hard, you will burnish the paper smooth creating a platform of pencil wax. Subsequent strokes will either skip across this surface without leaving color or will deposit irregular blobs of pencil wax and pigment.

The second secret to succesful layering is to use complementary colors in your shadows instead of reaching for the black pencil. Complementary colors sit on opposite sides of the color wheel: magenta and green, cyan and orange-red, yellow and violet-blue. These colors will combine with the principal color of the object to make a low chroma brown or gray shadow. The black pencil shadow is often too jarring and does not feel like a part of the shaded object.

Click on the first image to start a step-by-step sideshow.


Spider anatomy for artists

Fall is here and it is time to draw spiders. In this season female spiders have reached their full size and are ready to mate. Their webs are easily seen in the morning dew. Understanding how the body is put together will help you draw what you see with greater ease.

spider body parts

cephalothoraxAs in insects, the body is divided into segments. The head and the thorax (where the legs attach) are fused into one pear shaped segment, the cephalothorax. The eyes are set in the front of the cephalothorax. The eyes are often in groups and make distinct patterns on different kinds of spiders.The chelicerae are stout appendages below the eyes that support the fangs. The large abdomen has most of the organs and the spinnerets that make silk for the web.

Think of the legs as having three big segments. The Femur is the first big segment. It is thick and muscular. The patella and tibia are effectively one segment although there is a little side-to-side movement at the joint between them. They are usually aligned. Similarly, the metatarsus and tarsus are usually aligned. Unless you have powerful magnification, you probably will not see the patella-tibia and metatarsus-tarsus joints. You can effectively ignore the coxa and trochanter as they are small segments close to the cephalothorax and do not make prominent angles on the legs. 

spider legs

Side view and top view of a spider’s leg showing range of movement.

Field study of a spider. Notice that I observe the spider and the web. Then zoom out to take in a larger context of where I found the web. Notes and questions about insects caught in the web while I observed are in the top right corner.

Click to enlarge: Field study of a spider. Notice that I observe the spider and the web. Then zoom out to take in a larger context of where I found the web. Notes and questions about insects caught in the web while I observed are in the top right corner.