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How to Draw Animals: The Importance of Drawing a Pose

This post is part of a series called How to Draw Animals.
How to Draw Animals: Bears and Pandas, and Their Anatomy
How to Draw Animals: Elephants, Their Species and Anatomy

When I was a kid, I used to say: "I don't care about drawing books, I don't need to draw a pose, I just know how to draw something as a whole". This kind of thinking was a serious blockade to my progress, but a lot of time has to fly for me to realize it. Now I know building a pose is the most important part of the drawing. Do you want to learn why? Or maybe you know it, but poses are still your weak point? In this article I'll help you.

What is a Pose?

A pose is a simplified representation of the skeleton of an object. It defines the shape of the body, its position and perspective. Every creature has a pose, even if it wasn't planned and drawn before in a schematic way.


A pose symbolizes a skeleton, so it has its "joints" and "bones", and some parts are merged for easier representation. There is no one and only correct pose drawing - all it must do is represent the skeleton, but style of the drawing is unrestricted. I tend to draw the basic muscle masses when designing a pose.


Why is it so Important?

A pose is the first element of anatomy. When you start your picture without defining a pose first, it's like you're building a body out of muscles only. You may succeed and create a believable pose without defining it, but it's just a matter of luck. If you draw without trying to learn it (using so called talent), you don't know how you do it. You are sketching a few lines and they look good or not, then you use your intuition to make it better. If you were to explain someone how you draw, you'd say: "I just feel it!". The problem is, the "feeling" is rarely enough.

So, what's wrong about using "talent" only? When you don't know why your picture looks good, there is no way of knowing why your other pictures look terrible (and thus, how to fix it). You may stick to three or four poses that always turn out great and draw them all the time, because others seem too hard, too complicated. And while your pictures may look awesome, you may have a lot of fans and be loved by everyone, there is still that tiny discomfort in your heart - you feel you can't progress in any way. Your "feeling" just doesn't work at the level you want to reach!

The First Step into Realism

Sometimes a picture looks very refined, the fur of an animal is carefully rendered and textured, the eyes are shining and full of life, but despite of all these realistic features you can feel it's not natural. On the other hand, some careless sketch made of messy lines may look realistic. There may be a few of issues that lead to this effect, but a pose is certainly on the top of them. Believe me or not, but the pose itself can save a picture even if you're not so good at drawing!

Is there a drawing you spent a lot of time on just to see it looks wrong in the end? Scan it and try to draw the pose over the picture. Sketch the bones and joints just like I did - does it look more clear now? Do you see your mistakes? Keep on reading if you want to learn what to do with it.

By the way, below you can see one of my first pictures of dragons, drawn probably in 2007. I drew it for my friend without even trying to learn anything about dragons, because, you know, what's so hard about them? I guessed some of things just right, but look at that double chest and broken arm!

Ouch! I'm sure I didn't plan it

The Components of a Pose

Although our drawing is always presented in 2D, it's wise to think about the shapes building the pose as 3D objects. This way they're easier to "rotate" in our minds, it also makes it incredibly easy to build a pose according to perspective rules.



The chest in a skeleton is made of ribs. If an animal is healthy and well nourished, there is no need to draw them, only the shape they create - a balloon. It represents the biggest mass in an animal's body, the front part of the barrow. On the top there is a shoulder girdle - an oval made of the collarbone line and scapulae line. Even if an animal doesn't have functional collarbones (like cats), it's still good to draw this oval to find a place to attach the forelegs.



Hips are a complicated bony structure that looks completely different from every side. Fortunately, they're placed inside the body and we only need to draw what they do, not what they are. They give shape to the hind part of the barrow, they keep legs in place and define the default state of the tail. They can be drawn as a ball (just to define the space they're taking) with three lines - one for width and two for sides. Little balls attached to them represent the places where you'll stick the legs.



While technically everything in a skeleton is a bone, in this approach we'll narrow this definition to the long, straight bones only. They're drawn as simple lines connecting joints. Their radius isn't really important, but pay attention to the length.



Joints are places where two bones meet. Thanks to them the bones can be moved relatively to each other in a limited range. In a pose joints can be drawn as simple balls - they define the place where a bone can change direction.



The spine is made of small bony parts, just like a line of short bones and joints. We can draw it as a line connecting head, chest and hips. A tail is just another part of the spine starting at the hips.



The skull is the element that will differ the most among animals, so when drawing a pose you can just create a placeholder for it. No matter what, later you'll need to define the proportions of the head too, but for now all these details play no role in building a pose. Just pick the correct size and go!


A Universal Skeleton

While every animal is built differently (with smaller differences within the family), most of vertebrates use one similar scheme for the pose. It means you can learn a few universal rules and you'll be able to draw most of the popular animals in a correct manner!


Let's see what you need to know about the universal skeleton.


Although animals can have four legs, they aren't all the same. Forelegs (arms for humans) have elbows bending to back, and hind legs (actual legs for humans) have knees bending to the front (it's safe to remember the main joint of every limb bends to the center of the animal's body). They're both made of three parts:

  • arm/thigh;
  • forearm/calf;
  • hand/foot.

Since some animals walk on their fingertips, they can be counted as the fourth part. Once you've know it, you can easily relate any animal's body to yours and use yourself as a reference when it comes to the joints range of motion.

Pay special attention to limits. Joints have limited range of motion - break it and people will see there's something wrong with the picture. Just as you can't rotate your arm around in one position, animals can't stretch their legs in every direction without tilting the chest.


A common problem when creating a dynamic pose is to get the proper length for all the three parts of a limb. There's one simple trick that'll help you in a second! All you need to do is to understand is that the paws point in the direction of the limb. When you move your hand, the arm follows it. When you walk, you put your foot on the ground, and all of the leg just follows its motion. You rarely move the elbow or knee on their own (with the exception of exercising). Why would you draw paws at the very end, when they're actually the reason of motion?

The trick is:

  1. Determine the maximum length of a limb and proportions between the arm/forearm or thigh/calf;
  2. Draw the paw anywhere you want to within its range;
  3. Divide the line between the paw and the body according to the proportions you have set before;
  4. Draw the other parts of the limb using their default length. The longer the distance is, the wider the arm/forearm angle.

From the Head to the Tip of the Tail

The spine creates a general line for the silhouette. It's embedded in the skull (in the back for four-legged animals and in the bottom for humans), then it runs between the scapulae, crosses the hips and ends on the tip of the tail. Flexibility of particular animals can differ, but generally you can use your own spine as a reference. Whatever you want to draw, it's always good to start from the spine to establish the rhythm of the body.


Tips for Common Poses

Lying Down

The main problem with drawing a laying animal is some of the limbs are only partially visible. How to get a proper length of each section? Where should the half-covered limbs actually be? These problems go away when you're thinking with poses. Just draw everything, no matter what perspective you use. Later you'll cover it with body, but for now our "skeleton" is bare.



Drawing a sitting animal isn't really hard when you know how to sketch hips. You just need to place them and the feet on the ground, and the rest can be sketched using the technique from the previous step.


Jumping and Running

I've explained this topic quite extensively in my previous tutorials, about cats and horses, so I suggest you take a look at them. I can only add you can still use your body to check if a pose you want to draw feels good and comfortable. If it does, give it a go - it'll most likely work.


I've Got a Pose, What Now?

Now nothing can stop you! You can cover the skeleton with basic muscles masses and with fur or scales - anything you'll draw from now on will look natural, even if the technique itself isn't perfect yet. I hope I convinced you that drawing a pose is the most important thing you can do to create a realistic animal and all your drawn creatures will be started from a proper skeleton in the future!

As a bonus: can you see now where all these mistakes come from? If so, congratulations - you'll never make them again!

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