You can remember them from your childhood—Bugs Bunny, Donald Duck, Disney's Robin Hood... All these walking and talking animals that are so human-like that you start treating them like humans. These characters are anthropomorphic: they're basically animals with their bodies modified to resemble humans both in the way of moving and in their general behavior.
Anthropomorphism is often used in children's movies/books, because it's easy to create original characters this way, and kids are naturally more drawn to cute animals/talking machines than to "normal", boring humans they can see every day. But anthros, as such characters are called, are also popular among older audiences.
Just like in manga, anthropomorphic characters can be much more interesting and visually appealing than real humans. Their exaggerated facial features allow artists to communicate their emotions freely, and there's no pressure to reach full realism, since anthros are not real by definition. Because of this, they can be an excellent topic to draw!
But what exactly are anthropomorphic characters, and how can you create them?
What Is Anthropomorphism?
We are born with a tendency to assign human attributes to non-human entities. Before the dawn of modern civilization, people used to see a soul in stones, trees, and animals, and treated natural phenomena as powerful entities with their own will. Even random occurrences were assigned to the will of "fate", which sometimes "smiled upon" a person or was "cruel" to them.
This curious trait of the human mind has allowed us to create stories with non-human characters, to make them more interesting and to make their meaning clearer, especially for children. Non-human characters make the story obviously untrue, so that it can't be confused with real events, but it just makes the deeper truth hidden in them stand out more.
To anthropomorphize means simply "to make something human-like". It can be done in various ways: a tree can be said to think and speak while keeping its normal tree look, but it can also have "arms" and "hands" made of branches, and a fully expressive "face" carved in the trunk. In the case of animals, they can be made bipedal and wear human clothes, and their faces can be changed to show human emotions.
Anthropomorphic characters are used today in cartoons and children books, but also as mascots for institutions and events, and as illustrations for ideas. An anthropomorphic polar bear can make us more empathetic towards these animals and feel more responsible for climate change, and an anthropomorphic Earth can help us care more about recycling. Even subtle anthropomorphism, like attaching a smile to an item, or simply talking about it as if it had feelings, can make us care more about it.
The high expressiveness of anthropomorphic characters makes them very popular among artists, because they don't require you to be so faithful to realism. You can make your character have human-like adventures with his friends (go to school, fall in love, get a pet) without ever having to draw a human, and make the story even more interesting this way. Your characters may have a finished, professional look, even if they're actually simple—because their simplicity is not a flaw.
Besides the obvious functionality of this solution, anthropomorphic characters simply have aesthetic value to many people. There are only so many ways to make a human beautiful, while you can design a thousand amazing bird-men based on various species. Just like manga characters, anthros can be made completely fantastic and detached from reality in their look, which lets the artist get extremely creative while keeping the story grounded in reality. Simply thinking of various anthros can be quite inspiring, too—what would a cheetah-man look like?
Anthropomorphic characters are also used in fantasy to make the world more remarkable and different from ours. In such worlds, humans are simply one of many intelligent "races", which becomes a convenient base for interesting interactions. For example, in a fantasy world, cat-men may be treated as slaves, which can be used as a safe way to tackle racial discrimination. Such a story can be made completely realistic, even dark, despite having such unreal characters.
What Are Furries?
Among anthropomorphic characters, animals are the most popular. Humans are animals, after all, so we are all pretty similar, especially among mammals. It almost comes naturally to us to assign human characteristics to animals, for example to call a dog mean for destroying our shoes, or to feel sorry for a male bird rejected by a female. Making the animal stand on its hind legs and do typically human things doesn't seem too far-fetched to us because of this.
We can also identify to an extent with certain animals. We can think of ourselves, "I'm like a wolf, quiet and withdrawn among strangers, but very loyal to my friends," or "I'm like a lioness, I'll do everything to keep my children safe." If you're creative enough, you can imagine a detailed vision of your "animal self", taking it outside of your mindset and into actual physicality. Wouldn't it feel cool to have a tail to wag when you're happy, and express your emotions more clearly with your ears? If you like this vision, you may be a furry.
Furries are people who are fans of anthropomorphic animals. It's a very broad term, because your sympathy towards the fandom can be expressed in many ways. You may simply like reading comics starring anthro animals, draw them, or role-play as an anthro animal with your friends. You can create a detailed design of your fursona—your imagined animal-self—and "become" this character by wearing a special suit. You can even attend special furry conventions, where furries can interact with people who share the same interests. "Furry" is also the term for an anthropomorphic animal, even if it's a reptile (though the term "scalie" can be used as well for the latter).
While often portrayed by the media as freaks, furries are simply people who love the concept of anthropomorphic animals. The only difference between them and, say, Trekkies (fans of Star Trek), is that they are more visible—by the art they create (lots and lots of original art, not just fan art, like Trekkies), and the fursuits that seem to many people more childish than "normal" cosplay. A person cosplaying as a minotaur (bull-man) will get far fewer judgmental looks than a person cosplaying as a fox-man, which can only be explained by many misconceptions about the furry community.
For furries, anthros are like people of different species, sort of non-human-looking humans. When asked about the appeal of such a design, they usually mention the boring look of human characters (limited by their humanity). Anthro animals introduce a simpler, purer way of communication, without the complexity of "normal" human interaction. And their look can express their character clearly, which is not so simple in humans.
Furries usually have a vast imagination, and many of them express it through their artistic skills. Creating art is the easiest way to make a furry character real and visible to other people. Drawing your fursona and using it as an avatar on social media can let you become that character and be seen as one by others. Role-playing is also easier when you have a "photo" of your character to show other players.
How to Draw Anthro Animals
I mentioned earlier that anthro characters are easier to draw than realistic humans, but easier doesn't mean easy. You still need to know something about drawing humans, because anthro animals are human-like animals. So let's see what you need to know to draw good anthro characters.
Anatomy Is the Key
Humans are the only truly bipedal mammals (walking on two legs as a normal way of locomotion). Therefore, simply making an animal stand on two legs makes it automatically look human-like.
You can also simply attach an animal head to a human body. However, you lose many opportunities for an interesting design this way, because while it technically can be called an anthro, it doesn't look plausible, which kills the immersion (the "sewn" parts drag your attention away from the personality of the character).
To create a realistic furry character, one that people could believe in, you need to look into the anatomy of both humans and animals. Once you get to know it, you'll be able to create convincing designs—anthros that look as if they could really exist. Even simple, purely cartoon characters have their anatomy simplified, not guessed, and this makes a difference.
If you look at humans as a whole, they look relatively similar—some taller, some shorter, some skinnier, some fatter, but these differences are not really striking. Cartoon artists exaggerate these tiny differences to tell us more about a character, and the same should be done with anthros.
You can achieve this by using a simplified body rhythm. What is the very first thing you see when looking at the character? How would you describe its silhouette if you could only use the terms of simple shapes? Always start your sketch from this, and you can be sure that your character will send a consistent message about its body shape.
If your character is typically cartoon, make sure to repeat the rhythm throughout its entire body, for example: elongated torso, elongated head, long fingers and feet. If you go for realism, this is not necessary, but still make sure that your character has one base rhythm in its whole body.
You can learn about drawing rhythm from these tutorials:
- Drawing TheoryQuick Tip: Create Dynamic Poses Using Gesture DrawingRowena Aitken
- Drawing TheoryHow to Use Gestures to Draw Creatures From ImaginationMonika Zagrobelna
- Drawing TheoryHow to Start a Drawing: 5 Methods for BeginnersMonika Zagrobelna
- Digital DrawingTake Our New Course on Dynamic Gesture DrawingAndrew Blackman
- DrawingHuman Anatomy Fundamentals: Learning to See and Draw EnergyJoumana Medlej
Every animal has its own body proportions. Anthros combine the proportions of humans and animals, but they're still not random. Proportions come mostly from the skeleton: the length of bones and the joints between them. You don't need to know fixed values ("like 13 cm"), just relative ones ("the forearm is slightly shorter than the arm").
You can learn the proportions of the bones by analyzing the skeletons of both humans and the animal that you want to use. The Internet is full of great references for this, especially if the animal is one of the common ones. To analyze the proportions, gather a set of various references (the more different views, the better), and sketch the skeletons in a simple way, trying to find a recipe you can memorize.
Later, combine both sets of proportions into one, focusing on functionality as well as the look. Animal legs look the way they look not because this is cute, but because they are optimal for quadrupedal motion. Similarly, the uncommon structure of human legs comes directly from their function—creating an upright position and allowing for bipedal movement. A bipedal fox-man, therefore, can't just be a fox standing on its hind legs—they must be modified to look more human-like. And that's just one of many things you need to consider when creating a body structure for your furry!
- Human AnatomyHuman Anatomy Fundamentals: Basic Body ProportionsJoumana Medlej
- DrawingHuman Anatomy Fundamentals: Advanced Body ProportionsJoumana Medlej
- DrawingHuman Anatomy Fundamentals: Flexibility and Joint LimitationsJoumana Medlej
After you have your proportions, you can add the actual body mass to them. The shape of the body comes from the muscles, fat, and fur, in this particular order. Fur allows you to hide a lot of details of the silhouette, but it still shouldn't be done in a random way—the direction of the hairs is affected by the shape of the surface under them.
Again, this subject is best learned by analyzing the anatomy of real animals and humans. You don't need to go as far as to memorize the name of every muscle and ligament; all you need is the form they make. So search for diagrams of muscles and sketch them, trying to simplify the forms into something easy to memorize and reproduce. You can find such diagrams in my tutorials about drawing various animals:
- DrawingHow to Draw Animals: Cats and Their AnatomyMonika Zagrobelna
- DrawingHow to Draw Animals: Big Cats, Their Anatomy and PatternsMonika Zagrobelna
- DrawingHow to Draw Animals: Dogs and Wolves, and Their AnatomyMonika Zagrobelna
- DrawingHow to Draw Animals: Birds, Their Anatomy and How to Draw ThemMonika Zagrobelna
- DrawingHow to Draw Animals: Horses, Their Anatomy and PosesMonika Zagrobelna
Once you know where the shape of the animal and human body come from, you can mix them into your design. Feel free to exaggerate!
But muscles aren't everything when it comes to the shape of the body—we have the fat and fur as well. These you need to study separately, to understand how they change the shape created by the muscles. You can learn it by sketching real animals with their muscles only (using a photo reference), and then adding the other elements.
You also need to remember that photos don't show you the whole picture. You can learn more from videos, and even more from observing the real animals. Take your sketchbook to the zoo!
Finally, when your character has a full, roughly sketched body, you can start adding details to it. Does it have hands or paws? What do its feet look like? What does it wear, what clothes, what jewelry? This is the most fun part about designing a character, but there still should be nothing random about it. Even the details should be functional!
The feet, for example, are used for walking, not for looking cute. The paw pads are not random—they're cushions for the bones in the foot. If your character is bipedal, do paws instead of hands make sense, if it doesn't really use these "feet" for walking? You need to think about all these things if you want to finish the design in a convincing way.
It's not only about anatomy. The jewelry, clothing, and armor must fit the body and allow for natural movement. Don't just draw a bracelet on every empty area of the skin; try to become this character for a while and see what you would wear and how if you were them. Maybe long, dangling earrings are not a good idea for a hunting cat-man? Is wearing a skirt wise if you're moving by hopping? If you keep thinking this way, you'll avoid mistakes that break the illusion you're trying to create.
- Human AnatomyHuman Anatomy Fundamentals: How to Draw FeetJoumana Medlej
- DrawingHuman Anatomy Fundamentals: How to Draw HandsJoumana Medlej
Simplify to Clarify
You might have heard of a phenomenon called the uncanny valley. Generally, the more realistic the face, the more we like it, until it gets almost real, but not quite. This little lack of realism is much more unsettling than stylization, because we see clearly all the face isn't. You can use this information to keep your anthros "real enough"—stylized in a convincing way, but far enough from the uncanny valley to avoid comparing it to the real thing.
Simplification can let you drag the attention to what really matters in your design. Make the feet flat, exaggerate the muscles, make the eyes huge and expressive as in manga characters—and you'll make it clear that it's not realistic because it's not supposed to be, not because you didn't know how to do it.
Simplification removes the unnecessary elements and exaggerates the important ones, but you need to do it consistently to create a convincing image. For example, a nose made from a simple shape without the nose holes will look good only if the rest of the face doesn't have too many details. Otherwise, the lack will be visible and unsettling for the viewer.
Real anatomy is not easy to learn and remember, and simplification can save you from it. People will see a leg even if it doesn't have a perfectly shaped knee—it just needs a joint in a certain place and some mass around two bones. But this is something you need to go to yourself—learn the real anatomy, and then remove the redundant parts step by step. Remember, guessing has nothing to do with simplification; stylization is purposeful, not random.
Make the Face Talk
Humans have a lot of tiny muscles in their faces used specifically for creating various facial expressions. We can also recognize the smallest change in them to interpret the mood of the other person. Animals, though they have a repertoire of facial expressions suitable for their species, are not nearly as expressive as us, and the whole body matters more in their communication than in ours.
Because of this, simply attaching an animal head to your anthro's body will make it quite hard to treat the creature as a person. We need moving eyebrows, flexible lips, visible whites of the eyes, to convey the messages written in the language of human facial expressions. Moving the ears or changing the shape of the pupils can be just an addition—they're enough for an animal, but not for an intelligent, talking person.
This means you need to simplify the face to make room for more human-like features. The eyebrows are a must, and they have to be mobile—we can read a lot from them. Many animals seem to carry a single facial expression all the time because of fixed facial features that we recognize as eyebrows (for example, many birds of prey look angry or proud, regardless of what they feel). They don't need to have the shape of human eyebrows, but they should be capable of affecting the shape of the eye.
Flexible lips are another thing. If you take a close look at human lips, they're actually a rim of skin curled out. In us and other mammals, this part of the skin has its own muscles, so that we can suckle when we're babies. Because of this, we can move them, though humans have taken it to an extreme—the motion of the lips sends emotional messages as well. Females tend to have fuller lips, which is an easy way to accentuate the sex of your character.
Lips are also important for talking—notice how you pronounce 'm', 'p', 'b', 'f', 'w', 'v' (talking birds can have problems with those). If your character is a bird, you may have to use a compromise—you either keep it realistic and never use any expression around the "lips", or treat the opening of the beak as normal, human lips.
In most animals, you don't really see the white of the eye, and when the animal wants to look around, they usually use their whole head. But humans are different—because there's so much of the white of the eye visible, you can see exactly where the person is looking.
Hypothetically, this used to help us in group hunting (silent "pointing" with eyes), but today it's mostly used to send non-verbal messages. Rolling your eyes, looking away, looking around when thinking—if you want your character to be able to communicate this way, make sure the whites of the eyes are visible.
But furries are also part animals, and they can have additional means of conveying emotions. For example, most mammals show their mood by moving their ears, and a reptile can use its tongue for something more than tasting the air. Experiment with it to see how you can make these additional motions a part of understandable facial expressions.
- DrawingHuman Anatomy Fundamentals: Basics of the FaceJoumana Medlej
- IllustrationHuman Anatomy Fundamentals: Advanced Facial FeaturesJoumana Medlej
Emotions Are Simple
Although we have so many emotions and so many ways to show them, in the end they can be simplified into a few groups. The simplified face of your anthro character can be very efficient at showing emotions, and its simplicity makes it even more expressive—because there's little room for confusing mistakes. Move the eyebrows, drag the corner of the mouth, squint the eyes, and you'll tell a lot.
Look into a mirror and try to show these basic emotions: joy, sadness, surprise, anger, disgust. See how easy it is? Sure, these are "acted" facial expressions, and we look different when the emotions come naturally, but you don't need this kind of realism for your anthro character. You don't really need to learn this—just make the same face you're trying to draw and you'll see you already know what to do. But if you want to study this topic more, you'll love this complex guide to emotions:
Keep It Consistent
A well-designed character looks the same every time. You don't just recognize it by its species, color, and clothing, but also by the body proportions and the face. That's why it's good to create a reference sheet for your character, where you will show it in various views and with various facial expressions, or in different clothing/no clothing.
A reference sheet lets you see the character as a whole, not as one drawing. You can use such a sheet to draw the character later consistently, or to show to other artists, so that they are able to create art (or a fursuit!) of this character faithfully. You can learn how to create such a sheet (and how to create a werewolf anthro, too!) from the tutorials below:
- Concept ArtDesign and Draw a Model Sheet of a Werewolf WarriorMonika Zagrobelna
- Concept ArtDesign a Model Sheet of a Werewolf Warrior in Adobe Photoshop: PaintingMonika Zagrobelna
- Human AnatomyHuman Anatomy Fundamentals: Drawing Characters ConsistentlyJoumana Medlej
While anthropomorphic characters have been popularized in our time by children's books and movies, they are certainly not limited to them. Half-humans, half-animals can combine the best of both worlds, giving the artist full control over the character without submitting to the stiff rules of realism. They're also so diverse that everyone can create a personalized, unique character expressing their own personality in a way not possible in the human reality.
Are you a furry? What is your fursona? What do you like the most about anthro characters? And if you're not a furry, what are your thoughts on the fandom, or anthro animals in general? I'd love to hear what you think, so feel free to leave a comment!