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How to Draw Animals: Fish and Sharks

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This post is part of a series called How to Draw Animals.
How to Draw Animals: Domestic Pigs, Wild Boars, and Warthogs
How to Draw Animals: Dolphins, Whales, and Porpoises
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What You'll Be Creating

Fish look very simple to draw, but, as with everything, we need to learn something about their anatomy to picture them properly. In this tutorial I'll show you features of a typical fish, as well as basic information about sharks. This way you'll be able to create your own species easily.

General Fish Anatomy and Body Features


Let's start with a skeleton of a typical fish to discuss the most basic features.

  1. Skull—head of a fish is attached rigidly to the spine without any neck structure;
  2. Spine—flat, with long "spikes" instead of ribs;
  3. Front dorsal fin—always placed along the body, at the top of it;
  4. Back dorsal fin—fish can have up to three dorsal fins, sometimes fused together into an irregular one. Sometimes instead of the last dorsal fin an adipose fin occurs—a small "fin" without spikes inside;
  5. Caudal fin (tail fin)—this distinctive fin is used for moving in the water. It's made of two fins placed vertically;
  6. Ventral fin—there's two of them and they're located under the body, on the front or in the middle;
  7. Pectoral fin—they're placed right behind the head. You can use them as "arms" of the fish. They're used for turning;
  8. Anal fin—a single fin placed under the body, right before the start point of the tail.
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Skeleton of a typical fish

Body Shape

You don't need to remember the exact shape of the bones, only the placement of big, distinctive groups. So every time you want to draw a fish, build it out of an elliptical barrow, a head and a tail ended with fins. Then add arms (pectoral fins), spine fins (dorsal fins), one fin right before the tail and two fins under the belly.

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1—side view; 2—top view; 3—bottom view

By modifying the shape and proportions of the elements you can create any kind of fish you like.

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Modify the shape of the parts to create an original body


There are two kinds of fish fins' support: hard spikes (1) and soft rays (2). Spikes give a fin a "sharp" look, with distinctive stretched membrane. Fins with rays are softer and their edges are more feather-like. Spikes usually make dorsal fins, but also spike-ray mix within one fin may occur.

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1—spikes; 2—rays

The membrane may also cover the tips of the spikes (or rays) in a gentle way (1), or reveal a big part of them (2). In the second case, the bare spikes can be easily used as a weapon.

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1—scraps of fin may sway gracefully in the water; 2—the spikes can be used for defense

Fins are very simple to draw:

Step 1

Start with lines bending in the direction of the flow (tail—center).

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Step 2

Connect the lines with a membrane.

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There are three main ways of drawing the membrane:

  1. 1-step slope, very easy and natural;
  2. 2-step slope, the mist intuitive, but not always correct;
  3. 3-step slope, pretty and natural.
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Interesting fact: you can use this method for dragon wings too!

Step 3

Sketch the details. You can add stripes to the ray fins.

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What if we wanted to create a long row of spikes that bends with the body? There's a simple trick for it:

how to draw fish fins snake rowhow to draw fish fins snake rowhow to draw fish fins snake row

Types of Caudal Fins

Tail fins can have different shapes to fit the fish's style of movement.

  1. Indented
  2. Double truncate
  3. Forked
  4. Square
  5. Rounded
  6. Pointed (without distinctive fin)
  7. Lunate
  8. Pointed (with distinctive fin)
  9. Heterocercal
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Fish Head

Although fish have different head shapes among species, we can learn how to draw the most typical shape. Remember: most of the fish have their gills covered!

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The eyes of fish belong to one of the most amazing on our planet. While their shape is quite typical, their colorful iris can glitter! Sometimes the eye is a part of the camouflage and a stripe coming across the body comes across the iris too. So, you can really let your imagination go wild when creating your own species of fish.

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Use eyes as a part of a pattern of the fish


Some fish don't have scales, but most of them do, so it's a crucial thing to learn about them. There are four types of fish scales:

  1. Cycloid scales—typical for fish with ray fins. They're smooth in touch;
  2. Ctenoid scales—typical for fish with spiky fins. They're rough in touch;
  3. Ganoid scales—typical for primitive fish;
  4. Placoid scales—typical for sharks. They're tiny "teeth", smooth when touched in head-tail direction and rough otherwise.

Keep in mind that the shape of the scales won't matter most of the time. Usually it's better to treat them like a texture (smooth—non-smooth), unless you're going for a super detailed drawing.

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The most intuitive way of drawing fish scales is also the wrong one. To draw them properly you need to add spaces between the scales in every row.

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There's an easy method of drawing the scales the proper way:

  1. Draw a grid made of interlaced wide and narrow rows;
  2. Draw scales inside the wide cells;
  3. Draw scales inside the narrow cells, cutting them in the middle. They should be the same size as before!
  4. Clean the lines.

Lateral Line

Fish have a line of holes in the scales that's a part of a complicated, another-sense system. It's meant to detect the movement and vibration in the water. You can draw it as a darker line coming along the body.

fish lateral linefish lateral linefish lateral line


To create a believable pose of a fish we need to understand how they move. This is actually pretty simple: by wagging their tail left and right they create a push needed to move forward.

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The longer the tail, the faster the movement. Some fish have tail so short that they actually use only the caudal fin to move.

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The faster the movement, the more energy the fish needs

The Special Features of Sharks

Sharks are fish too, but they're so much different than guppies and bettas! So after learning everything about fish we need to add some more knowledge.


Let's see how much of "normal" fish there is in a shark:

  1. Skull
  2. Spine
  3. Front dorsal fin
  4. Back dorsal fin
  5. Caudal fin
  6. Gills
  7. Pectoral fin
  8. Ventral Fin
  9. Anal fin
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Skeleton of a shark

Again, we can simplify the skeleton to create a better base for a picture.

shark body shapeshark body shapeshark body shape


Unfortunately, we need completely different method for drawing a shark's head.

how to draw shark headhow to draw shark headhow to draw shark head


Shark eyes are similar to humans'. Various species have different eyes, for example some cover them with special inner eyelid when attacking, while others (like great white shark) roll them, making them all black.

sharke eyessharke eyessharke eyes

To breathe, there must be water flowing through the gills. Some sharks need to swim slowly when sleeping, but some have a special gill behind the eye called spiracle.

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Shark Species

Great white shark is the most popular of sharks. It has clearly visible, uncovered gills (1), distinctive front dorsal fin (2) and a small back dorsal fin (3). The upper fin of the tail is a bit bigger.

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Great white shark

Tiger shark has a shorter snout (1) and smaller gills (2). There's a distinctive pattern on the body (3). The tail is heterocercal, the upper fin is long and tapered.

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Tiger shark

Leopard shark is certainly one of the most interesting sharks. It has a spotted design (1) on an elongated body (2). The tail fin is long, heterocercal (3). The bottom of the body is flattened (4), and the ventral and anal fins are big and distinctive.

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Leopard shark

Practical Exercise

Let's see how to use this knowledge in practice:

Step 1

Start with a simple sketch of the idea. Just try to picture what you've got in your mind.

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Step 2

Apply the simple forms of the animals, using the sketch as a support.

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Step 3

Define the main lines.

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Step 4

Create a clean lineart out of it.

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Step 5

Do what you want with it!

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That's All!

That would be it for today. If you want to learn more about animal anatomy, make sure to check my profile for more goodies!

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