Illustrator and art director Lilian Darmono on how to draw animals accurately & convey personality

Lilian Darmono specialises in motion design and illustration, and we're particularly in awe of her visualisation of animals in both mediums. In this feature Lilian explains how to draw stylised animals with accuracy.

After growing up in Indonesia, Lilian moved to Singapore and finally Melbourne. With university degrees in both graphic design and multimedia design, Lilian has pursued a motion design career for more than 15 years. She’s worked with brands like Google, Unilever, Honda and Mastercard – but her range of nature-based projects for a number of Australian environmental organisations, such as Parks Australia, have been successful too.

Now represented by NERD Productions, Lilian’s style is diverse – she doesn’t like 'pigeon holing' herself – but we’re a massive fan of her ability to create vector-based, minimalist illustrations of animals that convey out touches of personality and character. 

Image from Lilian's animation for Parks Australia on Christmas Island National Park

"With animal illustrations, I'm somewhere between Charley Harper and Sydney Parkinson (the botanical illustrator that accompanied Joseph Banks on his expedition to Australia)," she says, "with a good dose of Mary Blair thrown in for good measure."

It’s obvious from her portfolio that preserving nature and the environment is important to Lilian. She’s illustrated public service announcement videos by Australian councils, educational animations about endangered species, character design on wholesome produce from British farmers for Hornet, and a campaign on bottled spring water for Flaunt and Axis animation.

She art directed the Operation Green Parrot animation commissioned by Parks Australia, with animation by Dirty Puppet.

The video raised AUD$77,000 to fund the operation, in which nestlings of the endangered parrot were relocated from Norfolk Island to Philip Island in order to establish a new colony. Check it out below.

"That felt very satisfying to me," she says. "A dream come true, in some ways, when I can combine both passions of caring for animals and nature, as well as making beautiful designs."

But to create a successful campaign like Operation Green Parrot, you need to have exceptional skill at drawing animals.

It takes time to find the right balance of personality and charm against scientific accuracy, as well as finding the balance of stylisation (usually this means reducing the animal to simple geometric shapes and colours) against, again, scientific accuracy, explains Lilian.

Image taken from Operation Green Parrot, an animation art directed by Lilian for Parks Australia

She talks us through her creative process for drawing lifelike animals, including gathering references and creating a personality. For more, check out our tips for drawing animals better from a range of artists.

Gathering references

Practising drawing from life is a great place to start to hone your skill of drawing animals, because it trains your eye-hand-mind coordination.

Then you need to find the right reference images and know how to interpret reference images into illustrations that are usable for animation, or otherwise. Make sure you get the right references though. There are a lot of species out there that are similar in appearance but look nothing alike to the expert, Lilian says.

“It's important to draw what you can see, not just what you know, or even worse, what you think you know, but in the case of not being able to find the right pose for the image you're trying to create, you need to know how to extrapolate what images you can find, into something usable in your mind,” she says.

Having an understanding of basic anatomy, mechanics of joints and wings is also helpful. Lilian likes to visit zoos in her spare time – not even to draw but to take photos and see without the pressure of having to record what she sees.

"Sometimes it's enough just absorbing the marvel of the creature in front of you and let the personality of that animal sink in," she says.

"I think when you really, really think about it, it's confounding that we share the same air and planet with all these living things who eat, breathe, move, reproduce, and behave in such a different way from us. I try to convey that sense of wonder into whatever I make."

Image from Lilian's animation for Parks Australia on Christmas Island National Park

Creative process

Once reference materials have been gathered – photos, clips, videos, wikipedia entries, for example – it’s important to have the right knowledge on the species you’re about to illustrate, such as its behaviour and habitat. When drawing humans, you may name your characters in your head or give them back stories – the same goes for animals.

Think about what the animal’s preoccupations may be, what they like, and what they might be scared of.

"I usually either sketch directly in Adobe Photoshop, or draw lots and lots of rough sketches with pencil on paper to find a pose that I like," Lilian explains.

"Once I get that, I either redraw it roughly again in Photoshop, or scan and trace it in Illustrator, then export the layers to Photoshop for final texturing and any other adjustments.

"I almost always start with Illustrator, then move on to Photoshop after the sketch round is done."

Try to avoid becoming too carried away with adding details – your style and design may suffer for the sake of photographically accurate representation. See Lilian's art direction for an animation on Christmas Island National Park.

Create a personality

Drawing out an animal’s character and personality is just as important as accuracy if you're wanting to create a connection towards the animal for your audience, particularly if the work is supposed to drum up an emotional response that will then lead on to donations for the campaign, or a client, such as in the case of Operation Green Parrot.

Lilian says conveying character is mainly through pose, but also adding elements that are related to the specific species.

"It could be plants that make up its natural habitat, or other animals that are its prey or food.

Image taken from Operation Green Parrot, an animation art directed by Lilian for Parks Australia

"Nothing exists in isolation in nature, so you have to bear in mind exactly what sort of 'personality' this animal has, through the things it cannot live without.

"Sometimes anthropomorphising works well too. Who would this animal be if it were a person? Try imagining what kind of person it would be. What sort of name it would give itself? What kind of music would it listen to? What kind of housemate would it make? Would it be the selfish type who eats all your food? Would it be the polite-but-deadly type?"

For more, you can hear Lilian speak on weathering the ups and downs of life as a freelancer over on the Motion Hatch podcast.

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