Lions, tigers & bears - oh my! What's hot in animal illustration

Sarah Maycock created this piece for last year’s Pick Me Up exhibition. She believes the animal is a symbol of resilience

“Animals and nature immediately take you to an otherworldly place, somewhere not connected to our everyday lives,” explains illustrator Kristjana S Williams, whose iconic interlocking designs feature menageries of colourful birds and beasts. “The animal kingdom has a dreamlike quality: it’s a fairy tale and reminds you of your childhood.”

Like many creatives in her field, Kristjana’s vibrant depictions of the natural world have hit a nerve in a climate where the wolf of recession is never far from the door. But far from just escapist fantasy, animal illustration is a useful craft that allows its practitioners to instantly endear your target audience, soften difficult subjects, and harness thousands of years of myth and metaphor at the pressing of a pencil. 

Tapping into the trend

Aside from folksy owls and deer, more robust Alaskan animals like elk, wolves and bears are also particularly en vogue with clients right now, as well as the hardy British fox, something which illustrator Sarah Maycock sees as particularly timely. 

Brett Ryder says animals are great for metaphors and personality traits. The Gene appeared in New Scientist magazine

“It reflects something that’s going on in society and culture,” suggests Sarah. “An animal represents some sort of quality which is desirable in people too, if it’s particularly beautiful or graceful or strong or cute. The fox is certainly a symbol of resilience, cunning and adapting to an alien environment.”

But as with abundance in anything, there’s a delicate balance to be struck between tapping into the zeitgeist and standing out from the crowd. Helen Musselwhite, whose editorial illustrations and work for clients such as eco resort Chewton Glen Hotel comprises of intricate forest papercuts, argues that it’s important not to let on-trend animals take over your originality. 

“You need to be aware of what other people do and don’t let it sway you,” she argues. “Plough your own furrow and find something that makes your work different. If I didn’t use paper, my animals might look too much like everyone else’s to make an impact. Materials are a good way to find that little niche – view everything as a potential material to use.”

Illustrator Tim McDonagh recommends experimenting with unusual species to steer clear of oversaturation, as well as playing with mood and approach. His detailed, large-scale pieces, such as his Weasel-inspired work for Hesse Studios, often feel feral and wild, and tap into the otherness and violence of animals as a device to add intrigue and differentiate himself from the pack. But focusing on animals, he argues, is also a good way to hone your craft.

Amy Holliday believes you should experiment with different ways of using a medium. This artwork is a self?initiated piece

Tim says: ”The difference between drawing people and animals, is that we know every detail of what a person looks like, so if it’s wrong it will instantly look wrong, whereas people don’t know every detail of an African dung beetle. It’s much easier to get away with mistakes, so it’s a good way of getting into drawing.”

Observing animals

Both Tim and Helen have a large reference library of books that help inform their illustrations. Helen’s collection includes modern texts with photos, but she seeks inspiration from plates from the 1880s and traditional Japanese drawings – ideal for tips on stylisation and simplification. 

“It’s really good to look at the lines and look and flow through things,” says Kristjana. “Start with a simple animal like a dolphin or a dove – one without thousands of details and then move on to something more complicated after that.” I think all the things you learn in life drawing classes are what you need to keep in mind,” agrees Sarah. “Form and the weight are important and squinting helps you to distil the overall shape.”

Tim McDonagh’s work often taps into the violence of animals as a device to add intrigue. This piece is called Bambi Blues

For Sarah, whose work often features impressionistic animals rendered through watercolour brushstrokes, it’s the motion of the animal that’s the key to getting its likeness. “But some animals aren’t easy to come by,” she interjects. “Even when you go to the zoo to draw the lions, for example, they’re often hiding away, or behind a wall of school children. Drawing from videos, either in motion or paused is incredibly informative. I try to work out how the animal is made, where the weight sits, what it is about the shape that really makes it’s character.” 

After working out what elements of an animal are essential to recognising it, it then comes down to amplifying those features and knowing what can be left out without sacrificing the essence of the creature. For Sarah, looking at how the fur changes direction over the body and how it affects the tone is key to physical accuracy in her work, but so too is personality and mood. “The thing with animals is that they’re always really pictures of people,” she explains. “I try to be dramatic. Some bits are detailed, some bits are very minimal with one brush stroke to describe almost the whole body.”

Amy Holliday, a new talent whose delicate self-initiated watercolours have won her jobs for Wired magazine and Elanco Animal Health, agrees. “Similarly to people, it’s easy to work out how the animal is feeling by the way it holds itself, the light in its eyes or even the subtle expression on its face. Experiment with different ways of using a medium to best capture various forms and textures. Just by changing the weight and speed of the line stroke, you can create completely different effects, which comes in handy especially when illustrating texture such as fur or feathers.”

Adding personality

Stuart Patience uses anthropomorphism to create a sinister and unsettling artworks. This piece was produced to illustrate a short story by Mihkel Kaevats

Sara Cullen, who creates illustrations and children’s books under the moniker Cat and Fox Adventures, suggests the key to creating personality lies in the eyes and interaction with the audience. “For the Woodland series, I thought about what the aim of each animal was. The owl, fox and wolf are predators, so they are not looking directly out to the viewers, and retain a stern and distant gaze. The squirrel and the hare have a more vulnerable disposition. It’s almost as if you are the predator and they see you as a threat.”

The landscape with which you surround your animals can also go a long way to craft mood and character. Whereas Sarah, in her illustrations for an interview with Sir David Attenborough in Eureka magazine, emphasised the struggle of a polar bear by drawing it small against a harsh abstract background, the animated ad for Linda McCartney Foods juxtaposed animals with a very human setting ( As its director Jordan Bruner explains: “Using illustrations allowed us to create a fantastic and surreal universe, where poodles play French horns and a pig is dressed in Lederhosen. We gave a lot of the animals characters anthropomorphic qualities to make them appear a little bit more sophisticated and stylish.”

Brett Ryder created this piece to illustrate a New Scientist article on a dispute over water pipes between Israel and Palestine

Anthropomorphism is also a key tool used by illustrator Stuart Patience to create a sinister, unsettling effect. Tapping into the historic and symbolic significance of animals, he creates charged images that at times feel sinister and at others, spiritually sublime. “Most of my ideas are fuelled from mythological stories, particularly the Norse myths from Scandinavia,” he explains. “Animals and landscape play a large role in mythology and often have dualistic natures depending on the myth. Creatures generally associated with evil such as goats and ravens play benevolent roles in Norse Mythology. This dualism gives the animal in question an ambiguity and can have multiple meanings.”  

Using animals to tell a story

Helen Musselwhite believes carving out your own niche is important, which is why she uses papercuts. This work is called Ghost Glen

But just as animals are an excellent tool for tapping into human emotions, they are also handy vehicles for getting difficult ideas across. Editorial illustrator Brett Ryder explains: “Animals are great for metaphors and personality traits. Countries often have their own animal symbol – useful when you’re working on a political story. They can sometimes be a bit of a risk because the person commissioning a piece on pipelines, for example, is expecting to see pipes, but I try to think about a story laterally.’

When working on a piece for New Scientist about a diplomatic dispute between Israel and Palestine over water pipes, Ryder knew that he didn’t want to convey the problem literally, so started researching into symbols important in the region. Stumbling upon the elephant, he knew that he’d stuck gold. “It was great,” enthuses Ryder. “Elephants carry water, and they spurt it.”

For this weasel piece for Hesse Studios, Tim McDonagh created his linework first in pencil (top), then in pen (middle), before colouring the final piece (bottom) digitally

In the spotlight: Wilderness Festival

The distinctive illustrations of Kristjana S Williams feature collages of animals that were inspired by Victorian engravings, and highlighted with vibrant splashes of colour. Not surprisingly, the organisers of boutique Oxfordshire festival Wilderness put her top of their list when commissioning an identity that emphasised the escapist nature of the event.

“They sought something that made people feel like they were heading off to this magical place,” explains Kristjana. “They didn’t want anything that was man-made and desired the elements to somehow convey the different activities that you’d be doing at the festival.”

She drew on the huge image bank of animals created over her years in the fashion industry (including heading up the fashion label Beyond the Valley) to produce the different elements. Opting for symbols of exoticism such as tropical birds and butterflies, Kristjana chose a white horse with an elaborate hat of feathers and butterfly wings for the main logo to emphasis the festival’s Oxfordshire base combined with its utopian ideals. 

“What endlessly inspires me is that, from a beast to the shape of a pine cone, there are these singular lines that exist in nature. I enjoy breaking them down into tiny parts and putting them together like mechanical elements. Nature’s created these curves and everything matches, so it’s all about scale. It’s a giant jigsaw puzzle for to me to have fun with.”


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