Just Zoo It! Sketching at the Toledo Zoo


Early this summer, I asked an illustrator friend, Deborah Marcero, to join me on a trip to the Toledo zoo. But instead of just viewing the animals as typical spectators, our mission was to view them for the purpose of sketching them. We tried to pay attention to their details and isolate their movements. It’s actually a good practice in mindfulness. And certainly easier said than done! Sure, we could draw a sleeping tiger or rhino, but what about a hungry elephant or hippo constantly on the move? Often it turned into an exercise in contour drawing.  We also jotted down field notes for each animal.

The most interesting part to me is how we became specimens in our own habitat.  We were the “roaming sketch artists” on display.  Parents would point us out to their children saying, “See Johnny, wouldn’t you like to do something like that?”  Kids were more subtle in their approach, often sidling up to us shyly with open mouths and wide eyes.  “I like your drawings,” they said.  Even staff members stopped to take a look and offer tidbits of information about each animal like how an elephant walks on its toes and has more than 100,000 muscles in its trunk!

Our adventures reminded me of another sketching duo, Thomas Kinkade (“The Painter of Light”) and James Gurney (Dinotopia author), who “sketched their way across America” and shared their experiences in an illustrated book called The Artist’s Guide to Sketching

tail flick
ear twitch
paw against wall
one eye open
so S-L-E-E-P-Y

flippers flipping
over each other like oars

mouth open to keep cool
or simply awaiting dinner

shuffle, turn, swim
shuffle, turn, swim
life moves
S-L-O-W-L-Y
down here

ears flapping
trunks dancing
walking on toes
like prima ballerinas

horns are like hair
point up, point down
resting without a care
their wrinkles build
character

Holy Moly!
That one’s huge!

hair sticks up
tails hang down
what are YOU
looking at?

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“Friday Evening Experiments”

brush and ink

One of the most intriguing parts in the book I’m reading, Uncertainty by Jonathan Fields, is about frog levitation.  “What?” you say.  You heard right.

Scientist Andre Geim was conducting such experiments.  He and his colleague Konstantin Novoselov conducted all kinds of improbable experiments, which they called “Friday Evening Experiments.”  Did they really hope to make frogs levitate?  Maybe.  But what they were actually pursuing was creative abandon.  The genius that comes from asking a lot of questions and letting go of  preconceived notions and the need for particular outcomes.  Not all of their experiments were successful, in fact some failed wildly, but at least one of the “Friday Evening Experiments” resulted in the two researchers winning the 2010 Nobel Prize.

So here’s your task.  Start a few “Friday Evening Experiments” of your own.  See where they take you.  Don’t be afraid to take chances.  You never know what you might discover about a character, subject, or idea…  And who knows, you might even make a frog levitate.  I know I just did 😉

Famous Frog Doodle

 I drew this frog as a signature on the back of my original business card.  He’s looking quite formal for the occasion, don’t you think? 😉

My Trademark Green Frog

Watercolor and Ink
on Illustration Paper

Here is my signature character, which can be found on my current business card.  I’ve been drawing this frog for about 15 years starting out with simple doodles and leading to finished illustrations.  As you can see, he’s usually a happy-go-lucky frog, sometimes even sporting a top hat with a flower in it and a bow tie.