Monkey Business – sketching monkeys live at the zoo

May 28, 2011

Taronga Park Zoo, Sydney. I concentrated on sketching just the chimpanzees, gorillas and gibbons on a Saturday morning, moving between their several enclosures between 10am and 2pm. 

Green Monkey skeleton (Australian Museum) and chimps (Taronga Park Zoo)

I’ve made some notes as reminders for the next time I go, as follows.

 $44 adult entry (skyway included); $10.60 return ferry, running every 20mins on weekends. We sketched from 10am to around midday when we stopped for lunch, meeting up again at 2.30pm for a show-and-tell. With dark shadows forming around 3pm, it was possible to keep sketching till 4.30 or so. Late May/early Autumn, a fine but somewhat cold day, 17 degrees.

Green Monkey skeleton (Australian Museum) and a cold chimp trying to warm up in the sun (Taronga Zoo)

The vast bulk of visitors are families with children; as with museums, their peak period is opening time till lunch. There seemed to be more adults wandering around after lunch. The conversation among the visitors is nothing short of hilarious most of the time – none of it memorable in terms of visual journalling. It’s just amazing how humans respond to animals behind bars. Most of the noises or comments are aimed at getting the kids to concentrate; pity is the strongest emotion when humans come upon the chimpanzees. They are often horrified by the chimps’ grooming behaviour and very quickly move on in disgust; some of the behaviour is too complex to explain to the children.

Baboon skeleton (Australian Museum); chimps and gorillas in doorway (Taronga Park Zoo)

An important driver for visitors is the keeper talks; crowds appear out of nowhere at the appointed hour. At the seal enclosure, there is even a long parking area for kids’ strollers. The keepers humanise the otherwise anonymous animals they care for (a bit like the media aiming to write stories about individual refugees), providing valuable information about age, size and social behaviour.

Baboon skeleton (Australian Museum) and gorillas in doorway (Taronga Park Zoo); back views, gorillas

I worked with a small 5×7″ sketchbook which helped with remaining unobtrusive. In much more open areas, such as with elephants, an A4 sketchbook allowed for broader gestures. Visitors and park staff are remarkably concerned about getting in one’s way while sketching; they seem not to worry at all about getting in the road of a photographer but are very worried about breaking a sketcher’s flow. I think it’s important not to abuse this “privilege” – we’ve all come to see the animals and there is no primacy involved in sketchers wanting to remain longer than usual to observe the animals. It’s a bit like looking at paintings in an art gallery – seldom do we spend longer than 15 seconds or so in front of each painting; so it is with animals at the zoo. Humans congregate in groups of five or six around the viewing windows and this in itself would make great practice in getting down gestural sketches; it’s highly unlikely anyone will stay in the one position for more than 15 wseconds. Moving out of the way of other visitors was the case where the only way of seeing the chimps is via large windows; things are relatively easier with the gorillas – there is even raked seating for sketching there; no problems with the elephants, gibbons, lions or tigers.

Baboon skeleton (Australian Museum); Muller’s Gibbon (Taronga Park Zoo)

Gestural sketching means short sessions of intense concentration, so I was often stepping back from the window for a breather; this worked well in terms of synchronizing with the high churn rate among visitors. Moving away to allow others to see has the outcome that the chimpanzees won’t have moved very much if grooming or sleeping. Windows into viewing areas are invariably very dark (e.g. gorillas) which makes sketching difficult, but the chimpanzee windows areas are in good natural light and look onto brightly lit, sparsely vegetated areas. The windows here seem to be mirrored glass; there is no visual interaction between humans and the animals. Humans are too far away from the gorillas for the animals to feel threatened by being stared at, which apparently is a no-no when it comes to gorillas.

Baboon skeleton (Australian Museum); Muller’s Gibbon suspended from branches; back views of gorillas (Taronga Park Zoo)

Comparison of distances for sketching purposes:

       Very close range: chimpanzees (a new chimpanzee enclosure is planned and I suspect the proximity will be much reduced in future)

       Mid-range distances: elephants and gorillas at feeding time

       Far off: gorillas at rest, gibbons in trees

       Very far off: baboons.

The animals do move around a lot. Even grooming chimps will move around. I was ready for animals returning to the same position on a regular basis, but it didn’t seem to apply to these primates, though gorillas eating will hold their head in one position, then in an alternate one.

Baboon skull and arm (Australian Museum); chimps and gorillas (Taronga Park Zoo)



The current enclosure is a temporary one. Chimpanzees looked for what little morning sun was available; this involved the warm wall next to the viewing windows, so the chimps could be seen at very close quarters. Being cold (one or two were sleeping), they moved remarkably little. I couldn’t have imagined a stiller subject for sketching; by comparison, the impressive tiger kept pacing at a very great speed; the lions can be viewed at ground level, but make very dramatic changes in movement. There was some grooming among the chimps which seemed to increase in the afternoon. I’m not sure exactly if or when they were given food (?corn cobs) at lunchtime.

The afternoon grooming involved moving beyond sketching the chimps as single animals. Reference photos will allow these ‘double-portraits’ to be read properly. The surroundings (rocks, vegetation) made itself felt in the later sketches to help this process of interpretation.

Obviously the fur covers up the anatomy, but chimps aren’t uniformly hairy – parts of the shoulders will show through. There is thus quite a strong variation in tone, from grey (with white highlights) to black. Gorillas by contrast have longer hair and it seems to be finer and more uniformly set; their larger size too helps with identifying the groups of large back muscles. One resorts to large circles and contour to get the pose of gorillas right; by the time you get around to tone, they will have changed position. 

“Advanced” chimpanzee sketching would involve working out beforehand exactly where the bones come to the surface of the skin; one can’t assume the same key points match human anatomy in this regard. There are lots of similarities with human anatomy of course, but negotiating proportion can’t be overlooked when drawing chimps – you’ve got to get used to the fact that their arms are very much longer, their hands and feet very much more pronounced. A lot of work needs to be done on rendering hands properly; ‘simple’ chimpanzee sketching will take note of the opposing thumb, but there are often important highlights to be communicated in the light and shade affecting toes and fingers.

Silverback gorilla feeding (Taronga Park Zoo) 

Western Lowland Gorillas

The group of nine gorillas are on view at a reasonably middle distance. A closer view is possible via the viewing windows, but this area is far too busy with the sheer bulk of visitors coming and going, and it’s too dark to draw there. In the morning, the gorillas stayed almost entirely indoors; one or two females ventured outdoors from time to time. Being frightened of expanses of water, they don’t venutre near the moat separating animals from humans (who are busy imitating gorilla noises). Without the restriction of viewing windows (at least in the open enclosure area), the crowds are less a problem and longer sustained sketching is possible; the drawback though is the distance from the subject. A lot of my morning gestural sketches showed the backs of the adult females – one or two sitting face-forward were at the back wall, rather too far away to sketch in detail. My sketching also shows them at the door (I started including the door frame so the animals could be ‘read’ properly), but the dark animals against a dark background didn’t help much from a sketching point of view. I doubt at all whether the chimps or gorillas would come out at all in rainy weather.

The pivotal turning point however was the gorilla keeper talk at 11.30am. The keepers go in and lay out watermelon, bok choi and carrots on the ground, retreat behind bars and then the gorillas race out for their feed. They don’t eat together, gathering up their food and retreating to sit and eat alone. This is fine for sketching if they are not obscured by tree limbs; the silverback dominant male is the most impressive. They will gather up their food and move and sit in other spots from time to time. The talk brought the crowds, but it was still possible to see the animals and photograph them with relative ease. The animals then retreat for a siesta indoors again. Importantly, the lunch session brought the dominant silverback male into view. At over 200kg and having just turned 34 years of age, Kibabu was quite a sight compared to the females which looked in the main like larger and more uniformly dark chimpanzees. The youngsters were far too active to be sketched. The baby hanging on to its mother the whole time may have been Kipenzi, born in January. The height and bulk of the silverback male’s head is an important feature which needs focus.

The large muscle groups are more important among the gorillas than in the more finely-featured chimps; for chimps, you need to get the set of the eyes right and splaying of the toes and fingers. The back of the thighs of the large gorillas are particularly impressive when visible, which isn’t often. Any sort of upright moving on all fours will certainly need to be done from memory.

Outside the gorilla enclosure are bronze models of skulls, footprints and handprints, worth noting.

Chimpanzees grooming (Taronga Park Zoo) 

Muller’s Gibbons

Some activity in the very large fig tree – swinging and climbing – for the single Muller’s Gibbon on view. The gibbon stayed reasonably close to the heat lamp high up in the canopy. A vague brown-grey on the back, this gibbon has an entirely black front; reference photos (I had no telephoto) are helpful in picking out dark-on-dark facial features. At quite a distance and obscured by tree branches, difficult to sketch on location, but a marvel to watch.


Chimpanzees grooming (Taronga Park Zoo)

White-cheeked Gibbons

At mid-distance behind heavy wire; humans are the level of the top of the trees so the swinging and long arms are visible. Not possible to sketch when at rest in their bowers and their swinging activity is too fast to sketch.



Indian (Elephantus maximus), not the African elephants with the big ears. Fed (and therefore standing still while eating, ideal for sketching) around 2pm when feed (aloe branches) becomes available. Extremely popular and they form a very important part of the zoo’s activity and media exposure.



The enclosure next to the gorillas, otherwise good for sketching, had no animals on view. I’ve heard about the sunbaking activities, with arms outstretched. I believe a baby was born yesterday which may explain the lack of any public exposure of these animals.



YouTube, “Gorilla Baby at Taronga Zoo” (2mins 7 secs)

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