Sketching animals and rendering fur: Ring-tail Possums

July 15, 2013

Today’s post is a compilation of recent sketches, as they unfolded on my daily sketching uploads over at

Pseudocheirus peregrinus: Common Ringtail Possum (Pseudocheirus, Greek for “false hand” and peregrinus, Latin for “pilgrim”, “alien” – so basically a ‘Strange-Looking Animal with Odd Hands’). Not to be confused with the Brushtail Possum which invades attics and deprives homeowners of sleep, the Ringtail is the one that has reached plague proportions in New Zealand where it was introduced from its native Australia.

Why animals? Why this one? I’m sufficiently old-fashioned to believe that artists/sketchers should be competent in rendering in all the traditional genres: Landscape, Still Life, Animals. I know this sounds terribly 19th-century (Charles Bargue and all that), but I’m constantly surprised by the extent to which traditional artists “mixed” their genres. Turner landscapes are full of people, Holbein included lots of still-life objects in his work dominated by portraits, Leonardo was working landscape and drapery magic (even a live ermine) into his portraits. Yes, there are some like Morandi who only drew bottles but consider someone like Vermeer who, in his small output of less than 30 paintings, covered People, Interiors, Musical Instruments, Drapery and Still Life.

Mid-Winter is not an ideal time to be out doing location sketching, so museums are part of my indoor sketching regime. Sketching from paintings and sculpture in the Art Gallery of NSW has the whiff of subversion about it; I’m constantly under the glare of mildly-angry security guards. Art these days is not about skill or competency or the next generation of artists coming through, it’s all about Ideas. Art is the transmission of cerebral thinking, so patrons are being conditioned to Walk Around & Think, not to see the works as 2- or 3-dimensional physical objects and certainly not to be peering at them for long periods of time. That’s the gift to us of Post-modernism and it’s not going anywhere for the time being. Art students, after all, clutter up the rooms and pose a safety hazard. Given that some museums are already banning live sketching, I’m getting in now before blanket bans are instituted. Sketching in the Australian Museum is a little better; I feel reassured in the Search & Discover Room, designed as a Petting Zoo of Stuffed Animals for children because, by the entrance, they have an area set aside for Drawing Animals, an offshoot of Coloring In time at school.

Animals are things we can’t ignore. They are, however, very “loaded”. The film “Blade Runner”, looking into the future, depicted our relationships with animals with incredible foresight. Performing animals in circuses, vivisection, animal testing, zoos, companion animals, vegetarianism and eating some animals but not others, the carbon footprint of animals for food, live export trade, poaching and illegal hunting, biodiversity and species extinction, animals for medicine, species culling – the relationship between humans and animals is contestable in the real world and, as artists, we are implicated in all that. All art, all sketches, all drawings are deeply deeply political, whether we realise it or not and no matter how “innocent” our subject matter may appear to us and to others.

Drawing animals invariably means fur and it means understanding the skeleton under the muscle mass. I don’t have access to horses, probably the most common animal in art, but a one-year membership to the Australian Museum is allowing me to alternate between skeletons (Skeleton Room) and their taxidermied equivalents (Search & Discover). As you’d expect in any museum, the lighting is crap form a sketcher’s perspective (skeletons in near pitch dark and stuffed animals under fluoro lights) so I make do as best I can.

I’ve returned to last year’s drawing of a tiny possum (often 550-1100gm and 30-35cm long) done in those waxy coloured pencils that are halfway between pastels and coloured pencils.

ringtail possum sketch

The thing about the heads is that stuffed specimens are minus their ears because the cartilege doesn’t translate to being stuffed. This particular specimen is far from pristine; it was from roadkill at Alstonville, a north coast country town. So I have to imagine protruding ears…

ringtail possum 1

The body mass comes next and this is difficult because I have to imagine the muscles from the way the fur glints in the light. My biggest challenge is how to include the very long tail.

ringtail possum 002

I try moving the specimen into different positions – it sits on a desk in front of me. And I move to the Skeleton Room, transferring obvious parts of the anatomy (ribcage, spine, pelvis) from my understanding of human anatomy. The shoulder blades are extraordinarily delicate…

ringtail possumringtail possum neck vertebrae

Here I’m striking difficulty because the skull bears absolutely no relation at all to the stuffed specimen. Have I got the right animal, the right species? Internet research throws up a side view of skull in Museum Victoria, and at the same time I’m trying out Derivan’s Liquid Pencils. At this point too I discover possum skull replicas can be bought online, at $US70 each. Ah, no. I’m not that maniacal…..

ringtail possum skull

Now while the Search & Discover room at the museum has lots of stuffed specimens of Brushtails, I come across two more, quite small, Ringtails. I brought a tape measure with me to make sure I was getting the proportions roughly correct. An Australian postage stamp design shows the possum minus his tail.

ringtail possums

Drawing in the Skeleton Room is a tricky business. I am confused by an Opossum skeleton (apparently Opossums are American, not Australian, and the reason why Ringtails were called “foreign” was because the American animals were well known to European zoologists and when the Australian specimen turned up, it threw them into confusion. I read that a ringtail was taken back to England by James Cook when he discovered Australia, thus allowing the zoologists there to examine the critter in detail. Hence it’s naming in 1785.)

Here are two sketches of the skull: the top is when I’m able to stand as close as possible, nose pressed to the glass cabinet. When there are crowds coming to look at the Australian Animals, I have to stand to one side; hence, the sketch below drawn at an angle. I have to alternate between the two positions.

ringtail possums 2

ringtail possums 4

An important breakthrough! I’ve come across a still photo of a live Ringtail Possum in my local newspaper, so I can now get on with accurately drawing the snout and ears. What’s next? Having captured the mass of the animal with reasonable accuracy, there’s still heaps more to be done with details: claws and the strange-fingered paws in particular. Where’s all this heading? Nowhere in particular. It’s curiosity that’s driving me, the story behind the animal. Aesthetically, it’s linked to my looking at hares painted by Durer and Hoffmann, which in turn were thrown up by my looking at the history of watercolor.

Coming up, a month’s worth of work devoted to perspective in landscape drawing.

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