I definitely have a bias when it comes to choosing drawing subjects. I seem to prefer feathers over fur. I think it’s because feathers are more rigid, more defined. They have a very particular pattern that doesn’t change a whole heck of a lot from bird to bird. I freely admit that in many aspects of my life, I’m not much of an improviser, which is probably why I strive for realism in my drawing. Still, there are only about 10,000 living species out there with feathers on them out of a possible 1.4 million, so I need to branch out a little.
My next love is mammals, so it was the likely first step. Fur is a whole other ballgame than feathers. Fur is messy and there’s lots of it. However, if you take the time and get to know the mammal you’re drawing, you soon start to see just as many patterns in fur as there are in feathers. Just as feathers grow in specific tracks along the body of a bird, fur grows in specific directions on a mammal and it’s important to pay attention to that while you’re drawing.
Hair is less rigid and tends to follow the patterns of the underlying muscle moreso than feathers; thus, having at least a cursory understanding of the animal’s anatomy really helps in getting the direction of each group of hairs right. I’m not saying you need to have taken a chordate zoology class to be able to accurately draw a mammal; but I think that my having taught such a class helps me.
Hair is actually a fascinating step in the evolution of mammals. The Synapsid ancestors of the mammals we know today actually looked a lot like a big lizard with scaly bodies and nothing even remotely resembling hair. Because it doesn’t fossilize easily, no one knows exactly when the first hairy synapsids appeared; but fossil plant burrs, that stick to fur to be distributed (like the burdock and stickseed plants we’re familiar with today) started showing up about 200 million years ago. Hair likely appeared earlier than that, however, probably as the odd whisker, here and there, sticking out to pick up vibrations and help the critter sense the environment around it. Over time, evolution favoured ancestral mammals that had more hair (they stayed warmer, could function better), and eventually we got to the remarkable variety of hair we see today, from shaggy manes, to sleek coats in all sorts of colours and patterns.
As an artist and a naturalist, it’s the patterns that get me excited. I really had a fun time exploring that when I worked on the leopard you see above. When I started adding colour a few years ago, it created a whole new layer of challenges to work through. Hair isn’t all one colour (but then, again, neither are feathers). Coloured pencils lend themselves well to depicting this; but I’m still trying to get a handle on working from light to dark, which is the opposite of what I’m used to from previous work with acrylic. I think I’ve got the basic hang of it, but there’s still so much more to explore.