My goal is to give an idea of the workflow that goes into some of my paintings. By no means is this a tutorial... there are a lot of steps left out, and I want to emphasize that everybody works in their own way. Even for me, I don't always do a sketch of my subject before painting it. However, with humans and animals, I usually do a rough sketch first. In this exercise, my reference image was that of a tiny African mammal called a dik dik, which is loosely related to the many antelope-creatures on the continent.
1.) Basic Form - Spinal Curve/Gesture
When it comes to drawing figures, there is a practice exercise known as gesture drawing. In it, you limit yourself to 1-2 minutes (or less, once you get better), and you try to capture the overall shape, movement, and energy of the subject; detail is not necessarily the goal of gesture sketches, especially for beginners. Before adding the torso, head, and limbs, you would usually start with a single gesture line that represents the overall position of the figure in space.
Normally, it's good to keep that defining line as straight and simple as possible. However, I've found that when drawing animals--particularly quadrupeds--it's a different game. I often find myself using a curved gesture line to start off, and I base that curve off the curve of the animal's spine. Human spines also have a noticeable curve to them, but it's not always as pronounced as those of four-legged creatures.
In step one, which literally takes two seconds, I simply draw a curve to represent the general curvature of the dik dik's spine...
2.) Basic Form - Large Body Masses
In this phase, I move onto the building blocks of basic anatomy... the body. Before the limbs are even a consideration, one has to get a general idea of the main body mass: the torso, the pelvis and the skull. The idea is to sort of see through the reference image and imagine where the ribcage, pelvis and skull would be, and then from there, to move onto sketching in the limbs. At this point, it's still a very rough sketch, with the goal of focusing on proportions... how do the pelvis, ribcage, and head relate to the curve of the spine?
3.) Basic Form - Limb Configuration
Now that I've got the basic proportions of the body and head sketched out, it's time to go about filling in the proper location of the limbs. It's important to realize that this sort of thing is not intuitive; anyone who works as an artist has spent time studying anatomy. I am a novice compared to a great many artists, but I have taken the time to understand the way that, say, a quadrupedal mammal like the dik dik is built. In this part, my goal was to sketch in the general shape and location of the forelimbs and hind limbs. I started by drawing a rough approximation of the shoulder blades, and then from there, I finished the fore limbs, and then went and sketched in the hind limbs as well.
I don't always take this much time with my paintings (that is, spending time sketching out the underlying structure of the subject), but when it comes to drawing humans/animals, it's helpful for me to break down some of the anatomy.
4.) Basic Anatomy - Quadruped Limbs VS Biped Limbs
This is somewhat of an extraneous step meant to illustrate the structure of a quadruped's limbs. There are, of course, many variations in body structures across the animal kingdom, but I think it's interesting to compare four-legged animals to humans.
In this picture, I've colored in the various segments of the limbs to illustrate just how similar our bone structures really are. At first glance, not at all, but upon further inspection, very similar. Notice the way that the thighs and calves of the dik dik bend, an imagine that they are your limbs. Although they have evolved for a different form of movement, you can see that the joints and bones line up in almost the exact same way as they do in humans; the primary difference in the limbs begins at the ankles/wrists.
Humans, for example, stand with their whole foot planted on the ground, both the balls and the heels. When we walk, we alternate between the balls of the feet and the heels. Quadrupeds, in contrast, almost always walk on their toes and the balls of their feet. Their feet, in fact, are often quite long, and as with the dik dik, appear to be longer than any other bones in the legs. At first glance, their feet also seem to be the calves. However, as you can see with this comparison, it's actually not the case. It's just that much of their upper limb structure is hidden beneath folds of skin and fur.
Take a moment to look at the limb configuration and compare it to the way your arms and legs are built and how they move. Bonus points if you get on all fours and try to observe the way your limbs change orientation... you'll then see why it is that the dik dik's "hands" and "fingers" are positioned the way that they are (down and forward, respectively).
5.) Basic Silhouette/Linework
6.) Basic H/V/C
Now, I don't want to get too deep into the concept of H/V/C, which stand for hue, value, and chroma/saturation, respectively. However, they are the three components that make up the way an artist observes and uses color. Indeed, they are the way that our eyes interpret the world around us.
This step of painting is where I paint in a basic, universal color to get the ball rolling, simple to complex. You'll see that at first, I use a light brown-grey color, and then move onto darker brown-grey, with a bit of variation to subtly indicate the physical structure of the body. The idea is to look at the subject and see the overall, underlying colors, and to use that as a sort of backdrop. All the colors that show detail will be painted "on top" of that.
Hue, simply put, is the color of something: ROYGBIV essentially. Think of the color wheel.
Value, on the other hand, is a measure of brightness. It's a scale of light and dark, highlight and shadow... something with high value is bright, and something with low value is dark. Pure white is the highest value, and pure black is the lowest value possible.
Chroma/saturation is a bit more tricky to the novice. Chroma is a measure of the strength of a hue, or rather, how much hue there is. The lower the saturation, the less colorful something is... zero saturation is the same as a greyscale image. The less saturation, the less vivid the hue.
In the first picture of the dik dik above, the hue is somewhat orange, the value is high, and the chroma is low. In other words, because the value is high/bright, and the chroma is low/less colorful, it's basically impossible to see that the hue is orange. If I made the value higher and the chroma lower, it wouldn't show any hue at all, and it would simply become greyish.
The second image illustrates a more accurate first pass for the overall colors of the dik dik, and it is ultimately the start of my painting.
7.) Defining Volume Through H/V/C Variation
Basically, this part of the painting is where I start to refine the colors more, and when I finally get rid of the original linework. Unless you're doing an illustration, then you ought to get rid of your basic linework, or else you might end up with sloppy edges, sloppy colors, or both. By removing the linework, I can start to focus on depicting the subject's volume in a more "painterly" style.
One major difference you'll see is that I've begun adding highlights to the edges of the body that face the right... that is the direction of the light source, and so those parts of the body that face that direction are brighter. However, you'll also notice parts of the body that are bright, and yet they aren't facing the light source... why is that? Well, there are two reasons...
First, regardless of the light source, some colors are just brighter than others. Even shadows have varying levels of brightness, and it's something you can easily notice by looking at the world around you. You can take a black plastic bag and lay it next to a white plastic bag, and then cast a shadow across both... you'll notice that the shadows and highlights appear quite different on each bag because of their base colors, and the same applies to any other surface.
Second, light isn't just one-dimensional and static. It bounces around and reflects back at objects, even in the shade. Mirrors aren't the only things that reflect light... they just reflect light more than other surfaces. This is the reason why, say, during the day time you will never ever really see a shadow that is 100% dark and black... because light is everywhere, but just to varying degrees.
You'll also notice that in addition to these very basic H/V/C variations, I added in some shadows that are cast by the dik dik's legs. Now the painting is starting to take on more shape, starting to pop more, but alas, there is much left...
8.) More Definition and the Randomness of Creation
Now I'm getting closer to my goal... I've decided to change the background a bit to give it more variation/contrast, so that some of the colors on the dik dik pop out more. It's not enough to show H/V/C differences in the dik dik, but also in the surrounding environment. By darkening the background, it makes the highlights and the shadows of the dik dik more pronounced. Using contrast in your art is essential to giving a sense of three dimensions for the viewer.
I've gone in and added additional details and variations in color, to indicate the randomness of the fur color. At this point, I've also done some minor changes to the overall shape of the body, refining the edges of the form and thinning out or thickening certain areas.
By the way, the little "white" splotch floating in the air (it's actually yellowish-white) is simply there for my convenience. Once I figured out the color of the highlights on the dik dik's body, I made a small splotch of that color so I could go back and sample it. However, this ended up inspiring the next phase of the painting in quite a random way... I kept looking at that whitish splotch and the surrounding colors, and decided it looked a lot like a snowflake.
9.) More Detail and A More Defined Environment
Now that I've gotten closer to capturing the dik dik in all its tiny glory, I decided to go with the concept of the snowflake as mentioned above, and to give the sense that this is a wintery scene. Forget the fact that the dik dik is native to Sub-Saharan Africa, and has probably never encountered snow in its life... that's the magic of painting. If I want a dik dik to be caught in a snowstorm, well, goddamnit, I'll make it so!
However, this isn't the end... no, not at all. There are just a few finishing touches left before I decide to put this one aside. Besides making a snowy environment for our fuzzy little friend, I also added a lot more highlights to the figure, to make it stand out more against the rest of the scene.
10.) The Dik Dik In All Its Glory
For this last part, I first cropped the image down, so there was less useless canvas. I also brightened some of the "snow" on the right side of the painting, to emphasize the direction of the light. This was to make the dik dik more of a focal point, and to make him pop out more.
I also defined some of the colors on the head some more, brightening some parts while darkening others. I also added a bit more highlight to the fur around the butt/behind the hind limbs, and I tried to give the eyes more volume by adding some specular highlights.
That is my relatively long and drawn-out explanation of how I paint.. hopefully it gives you a better idea of what goes into some of these creations.