Sketching Zoo Animals: Interview with a Disney Artist

Walking around the Zoo, you will occasionally spot visitors quietly sitting and working on pads of paper. More often than not, these are talented artists using our animal residents as subjects for sketches.

We recently sat down with one of those artists, Aaron Berchild, and discussed his sketches and visits to the L.A. Zoo:

LAZ: How often do you come to the Zoo to sketch?

Orangutan AB: I’m at the Zoo sketching every Sunday. I’d like to be there more though!

LAZ: What’s been your favorite animal at the Zoo to sketch, and why?

AB: There’s something about the flamingos I love. I often start with these guys (and gals) as warm-up sketches. They’re an interesting combination of shapes with the long legs and neck with those round, feathery mid-sections. I’m fascinated by the seemingly endless range of motion the necks have. Plus, you gotta love how they sleep on one leg!

I need to add also the special experiences I’ve had sketching the orangutans. I sat with Rosie, who I was told likes to paint. She sat, pressed against the glass, watching me the whole time. There’s a lot going on in that head of hers!

LAZ: How long have you been coming to the Zoo to sketch?

AB: I’ve been going to the Los Angeles Zoo every week for the past two years. Prior to that I was living in San Francisco where I went there and to the Oakland Zoo on a regular basis.

LAZ: Why do you enjoy sketching animals at the Zoo?

AB: I’ve always been an animal lover. In fact, prior to what I do now, I was planning to become a marine biologist and study sharks. As usual, life happens and I became an artist (no complaints though). During art school, one of my instructors told me to go to figure drawing and sketch at the Zoo as much as possible. Done and done. It all worked out because I get to enjoy the best of both worlds: Draw and learn about animals. Speaking of sharks, I recently learned of tablets you can use underwater to sketch sea life. Perhaps this will be my next venture.

LAZ: What have you learned about the animals in observing them?

AB: I’ve learned a lot about how each animal is built to truly function best in its own natural environment.  Lions have coats that blend them into the savanna. Giraffes have their long necks to reach Piranhasleaves, along with dense fur under their mouths to protect them from thorns.  Male bighorn sheep have their horns and thick skulls to protect them in their head-butting battles. Cheetahs have extra large nostrils to take in more air as they run at such great speeds. In short, they all have a reason to be built the way they are.  This is important for me to keep in mind when I’m designing animals/creatures.  I’m not just creating features on them because they look cool, but that they actually serve a purpose in their survival and well-being.

After observing them for a while too you really start to see different personalities emerge. Some are docile, some are aggressive, some playful, and some shy.  It varies so much and it’s fantastic to see.

LAZ: Is sketching a hobby or a part of your profession?

AB: This is the question I get most often from other guests at the Zoo.  Most want to know if I’m there for a class, if I’m making a book, or if I’m getting paid to do this. Well, the answer is no to all the above. I’m an artist with Disney Interactive, so it’s part of my profession, aside from the fact that I just love doing it. I’ve heard this analogy that makes the most sense in my mind. It’s like a professional athlete hitting the gym to lift weights. They’re building their strength to perform better once they’re in the big game. When I sketch, I’m honing my drawing skills and creating a visual reference in my mind of these animals. Then when I go to work and am asked to design characters, I have a good foundation to build off of.

You can see more of Aaron’s work here:
Instagram: @aaronberchild