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When sketching in the African bush I don’t have time to photograph the stages of my pencil sketches because I need to finish them before the people or animals I’m sketching move away. I sketch using very faint lines, which will become almost invisible when I add watercolour, but these lines are very difficult to photograph outdoors. I use the technique to demonstrate how to draw lions.

I also work without an easel, constantly moving around to find different subjects, making it difficult to document my technique as I’m sketching. So, to show you the stages of a field sketch, I am recreating a sketch in the studio, using pen instead of pencil. The piece I have chosen is Powernap, originally sketched in Kruger National Park, South Africa.

how to draw lions

Here is how I created the sketch:


I started with the lioness and used oval shapes to show her hindquarters, belly, shoulders and head. These first few shapes are the key to the sketch. If I get them right, they will hold the sketch together, but if I get them wrong, they will tear it apart. So even though these are the simplest of shapes, they must be the correct size, the correct shape, and they must be positioned correctly in relation to each other. These lines, like every other, are drawn only after careful observation of my subject.

how to draw lions

I also draw a line indicating the centre of the lioness’ back and continue it through her neck and down what will become the middle of her face. This line is my guide and ensures that her body and facial features will be aligned correctly so that her shoulders meet her belly and neck accurately and her eyes and ears are correctly spaced on either side of the line.

Once I have the basic shapes I join them together. Two simple lines show the start of the tail, and immediately the lioness begins to appear. The hindquarters, belly, shoulders and neck are joined by a long flat line, showing the lioness lying flat on her side. The front legs are simple, and the back legs are nowhere to be seen (if you can’t see them, don’t sketch them).

how to draw lions

The ears and facial features are next. I redraw the line down the middle of the face because the first line wasn’t quite right. Using this new line I add the eyes, nose, mouth and eyebrows, along with a few dots to indicate where the hair of the chin will be. The features on the right side of her face are pressed against the ground, so they are angled slightly. I add no further detail to the front legs or body – the lioness is finished!


I use the same process for the male, starting with the big, simple shapes and adding a line to show the centre of his face, which is at a slight angle, and another to show the level of his eyes.

how to draw lions

Using these two lines, I add his eyes, nose and mouth. Mouths can be difficult as it is very easy to make an animal look as if they are smiling. I find a minimal amount of detail helps to prevent this.


Adding the lion’s ear and mane makes all the difference. I have added very little to the left side of the lion’s face (the right side of my sketch) because I will use watercolour to create the outline of his face and mane. I also decided that the original line of his shoulder was too high, so I drew another. I don’t erase any incorrect lines, although they are far less visible when using pencil. I don’t add shading to my sketches either because I will create effects of light and shade with watercolour. So at this stage, I consider my pencil sketch complete.

The simplicity of my best sketches is partly due to working from life and having no control over my subjects, but also the fact that I love simple lines. Generally, the simpler the sketch is, the more I like it. Years of practice have allowed me to develop my style, and I believe that what you choose to leave out of your art is just as important as what you choose to include.

If you prefer the motivation of being surrounded by other sketchers, join me on an Africa Geographic Art Safari. We will spend four days in the South African bush sketching wildlife in beautiful settings. You’ll have plenty of time to improve your sketching skills and receive instruction and companionship in a friendly atmosphere.

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Alison Nicholls is an artist Inspired by Africa. She teaches guests to sketch wildlife during Africa Geographic Art Safaris and is a member of Artists For Conservation, the Society of Animal Artists and the Explorers Club. Alison donates a percentage to African conservation organisations from the sale of every painting, field sketch and limited edition reproduction.

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