How to find animal shapes in your paintings

Hi everyone, Vanessa here. I hope the Season of Dreams has been full of inspiration for you so far. Interestingly enough, both Essie and I came up with the same type of tutorial for this Season. We decided to split our tutorials into two parts. Essentially we are exploring the same technique – watercolours and pens – in different ways. So consider this an add-on to Essie’s post.

Gather the usual supplies: your journal, watercolours, water, ink, pens/calligraphy nibs and some tissues (not pictured). I am using a Moleskine sketchbook so the pages are not the best for wet media. So I prepped them beforehand by covering them with clear gesso. It gives the pages some really nice tooth and makes them stronger, without changing the background colour. Speaking of colour, pick out three or four, no more, that are in the same family (warm vs cool).


Start by really wetting your brush. Drag or drop the water onto your pages. Try to give your puddles some movement by pulling at the water with your brush. This way some areas have lots of water and others less so.


Now load your brush with your first colour and just touch the water slightly so the watercolours transfers unto the page.


Let the colour swirl and fill in the water puddles.


Now add in the second colour, with the same brush or a different one, up to you. Once again, just touch the paint lightly to the water that is on the page and watch the colours blend and bleed together.


The three colours I chose – yellow orange, red and purple – are in the same family and blend nicely. You can let some areas dry a little and then add a second colour on top. Careful not to mix too much as the colours could end up looking like brown blobs.


Another technique I like to use is to really saturate the brush with your paint and then let the watercolours dry just a little.


Then press down with your bunched up tissue to mop up some of the excess colour and water. This gives some really interesting texture I find.


I tried using some very free movements, to mimic the freedom we have in our dreams. When you feel the pages are full enough with these swirling colours, let everything dry. I recommend leaving some white space and not covering everything up.


While you are waiting, pick your pen or ink. This is what I use. I love using a calligraphy nib and ink. I love the scratch of the nib on the paper. I love that you can’t always control the outcome and I love how dark the ink is.


Take a few seconds to look at your pages. What do you see in the swirling patterns? Try to focus on little elements in your pages. For example, I’m starting with that orange triangle. What will it be, what will my pen pull out? Find an interesting shape and outline it.


I outlined the orange triangle and found a headdress at the same time. The two shapes to the left of this creature were just begging for long ears. Let the images emerge from the colours. Don’t be too hung up on how an animal is supposed to look…we are in a dream state after all. If a creature has no legs – well, why not?


You can outline coloured areas, but try using the negative space too. In this case, there was a V-shaped are with no colour in it. So I found a fox.


There is no problem with these creatures being all caught together, it is part of the charm.


I also used negative space for the face of the creature below. There is really no limit to what can appear here.


Like a dodo, a giant rooster/chicken and a fluffy wolf-sheep, hanging out at the bottom corner of a page.


It also helps to rotate your journal and to look at the colour swirls from a different angle. That is how I found the three legged animal near the crease in the photo below.


So there you have it. I could have gone on and drawn even more beasts, but I like the fact that the spread ‘breathes’ like this.


For this tutorial, I used warm colours, but imagine playing with shades of blue and gold or with green? This is a great exercise to repeat with acrylics too. Although there isn’t the transparency that we see here, it is always a good idea to try and see the image that wants to be revealed within the paint.


I cannot wait to see who shows up to play in your journals!


Vanessa is an archaeologist and an artist. She oscillates between these two poles of her personality and explores the many iterations of her reality in her art journal. She loves to share her art and process with others.


  1. Sasha Zinevych

    So dreamy and ghosty at the same time! I love it! Definitely going to give this a try! Thanks for sharing, Vanessa!

  2. Gilly Welch

    This looks awesome thank you, I’m intrigued as to what I might find!

  3. Clare Davis Etheridge

    I love how the page swirls and works so well with the creatures you have found. I am going to have a go at this today! Thanks Vanessa x

  4. Riet

    Wonderful, V!

  5. Emily@squiggleandswirl

    I actually did find some creatures in my colour blotches!So enjoyable to do. Another fabulous tutorial Vanessa, thank you. Can hardly wait for your Totems Class!!!

  6. Rebecca Johnstone

    Ooh I was trying to figure out a way to draw ghosts – this could be it. So cool. Thanks Vanessa xx