Animal Observation and Behaviour

The following images show student works from Nick’s UK-based animal sculpture workshop March 2024

Animal Behaviour

Animal observation and behaviour are at the heart of my work as an animal sculptor. It’s important to me that my work is physically and anatomically accurate. But it’s equally important to capture the behavioural characteristics of my subjects.

Animal Observation

This isn’t just limited to the animal in general, although we can certainly learn a lot from the general traits of a particular species. But each individual animal also has its own character and personality. The way it interacts with its environment, and the other animals it comes into contact with; these are the things that tell us the animal’s story, the things that can bring an animal sculpture to life.

Thank you for the lovely course – I’ve just ordered some air drying clay to practise with.

This is why I make time each year to observe my animal sculpture subjects in the wild. There is so much to be learned from watching how animals behave and interact within a group and when faced with the external threats and opportunities they encounter in their daily lives.

Animal Sculpture Students

But we don’t have to visit the African plains to study animal behaviour. Many of us have animals at home and, of course, through the internet and social media we have access to countless photographic and video resources we can use to expand and deepen our understanding of animals.

Amazing to see all the animals emerging from lumps of clay under your guidance, Nick. Finding hidden talents in all of us.

Animal observation is a key skill for an animal sculptor and something I always spend considerable time teaching during my animal sculpture workshops. This applies not only to my art safaris where we have direct access to our subjects in the wild, but also to my UK based animal sculpture workshops.

Animal Sculpture Workshop

Students must learn to observe animals with fresh eyes. To sculpt an animal, they first have to learn its anatomy, its shapes, forms and proportions. They must learn how perspective changes depending on the angle of view. I show them how to use negative space to understand shape and form. I teach them how to put all this together to depict an animal with accuracy and sensitivity.

Thank you very much for inspiring and educational days.

Sculpture, of course, is three dimensional. Students must learn to observe their subjects from different angles, including those views that are rarely photographed, such as the hind quarters and underside. Only by observing our subjects from multiple angles can we develop a full and detailed understanding of their physical features, their relative size, scale and proportions, and how these are all connected.

Animal Sculpture Workshops

But this is only the beginning. To truly bring an animal sculpture to life, we need to understand how animals shift and flex as they move and change their position, attitude, facial expression and body language. What is the animal’s story? What’s it doing? What’s it thinking? How is it feeling? What’s it going to do next?

It was a pleasure to be in a room with so many creative, talented and beautiful women.

Students always under-estimate this aspect of animal sculpture. There is a tendency to think it’s about copying a static image, taking a pose they like and reproducing this in clay. But a single image can never provide enough information. They need to see all the animal’s features, including its knees, feet, toes and tail (if it has one!). How does the animal move? How does it express its feelings, intentions and desires?

Nick Mackman Workshop

True art is never purely representational. It must offer an emotional connection. For me, I can never start a new animal sculpture without first making this connection. This might be something as simple as the graceful curve of an animal’s spine. Or it might be a behavioural aspect. Animals at play are entirely different to animals hunting or fighting for survival.

Thank you for everything you taught us, Nick, and thank your husband for the lovely food.

I always ask myself, what’s the story? Why am I drawn to depict a particular animal in a certain way? How do I feel about it? And how do I want the viewer to feel? Animal observation provides us with the insights we need to make these connections and transform our work from illustration to art.

Student Animal Sculpture

This is a journey of discover for my animal sculpture students. For many of them, it’s nothing less than a revelation, the key that opens the door to artistic expression and fulfilment. I’ve learned over many years of teaching that this is no small thing. It can be a truly life affirming – even life changing – experience.

I hope you are having a relaxing and quiet weekend, Nick, after giving us these three unforgettable days.

The student works shown here were all produced over the course of three days during my latest UK based animal sculpture workshop. As always, it was a pleasure and privilege for me to help them realise their artistic potential and watch the group bond through the shared experience of creative discovery. Many of them are already planning their next sculptures or thinking about another workshop or wildlife trip.

Workshop Animal Sculpture

If you’d like to join me on an animal sculpture workshop or art safari, we’ve just added a new date for Zambia in 2025, and we’ll be releasing details of our 2025 UK workshop programme later this year. We are also working hard to develop an online animal sculpture course. Sign up to my newsletter below for early notification and the chance to book new workshops before they go on general release.