Drawing animals is something I had once avoided. I am someone who critiques each and every line that is created as soon as my pencils make contact with the paper. So, of course, I’d be someone who also overthinks each and every strand of hair, every scale and every whisker when illustrating an animal. Each species is intimidatingly varied in form and texture, unlike us humans. Beneath the layers of clothing and skin, we are all built exactly the same. In all honesty, I found illustrating people limiting and it began to bore me. After drawing an animal for the first time, I became invested in my practice again. Despite my hesitations, there is nothing I love bringing to life more than animals. Their expressions, their fur, their beauty, everything that used to be daunting is now exciting.
Why do we illustrate animals? Is it because animals are beautiful? Are they more interesting subjects because they’re non-human and we want to learn about them? Is it because the immeasurable beauty of animals are of vast decorative use to us? Do products sell better with animal-related illustrations on them? I’m fascinated by artists who use animals in their work, whether it is simply for aesthetic reasons, or allegorical and educational purposes. I intend to delve deeper into the world of illustration so that I am able to widen my knowledge and understanding of the many forms that animals can take within artistry.
Anthropomorphism: entertainment and education
Animals have been featured countlessly within both literary and artistic content for centuries. They’re given voices, personalities and clothing to elicit different responses than that of human characters. Anthropomorphism is a commonly used device which allows people to relate to animals in contexts such as literature, film, television, advertising and often in personal life when interacting with animal companions.
The meaning of the word anthropomorphism is subjective. It was first used in reference to theology — to allow the concept of an incorporeal, omnipresent force such as ‘God’ to be more comprehendible. (Anderson, J. 2019) The use of anthropomorphism in present-day is much less to do with religion. Robert W. Mitchell’s Anthropomorphism, Anecdotes and Animals contains thorough investigations and evaluations of the meanings and uses of anthropomorphism. Stewart Elliot Guthrie (quoted in Mitchell, 1997 p.5) describes anthropomorphism as an “involuntary perceptual strategy.” He believes that humans subconsciously assume that an unknown being or form has human qualities.
Anthropomrohpsim is viewed as a device that is beyond our psychological control, to make the unknown seem familiar. From an entirely different, moralistic perspective, “anthropomorphism sometimes seems dangerously allied to anthropocentrism” (Datson, L. and Mitman, G. p.142)— humans attributing their own cognition and behaviour to non-humans in a narcissistic way due to their own egotistical belief that they are the supreme species. However, anthropomorphism can be used in much more positive ways with greater effect.
When described or visualised anthropomorphically a mundane story can be transformed into a wondrous fairytale. Animals can be portrayed in a bizarre, fantastical way as a form of entertainment. In the famous, eccentric novel ‘Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland,\’ written by Lewis Carrol (1865), mundane creatures are anthropomorphised. There’s a frantic, time-obsessed white rabbit who wears a waistcoat, a grumpy hookah-smoking caterpillar and a grinning Cheshire cat.
Lorraine Datson, as mentioned in Thinking With Animals, claims “thinking with animals can take the form of any intense yearning to transcend the confines of self.” (Datson and Mitman, 2005, p.217) Anthropomorphism is described as a form of escapism from humanity. Carrol’s wacky, nonsensical characters have transported many people from their ordinary lives, into the peculiar world that is Wonderland. His book was brought to life in visual form through a series of illustrations by Sir John Tenniel, an artist who was known for his political cartoons. (Kosik, 2018) The original prints were created using woodblocks, carved by the Dalziel brothers.
The location of the originals were unknown until 1985 when they were discovered in a bank vault “carefully wrapped and individually tagged were all 92 blocks, in mint condition after more than a century.” (Thomas, 1985) Even after more than a century and a half since it was first published, ‘Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland’ is still one of the most famous fairytales of all time, and Tenniel’s unique, anthropomorphic illustrations remain legendary. There have been countless film and television adaptions of Carrol’s quirky novel and there is currently a huge exhibition in the works, set to be revealed in June 2020 at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London.
Sir John Tenniel’s original illustrations will be one of the main attractions of the exhibition, which is “in collaboration with The Australian Centre for the Moving Image in Melbourne,” (Rosehill, 2019) whose 2018 ‘Wonderland’ exhibition was a huge success. ACMI’s exhibition involved a range of items from various ‘Alice’ on-screen adaptions, such as stop motion animation puppets and other incredible props. In the documentary ‘Making Wonderland,’ exhibition designer Anna Tregloan described the exhibition as a place for people to be, like Carrol’s ‘Alice,’ curious. “The more curious you are, the more that you’ll find in the exhibition.” (AMCI, 2018)
Tregloan explains that the aim of the exhibition was to give each person a different experience — to allow visitors to fully immerse themselves in ‘Wonderland’ in a unique way. The upcoming exhibition set to open to the public in 2020, “promises to go above and beyond the ACMI’s.” Rosehill (2019) The excitement surrounding ‘Alice’ is still as prominent today as it was when Carrol first created it. The story is treasured by many and Carrol’s anthropomorphic characters are adored.
Anthropomorphism, despite its popularity as a visual device within the creative community, is frowned upon in regard to the sciences — “to impute human thoughts or emotions to electrons, genes, ants, or even other primates is to invite suspicions of sloppy thinking.” (Datson and Mitman, 2005, p.124)
In Thinking With Animals: New Perspectives on Anthropomorphism the validity of anthropomorphic ways of thinking and the ethical aspects that surround its use, are critiqued. Findings around the topic of anthropomorphism are articulated in a non-biased way, however one of the main ideologies presented throughout is that its use in scientific contexts is anthropocentric — “one looks outward to the world and see’s only one’s reflection.” (p.142) Journalist Oliver Milman wrote an article for The Guardian, focusing on the fact that anthropomorphism is ‘contested’.
Anthropologist Holly Dunsworth was quoted in the article — “It’s almost like the internet was built for anthropomorphizing animals.” (Milman, 2016) This is an interesting statement as attributing human-like qualities to animals in order generate comedic content is something that is increasingly popular in social media culture. Videos of animals believed to be displaying human behaviour are a common source of entertainment that often ends up going viral. In 2015, an orang-utan from Barcelona Zoo became an internet sensation. The YouTube video of the ape appearing to laugh at a visitor’s magic trick went viral and after four years, the clip now has an astonishing 55 million views.
The endearing video made people realise how alike great apes are to humankind and the creator of the video, Dan Zaleski, took advantage of the success the sentimentally anthropomorphic video garnered by urging people to “save our cousins from extinction in the wild by supporting conservation work.” (Mastroianni, 2015) Another creature who has been the subject of online fame is silverback gorilla ‘Shabani’ at Higashiyama Zoo. He is described as ‘brooding’ with ‘rippling muscles’ — at the peak of his stardom women were “flocking to check out the hunky pin-up.” (Newsbeat, 2015) His paternal skills are even mentioned in the article as further reason as to why he’d taken so many people’s fancy. Visitors were apparently enamoured by the ape’s “kindness” and protective role as a father — much like women find men more attractive if they “have an affinity for children.” (Pandika, 2015)
Anthropomorphic language is used throughout the article, making it an entertaining read. The attribution of masculine human features is ludicrous as well as amusing and a great example of how anthropomorphism can be used to put forth wacky ideas. Despite the varied interpretations and controversial role anthropomorphism plays within science, it is extremely effective when used for comedic effects. It’s use also allows creatives artistic licence to invent unique characters that people can appreciate and hold dear — the possibilities are endless.
Anthropomorphic illustration is vital in the film industry. Characters are often brought to life on the big screen to elicit humour. A popular comedy film which features anthropomorphism in its entirety is Disney’s amusing and allegorical Zootopia (2016). The general message behind the narrative is that no matter how small you are, you can still make a difference. “In Zootopia, the cops are all large animals. They’re animals like buffalos or hippos or rhinos.” Trippin With Tara (2016) ironically, the main character ‘Judy Hopps’ is a tiny bunny, who you would think is incapable of such an important and physically demanding job.
In Thinking With Animals, it is mentioned that “by caricature: the fox is cunning, the lion is brave and the dog is loyal.” Animal stereotypes often transfer over to anthropomorphic representations. The stereotypical view of what a rabbit is like is subverted in Zootopia as ‘Judy Hopps’ is the bravest character in the film. The anthropomorphism used throughout the Disney film is based on the actual behaviours that animals are perceived to have in reality, which is what makes the animation so witty.
An example is the long queue of restless creatures who are waiting to be served at the ‘Department of Mammal Vehicles’ where all of the employees are hilariously slow sloths. Animals of all shapes and sizes are included and are portrayed as true to size as possible, which was a huge challenge for the design team compositionally. “Characters are magnitudes different in terms of size” which was a prominent detail in the illustration process as it played a vital role in enforcing the allegory of the film — you can be anything you want. Yeah, the other officers are mighty, powerful creatures such as polar bears, but so what? It doesn’t matter how small you are — you can accomplish anything you put your mind to.
This is useful to teach children, since it is inevitable that at some point in life, you will face obstacles. However, like ‘Judy Hopps,’ you can persevere and learn to make the best out of any situation. Evidently “certain kinds of stories go down more easily when presented in animal form.” (Nevala-Lee, 2016) Anthropomorphism can be used to allow difficult subject matters to be presented as a child-friendly adventure. In Disney’s Finding Nemo (2003) the storyline, when explained in an extremely blunt manner, sounds wildly unsuitable for children. If you were to describe the plot using dysphemism, it entails a grieving single father whose only child is kidnapped and imprisoned.
It doesn’t sound like something that would be appropriate for a young audience. It sounds like something that would be melancholic — even horrific — to watch. A child is likely to find such a tale of events extremely distressing and overwhelming. Anthropomorphism is used in a tactful way to portray the story in a manner which allows children to view the animation safely, ensuring that it will be an enjoyable experience for them.