Rembrandt and a Lion for my Sketchbook (I)

How to draw a lion

How to draw a lion after Rembrandt in my sketchbook  | by The Daily Atelier

I wanted to draw lions. I love these beautiful animals, and I really wanted to draw a realistic lion.

But sometimes you don’t want to spend hours drawing – or you can’t. All you want is to draw a quick sketch. How can you draw a very quick sketch of a lion and make it realistic? As always, I turned to great artists of the past for guidance.

Many artists are renowned for their drawings of animals. In France, Antoine-Louis Barye (1796–1875) comes to mind, a Romantic sculptor who is famous for his drawings and sculptures of lions. If you walk in the Jardin des Tuileries, in the center of Paris, you will cross paths with a majestic lion he sculpted. But I turned to another famous artist for inspiration: Rembrandt.

The Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, where 8,000 artistic and historical objects tell the story of 800 years of Dutch history, from the year 1200 right up to the present, has many beautiful Rembrandt paintings on display, including his most famous, The Night Watch (De Nachtwacht). The museum also has many of his drawings, including a small drawing (12.2 cm × 21.2 cm), made with a reed pen and brown ink on paper toned with a light brown wash. The Rijksmuseum’s description of this drawing reminds us of how difficult it was for a Dutch artist of the 17th century to draw live wild animals. Reference photography did not yet exist! So, like other artists of his time, Rembrandt kept an album with sketches he made of animals that he saw exhibited at fairs and markets or in the very few menageries that he could visit. According to the Rijksmuseum, this drawing of a lion was made from life, after circa 1660, rather late in Rembrandt’s career.

Reclining Lion with Fodder, by Rembrandt Harmensz. van Rijn, c. 1660. Rijksmuseum, purchased with the support of the Vereniging Rembrandt.

I feel very inspired by the vivacious broad strokes of this drawing. Let’s try to emulate this sketch, and let’s make it a very quick exercise, a study in rapidity.


Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn (Leiden 1606–Amsterdam 1669) was a Dutch painter and printmaker, one of the world’s most famous artists. He is best known for the way in which he captured likenesses of people in portraits, as well as for his depiction of light and shade, which contemporaneous critics sometimes disliked.




Since we want to draw a very quick sketch, I chose:

  • a brush pen (instead of a reed pen or a quill pen), which is a pen with a brush tip

  • grey paper (I used 160 g/98 lb).



Step 1 – Drawing a lion’s head … very slowly

The Rijksmuseum’s observes of this drawing that ‘Very little ink was used for the nose and forehead because the light is falling on that area’.

I thought it might be the most difficult part, because I had not first drawn a draft sketch with pencil. No erasing – every stroke counts! So, in order to be quick, I decided to draw the lion’s head … very slowly. I looked at the reference drawing carefully and at length before diving in. I wanted to be slow in my appreciation so as to be quick in my execution. And then I drew with little, careful strokes. It did not matter that it was not precisely the same as Rembrandt’s drawing – I just wanted to convey the same type of overall impression.


In the short video above, this runs from 0:00 to 0:59


Step 2 – Sketching a lion … very quickly

 The Rijksmuseum also describes how ‘The hind legs are drawn with a great flourish; the mane was rendered with broad lines in various tonalities, and hatching with a dry pen was used for the shadow above the back and forelegs.’

I took it as an indication that it was now time to draw very quickly, with bold strokes and a lot more spontaneity. I began with the mane, followed by the rest of the body. Then I went back to the overall picture and added shading, details, even dots here and there. I added hatching in the background, and made sure that it did not look too ‘clean’. Apparently, Rembrandt himself rubbed the ink lightly in his drawing ‘with a stained finger’ or a wet brush to achieve a slightly darker tone.


In the short video above, this runs from 01:00 to 02:20 for the lion's body, and from 02:21 to 04:05 for the shading.


And voilà!

And voilà, here is a drawing of a lion in under 10 minutes!

Drawing animals realistically can be a very lengthy exercise, but Rembrandt’s drawing gave me inspiration for another way to do it. I admire the spontaneity of that drawing: you can almost imagine the master drawing it, putting more ink on his pen …

I decided to make it a very quick exercise and therefore took my time carefully looking at it, imagining myself drawing it on paper. And only when I felt comfortable did I start drawing it with ink.

I hope you have enjoyed this post. As always, I do not pretend to be a teacher, a seasoned artist or an expert in anything. I am just a very motivated learner who finds a deep joy in regular art practice.

The finished sketch in my sketchbook | Rembrandt and a Lion for my Sketchbook (I), by The Daily Atelier

The finished sketch | Rembrandt and a Lion for my Sketchbook (I), by The Daily Atelier


If you liked this post, you will almost certainly like some of these exercises for your sketchbook. Enjoy!