How to Draw Animals: Snakes and Their Patterns

07/21/2014 |   Uncategorized |

Final product image
What You’ll Be Creating

Snakes are one of the most-drawn animals, if not the most drawn animal. They’re considered to be very simple, with no legs or special muscles that need to be defined. There’s only a head (without ears!) and a long tail—what can go wrong?

So, welcome to the perfect start into the world of animal drawing: a guide to drawing snakes! I’ll show you how to draw both venomous and harmless snakes, and how to draw their scales and patterns realistically. We won’t focus only on one species, but rather will look at the techniques you need to draw any part of any type of snake. Aafter going through this tutorial, you should be able to draw most varieties of snakes almost effortlessly.

Let’s start with some basics about snakes’ anatomy. We tend to see think of snakes as  made mostly of a long tail, but the truth is, the majority of a snake’s body is actually a long chest.

snake basic anatomy
1—head, 2- chest, 3—tail

The outwardly harmless belief that a snake body is mostly made of a tail leads to entirely incorrect drawings of snakes. Even as one of the simplest animals, snake drawings still suffer from a too-cursory knowledge about their makeup. Instead of seeing them as a constantly tapered tail, it’s better to imagine them as a string of beads—which confirms closer to the curved rib shape that actually makes up the snake’s body. “Neck” beads are a bit narrower than “chest” ones”, and then they get smaller and smaller, but not very rapidly. In contrast, if you think of a snake as just a long tail, you’ll likely sharply taper its entire length.

Snake as a tail versus snake as beads
The differences in body tapering if you draw a snake as beads instead of just a tail

The length and width of the “neck” and “chest” segments depend on the species. Some will have no neck at all, while others are so slender the chest will not be noticeable. If you’re drawing a snake without focusing on the species, you can experiment here. Remember—snakes don’t need to be always perfectly slender, and sometimes they look fat and clumsy!

moving beads in snake body
The string of beads method makes it easier to draw snakes in motion

The “string of beads” method is very useful in creating 3D poses. If you have problems with imagining the sides, you can use cubes instead of balls.

3d bead snake body
Turning your bead snake body into a 3D drawing

You can make the 3D very easy to draw by adding more circles between those building the pose. This way you’ll get a sense of volume, and the sides will be easier to define.

upright snake with bead body
full upright snake body
An upright snake body with the extra circles to give its body volume

What about snake’s famous hoods, often seen in cobras? They’re actually a snake’s body, flattened by straightened ribs. That means the hood’s width is dependent on the normal width of the body, and it can’t be as wide as you may like it to be.

snake hood
A snake’s hood drawn proportionally to its body

To create a believable pose, we need to know how snakes move.

1. Serpentine movement – the classic movement of a snake. The animal use its strong body to push on terrain crimps (or just uses the terrain as a whole, if it’s rough enough to create resistance).

serpentine movement
Serpentine movement

2. Concertina movement  the movement where the snake folds and expands regularly, like a concertina or accordion. Snakes use this method when climbing or coming through narrow tunnels.

Concertina movement
Concertina movement

3. Caterpillar movement – this movement works similarly to a vertical concertina movement. Slight horizontal concertina may occur as well during this movement.

Caterpillar movement
Caterpillar movement

4. Sidewinging movement – this method is very efficient on slippery or hot surfaces (like desert). The snake pushes itself with a swaying motion of the raised coils, which makes it move somewhat sideways.

Sidewinging movement
Sidewinging movement

I’m going to show you three views of the snake’s head at the same time: side (1),front (2) and top (3). This way, you’ll be able to easily compare them to understand this form in 3D.

Start with a flattened ball. In addition to the center line, there should also be a line placed at one third of the diameter.

circle for snake head
Draw a line in the center and at 1/3rd diameter height of the circle

We next need to define the jaws and cheeks. The arrows in the diagram below show you the flow of this shape.

Adding cheeks and jaws to the snake
Adding cheeks and jaws to the snake

Add another, bigger ball behind the main one. This way, we’ll elongate the skull properly.

additional head ball
Add an additional ball to the head.

How much larger should this second ball be? Generally, venomous snakes have more triangular heads, with a clear neck endpoint, so you’ll want a much larger second ball. Nonvenomous snakes typically have narrower heads so the second ball only needs to be a bit wider.

second ball
Vary the width of the second ball depending on the type of snake

You can now easily outline the contours.

adding snake head contours
Outline the snake head contours

The eyes are placed close to the narrower tip of the skull.

Now, smile! The snake’s smile—or mouth, rather—should be wide and well defined. Add small nose holes appropriately as well.

snake mouth
Add the snake’s mouth and nostrils

With all the guide lines, you can easily sketch the rest contours. Don’t forget about a small hole between the lips that lets the tongue slip out without opening the mouth!

outlining snake face
Add the contours of the rest of the snake’s head

If you’re adding a bottom view to your snake, use the top view circles to create the bottom one, and just forget about the eyes and nose.

bottom of snake head
The bottom of the snake head retains generally the same shape

If simply redrawing the scales at random doesn’t satisfy you and you want to remember rules about their placement, here’s a few tips. Keep in mind that not all snakes are the same, and their scales may vary as well. What I’m showing you is a general pattern, especially common for nonvenomous species.

Let’s start with the mainly vertical lines. There’s one right under the eye, two on its sides, and three others near the nose. (Observe all the views to understand exactly what you’re drawing, so you’ll remember it more easily).

large scales 1
The general direction of the large head scales
large scales 2
The large head scales, outlined

Now, let’s go horizontal. Draw a line from the nose to the eye, then split it into four new ones. The front of the head needs some little tweaks too.

horizontal lines 1
The main horizontal scale lines
head horizontal 2
The main horizontal head scales, outlined

Now, back of the head. Right behind it regular scale rows begin.

direction of neck scales
The direction of neck scales
neck scales outlined
Neck scales outlined

The bottom view of the head needs a different treatment:

bottom scales
The standard scale outline on the bottom of a snake head

If you don’t want to learn all these arrows by heart, here’s a colorful scheme for you. Once again, keep in mind that every snake is different and you can modify these shapes accordingly.

snake scale color scheme
1—side, 2—front, 3—top, 4—bottom

Venomous snakes (and some nonvenomous snakes—pythons, in particular, have them very distinctively) can have heat-sensitive pits on their heads. You can treat them as big nose-holes made of scales. You can find them somewhere next to the nose, and in a row on the upper or lower lip (not necessarily everywhere at the same time, as shown below). They let the snake see the temperature (infrared light) to spot the warm body of its prey.

Venomous snakes have also smaller, tighter scales on their heads, similar to the ones on the rest of their body. They’re easier to draw, since they’re often quite chaotic. You can make the head less “smooth”, with high nostrils and strong brows, to define the aggressive look of the snake.

heat-sensitive pits on snake head
Heat-sensitive pits on snake head

Time for some details. Generally, venomous snakes have slit pupils, while nonvenomous snakes have round pupils. Their eyes themselves are round, but can look sharper thanks to a “brow” scale. Use it for an evil look!

snake eye shapes
Nonvenomous, venomous, and brow-shaded venomous snake eyes

Snake eyes come in unbelievably great set of colors. Basically anything you can imagine will look good on your made-up species, as long as you stick to the round shape and proper pupil.

snake eye colors
Be creative with your snake eye colors

Snakes have the most interesting jaws construction of any animal (except perhaps for the moray eel). Let’s start slowly. First, the fangs (if present) need to be curved to inside, so that the snake doesn’t bite itself (snakes are not actually immune to their own venom!).

snake teeth
Make sure your snake’s teeth are pointed inwards

Secondly, there is a bone between the upper and lower jaw, loosely connected to both of them. It gives the jaws a tremendous range of motion. Snakes with long and strongly curved fangs (like vipers) may be able to “retract” them—bend the tip of the mouth to point them straighter.

snake jawbone
Snake jaws can open very widely to point the fangs straighter

But that’s not all: each jaw is split in two (connected by an elastic ligament), and each can move independently. Now it’s obvious how snakes can swallow prey much larger than their head!

snake jaw motion
Snake jaws have a wide range of flexibility

Let’s take a good look at a close-up of the head:

  1. Fangs – sharp as needles, often covered with a thick gum. Only venomous snakes have those!
  2. Venom duct – venom runs from its gland right through a hollow fang. Then it can be transferred into the prey’s body during a bite. Some species are able to spit the venom through the fangs.
  3. Glottis—a hole that’s part of respiratory system. It lets the snake breath when it’s swallowing, and is also able to create the hissing sound.
  4. Tongue—it’s long, slim (but not flat) and shiny. A snake use it to “lick” the air, so it’s used as an additional sense. To process the “taste”, the tongue must touch a special organ inside the mouth, hence the slipping in and out. The tip is forked to create two independent tips, each receiving a slightly different signal from its side (just like two eyes). The pose shown below is impossible, since the tongue slips out of its sheath only when the mouth is closed.
  5. Cheeks—these strong muscles manage the movement of the jaws. Draw them as they deserve, thick and solid.
snake head anatomy
Each of the sections of the snake head, as described above

Scales are where the simplicity of a snake ends. Now the brave artist must be patient and draw all the scales one by one, and then shade them the same way. No, I’m not going to show you some magic method to avoid the work—instead, I’ll show you how not to waste this time by ending up with a flat pattern.

We already described and sketched the scale structure all around the head. Beyond that, quite regular and well-known scales occur in neat, orderly rows. The dorsal scales cover all the back and sides, while the remaining space is taken by ventral scales—wide, elongated plates covering all the belly, parallel along the body. They can be as wide as the body (covering whole belly’s width) or narrower. If they’re narrower, they may not be visible from the side.

snake body and belly scales
1—side, 2—bottom

Of course, there is a place where the belly ends and the tail starts. It’s defined by the anal plate (colloquially speaking, a snake’s butt). Here things go a bit different for a venomous (left) and nonvenomous (right) species:

  • venomous snakes have a single anal plate, and the scales under the tail are placed just behind it
  • nonvenomous snakes have the anal plate slipped, and then the other scales are divided too.
snake tail scales
1—belly, 2—anal plate, 3—undertail

Drawing the scales themselves isn’t very hard, and you have probably seen the mini-tutorial in the image below. Cross some lines, them draw the scales between them—we’ve all been there. The problem is, this trick gives us very flat laying scales, so we need to modify it.

basic scales
The default way to criss-cross lines and turn them into scales

Here’s the steps you need to make your scales contour to the snake’s body and appear more life-like.

The trick is to bend the initial line a little, to an opposite direction at both halves. So, instead of drawing an oblique line, you just need to draw an elongated S (or integral symbol), and cross it with its mirrored reflection.

snake scales curve 1
Draw a shallow figure S instead of a straight line…
snake scales curve 2
…then cross it with its mirrored reflection

The other lines need to copy the bending. Simply repeat that shallow curved line pattern along the snake’s body.

remaining curved lines
Continue the curved line pattern

If you draw the scales on the mesh now, you’ll see they get smaller when closer to the edge, which gives them the receding look that a 3D snake body should have. That’s all!

finished curved scales
Your scales now will have the correct curve

However, this method becomes quite problematic when it comes to curves on the snake’s body. Here’s a workaround for this problem. It may look confusing at first, but try to draw it and you’ll see how it works:

  1. Draw the guides with the usual method on the straight parts
  2. Draw a set of parallel lines between the pink line from A and blue line from B
  3. Do the same between the blue line from A and pink line from B
  4. If you did it correctly, the scales should now follow the curve. The tightening of lines inside the curve should now appear natural.
scale curves on curved body
The steps to make the scales look correct on a curved snake 

Generally, there’s two distinct types of scales—smooth (1) and keeled (carinate, 2). Smooth scales are shiny (but not wet) and usually rounder than keeled ones, which have a rough look and are sharper.

smooth and keeled scales
Smooth and keeled scales

There’s a special kind of keeled scales, raised in a way that makes them look spiky.

spikey keeled scales
Smoother and spikey keeled scales

Scales aren’t connected to each other, but to the skin only. Therefore, when the skin is stretched (3—when swallowing a big prey or even when moving), the scales move away from each other. Some less slender snakes may have the scales placed tightly on the head and neck (1), and down their body a bit of distance between them occurs (2).

scale placement
The varying distance between scales when tight (1), somewhat spread (2), and stretched (3)

Once you got the problem with scales sorted out, you can add colors to your snake. The variations of patterns are limitless! While most animals are dull colored for camouflage’s sake, snakes proudly show their bodies to the world, announcing how dangerous they are—and that they’re not worth messing with. You can finally use saturated, bright colors without going away from realism.

Here’s the color patterns that work well.

This can be a base for a pattern or just a pattern on its own. Use any color you want for the whole body.

plain color
A basic plain color can work nicely

The variation of this pattern is to blend it softly with other colors. You can make the head darker, or the belly lighter, whatever you want.

blended plain color
Blend two or more colors softly for a nice color effect

Rings go around the body. They can be plain or multiply colored (stripes with borders).

snake rings
Straight rings appear as bands

Crossbands are a variation of rings. They go around the body too, but without crossing the belly.

snake crossbands
Crossbands include multiple colors

These are small patches of color on individual scales.

snake speckles
Speckles give snakes a more camouflaged look

They run along the length the body, straight and regularly.

snake stripes
Stripes run along the length of the body

These can be very irregular, of various sizes, placed randomly across the body.

snake blotches
Blotches give you even more room for variation…

Almost every pattern allows a variation of contrasting borders to be added to it.

blotch boarders
…with borders, shapes, and sizes to play with

These are diamond-shaped blotches, placed regularly, with contrasting borders.

snake diamond patterns
Snake diamonds should app have a regular size

Today we’ve learned that snakes aren’t as easy to draw as one may think. These beautiful animals, so often feared and hated by people, deserve some love! Take a break from drawing cute kittens and puppies, and draw a snake from time to time. Eating a puppy.


Milson Aoanan

Digital Imaging Artist at Cybro Solutions
Having demonstrated a unique ability to over deliver to clients of all sizes around the world, based on skills and prior experience, I’m confident that I can do a great job for you.