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Fun, Fantastic Critter Art

12/25/2014 12:28AM ● By Lennie Copeland

Crazy Critters

January 2015
By Lennie Copeland

I can’t help it. I find art every time I hike in the woods or walk on a driftwood-littered beach. I see creatures lurking in bits of wood, branches, roots and stumps. My art is to let the being in the wood emerge and manifest itself in all its innate, fantastic glory. I call my creations “critters” and they cause such excitement from people who see them that I have decided I should share the pleasure. Anyone can create a critter. It may take a little practice to train the eye, but it’s not hard. Children are especially good at it.

First take a walk, somewhere that sticks or even logs are lying about – a place where driftwood or trees are in abundance, like a park or hiking trail, or perhaps your own backyard. Look for bits of wood that have what stand out as facial features, such as a protuberance for a nose or indentations for eye sockets. If you can visualize a face attached to a body and it has an appealing character, you have your first critter. Picture it standing up straight or lying down or even hanging. It doesn’t have to be perfect. In fact, wood with bumps and scars make more interesting critters. They can be tiny or huge.

I suggest gathering several potential critters and taking them home for further consideration, but before packing them into your car, you should throw them on the ground to test their strength and shed any accumulated soil or sand. Those that will easily break are rejects. If you are like me and see critters everywhere, you will have the luxury of selecting the best ones.


Preparing your wooden trophies for paint requires cleaning. Sometimes scrubbing is necessary to remove moss or to remove splinters and loose bark. Then each piece must be rendered free of bugs. One of my students learned this lesson the hard way. She says, “I mailed my brother a wonderful exotic critter I made him for Christmas. When he opened it on Christmas day, out poured a horde of insects and he promptly tossed it into the swimming pool.” Now she soaks each piece for a day in the bath and thoroughly dries it in the sun.


The selection of paint depends on the ultimate use of the critter, either indoors or outdoors. Naturally, outdoor art requires exterior paints and even a coat of clear wood finish. For indoor, acrylic paints and latex are fine. I avoid oil-based paint because I use so many colors that I would waste a lot of time cleaning paint brushes. If I am working with a very large piece such as a log, I cheat and give the whole thing a coat of spray paint before decorating it.

This is the most fun part. Don’t worry about how you will paint a critter, because the critter in the wood will guide you in expressing its true nature. If you go astray and give the critter the wrong personality, it will object. It just doesn’t work. You can always paint over a mistake.

Typically, I use a bright red for the mouth, white for the eyes with a black spot in the middle for the pupil, yellow for the nose and any other color for horns. Big eyes work best. In fact, grand gestures in paint seem to work best, while subtlety may be lost. Critters seem to beg for the dramatic. I paint just one color at a time, allowing it to dry before adding the next color to prevent blurring.

Often, the best profile does not match the opposite side of the face. No matter. Another student explains, “Each side of the face can have its distinct expression, delightful when the head is turned this way and that.” Indeed, your critter may just be one sided.

Moving down the body, I usually start with the most interesting features that I want to highlight, such as bunions and bumps and striation that add character. Most of my works end up spotted and striped in zany patterns and brilliant colors. Your critter may not have arms or legs, and they are not necessary.

Critters look great in the home and in the garden. Collectors show them off in the house in umbrella stands, leaning on a window sill, crawling on a coffee table or even hung on the wall. My favorite piece was a five-foot-long dragon with extravagant wings and tail, displayed in the dining room of a San Francisco home. In the garden, they are delightful peeking through foliage, perched in trees or standing in groups in planters.

The key is imagination. It takes imagination to spot a critter in the rough, to paint it to its fullest glory and to position it to flaunt its unique personality. For that is what critters are all about: Each critter is one of a kind.