Sunday, 23 August 2015

Drawing Birds - here's one approach

After another successful Summer School Course, this time illustrating birds, I thought some of you would like to see the approach I take to drawing these wonderful creatures.  I drew and painted birds before I ever took up botanical art work, and through my life I have taken several approaches before I settled on one that I use most of the time.  It was quite reassuring to find that other bird artists follow similar approaches, as I discovered when purchasing the book mentioned below.

As with a lot of natural history illustration, nothing beats drawing from life and working in the field.

John Muir Laws has several wonderful quotes in his book 'The Laws Guide to Drawing Birds'

'The purpose of field-sketching is to learn from nature.  Train yourself to look and look again until you see.  Do not worry about making pretty pictures; instead focus on documenting on what you earn during a direct encounter with nature'
'A field sketch is not about making a perfect illustration; instead it is a tool that allows you to look more closely'
'The sketching process cements memories in your mind'
This very quick pencil and wash sketch of a Blue tit was one of my very fist field sketches.  It is very small and only measures about 6 x 5 cms.  It still sits a bit tattered on my pin board in the studio.
In reality sketching out in the field is not always possible.  When starting to draw birds it can be daunting sitting in a public place such as a bird hide or park, whilst people may look over your shoulder.  Using your garden is a different matter and I encourage this as much as possible, when observing birds but also when starting to make the first few tentative sketches.  Remember, nobody else has to see them !
I can hear you saying 'what about using photographs ?'  This is often frowned upon by some natural history artists, some of the reasons I totally agree with.  But using photographs alongside other resources can create a more holistic approach and encourage people to actually get out there to sketch too.
The resource table at the Summer School Course.  Not only photographs but also taxidermy specimens of birds, bird id guides, books from bird illustrators and examples of other artwork.
If using photographs you do need exceptionally good images and I am lucky that I have a good library of my own images, but also access to other images from a photographer friend.
For the Summer School we used the resources seen above all in combination with photographs. 
Each coloured photo had an accompanying black and white image, as near to scale as possible.  This enabled the students to really look at the details without being distracted too much by colour and pattern.

The central red line is the first line that is always drawn.  This helps to indicate the posture of the bird.  The angle of this line can vary considerably according to what the bird is doing.

If this line is drawn accurately, the rest of the drawing becomes easier.
The two green circles/ovals seen above in the first picture of course indicate the approximate shape of the body and head.
I have always found it easier to draw the body shape first, rather than the head.  If drawing the head first it is very easy to make it too large.

Once these two circles are accurate the outline of the bird can be drawn in.  Dependant on the position of the bird, some of these lines may be quite angular, so be aware of the outer shape and be careful not to make a bird look too rounded.

For the other details look closely at the groupings of the feathers and the direction that they may take.  These groupings can sometimes go across several areas of patterns, according to what bird species it is.

For this drawing of a Wren there was not a great deal of colour and pattern variation when comparing it to a Great tit for example, but I still needed to observe the directions and groupings of the feathers.

The next stage is to ensure that the wing and tail feathers are accurate.  In addition the angle of the tail needs to look realistic too.
Next we moved onto painting our drawings using artists quality gouache on coloured mountboard.

I'll be talking more about using gouache for bird paintings in a later blog post

Can you guess what bird this paint palette was for ??

The bird illustrations taking shape as the we moved through the 2 days of the course.
We also had a visitor that stayed around for the second day of the course.

The final pieces.  Everybody worked so hard and really enjoyed discovering more about their bird species and how versatile gouache can be - more about gouache in a later blog post !
The next course will be even more exciting as we will be using live birds as our subject matter !
Cherry and her beautiful owls Beebo and Eddi from the New Forest Owl Studio, will be paying us a visit in October for the 'Sketching the beauty of Owls' course



  1. Interesting post, thanks.

    I'm a keen bird watcher and am fascinated by the way I can instantly recognise a bird in the field but if you were to ask me to sketch it in colour I'd not have a clue. I'm thinking it's about time I started trying to do quick sketches and studying the birds so I can recall the detail.

    Oh, Nuthatch for the colours?

  2. sniff.....i want to go by sarah..and i want that colored mount board...i'm having a hell of a hard time getting anything like it here
    sniff sniff

  3. Great explanation. The "Law's" book is my favorite. I wish I was closer, as I would sign up for class NOW! 😊Mary

    1. Thanks Mary, wouldn't that be nice. It is an amazing book.


It is always lovely to hear your comments. Please feel free to leave them here and I will approve them asap.