Saturday, April 4, 2020

Naturalist Notebook: Drawing birds

It is hard to sketch birds in the field if you have not first studied them. Birds are not like plants, which very graciously stay in one spot for us, and allow us to take all the time the world to draw them. As you have learned from trying to identify birds, they can move around quite a bit. They also come in all shapes and sizes. But there are some commonalities we can count on that help us to take "short cuts" in sketching them while they move. There is a general shape to their heads, bodies, and wings, and how a species looks is primarily a function of variations on that shape. Here is a "stick figure" bird showing the basic shapes and placement of eyes, bill, wings, tail, and feet:

Note that I have drawn the head as a circle, divided latitudinally in half (an equator) and longitudinally into four sections. Note also that the bill sits slightly below the equator, and in this bird, the eyes are just above the equator, and just behind the first line. If the bird is a predator, the eye placement might move slightly forward (for binocular vision--we talked about this in class). You can give this bird "attitude” simply by tilting the angle of the equator and longitudinal sections:

It is still just a circle, and still divided longitudinally and latitudinally, but these lines are tilted. Try drawing a few circles, then the equator and longitudinal lines at different angles, and then place the bill and eyes accordingly and see what happens.

Now that you have a sense of the basic bird shape, it is useful to study how different species are variations on these shapes. I find it useful to use photographs for this. There are countless available on the internet that you can use, but this is a photo of a yellow house finch that was coming to my feeder one winter (same as a red house finch, but an anomalous color--it happens sometime):

I decided to focus just on the head to try to capture the pose:

I drew a circle, drew the equator and longitudinal lines, and then made some adjustments to the shape of the head:

This is the infused product:

You can do the same with the whole bird. In fact, you can even add a grid to a photograph to help you get the proportions right. You should recognize this bird--a white winged dove that came to my backyard one snowy day. Here is the whole sequence for drawing it, start to finish:

Find a photo of a bird and try this grid method. Once you have practiced this a few times, you begin to get a feel for how to draw different species. You form a "template" which you can use to draw birds quickly and accurately. 

If you know you are going to see particular birds in the field, find different photos of them in different poses and practice drawing those until you can do some quick sketches of them. Here are some practice sketches I did of the Lesser Prairie Chicken shortly before going out the field to watch their courtship display. I knew from experience that I would need to have a template of the chicken in my head that I could draw quickly in order capture their behavior. The first two pages are the practice, and the second two are actual field sketches of their behavior:

If you are able to get out and go to a park, or even if you are stuck in quarantine and can only look out your window, make a note of the common birds and study them with your binoculars. Then find some photos and practice drawing those species. When you feel like you have a good template, try drawing the birds from life. Here are some sketches I have done of birds in the field using this method of study:

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