Taking Flight

From the tiny, silent hummingbird to the large, raucous crow, from the gentle bluebird to the feisty raptor, birds have always attracted fascinated admirers. If you’re one of those admirers and you’re an artist as well, then you’re lucky, indeed, because they’re wonderful subjects for drawing. Here are some basic approaches for drawing birds that will provide you with endless hours of artistic challenge.

Sketching From Life: Seeing this bluebird outside my window, I took a few reference photos and did some quick sketches with just enough color to suggest the bird’s identity. The live subject is always your best reference.

Be a Birder
To draw birds well you have to get to know them well, and bird watching is the best way to do that. Carry a sketchbook and learn to sketch quickly, noting your impressions of color, relative size and action. Take photographs, as well. Birds in zoos will allow you more extended observation, and preserved and mounted specimens in museums can be great references, too.

It’s surely difficult to get birds to hold still long enough for us to draw them from life, however, so every good bird artist should have good reference materials. There are many magazines for bird watchers, and well-photographed field guides are invaluable. Be careful when using other artists’ illustrations as references, however, because in addition to potential copyright violations, you must consider that their work represents only their interpretations of the shapes and colors of the birds they see. Always compare the drawings of others with the real thing before relying on them. With preparation like this, you’ll have a definite advantage in producing accurate and admirable bird portraits.

Find the Shape
Naturally, drawing birds becomes more challenging the more detail you want to include. Some patient artists produce exceptional work by rendering every visible feather, but even such precision will only be successful with well-conceived underlying foundations. These foundations, in fact, are the most important elements of all bird drawings, no matter what level of detail.

Size It Up: Here’s a trick for getting the proportions of your drawing correct. Visually estimate (or measure from a reference photo) roughly how many head-and-beak shapes would fit inside the shape of the bird’s body.

To re-create the shape of most birds, a dependable starting point is to visualize (or draw) two ice cream cones of different sizes. One represents the bird’s body, with the point of the cone at the bird’s tail; the other represents the head and beak. Never mind that this combination of shapes doesn’t actually look like a bird—it’s just a foundation, and the resemblance will come later.

The next step is to connect and refine these forms to represent a specific bird, and be particularly aware of relative sizes. For example, once you’ve established the shape of the head and beak, estimate how many of these conical shapes should fit into the larger mass of the body, and make sure the proportion is correct in the drawing. With that done, you can add the important length and diameter of the connecting neck. Be sure to observe whether the neck is straight or curved, thin or stocky, and so on.

Creating Life
Many experienced bird artists consider the eyes to be the most important feature. A bird doesn’t move its eyes around as humans do (it moves its whole head), and its eyes don’t reflect moods or emotions. For these reasons, be careful in realistic drawings to avoid humanizing a bird’s eyes or the posture of its head in the attempt to portray expression. I usually begin the eyes, which are essentially spherical, by outlining them with a Sketch & Wash pencil from General Pencil Co., or in color with a combination of ultramarine blue and burnt umber. Use a light value on the tops or sides of the eyes to reflect the color of the sky, and add an even lighter value for the highlight, but not pure white.

When drawing feathers, be selective: Put your effort into the few most prominent ones. Most have a generic shape but their details—including size, coloration and irregularities—are unique. Well-rendered feathers, therefore, aren’t like plates of armor or shingles on a roof. The best textural definition can be done on the edges and on the planes in the light, but less so in the middle tones and very slightly, if at all, in the shadow areas. You can suggest the less prominent feathers with just a few lines that indicate mass and shadows.

As a good model for a bird’s legs, think of an ordinary drinking straw, and use a modified triangle shape for the feet (see the illustrations at right). These shapes can then be adjusted for a particular bird, as the details will vary greatly. Be sure to note the difference in the feet when standing on a flat surface and when clinging to a tree limb.

Finally, remember that the greater the variety of birds you’re familiar with, the better your drawings will be. So go out and observe them, and fill your sketchbook with as many rapid, gestural sketches of birds as you can create. You’ll be surprised at how much there is to see, and at how good a bird artist you can become.

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