If you want to take your birding experience to another level (as if simply identifying fall warblers or 4-year gulls at a city dump weren’t challenging enough), try drawing them. Why not just take a photo and move on, you ask? Digiscoping is the fabulous, hot new thing, and I heartily and enviously applaud everyone who’s taken this up, hoping they will teach me how sometime soon. But there are a few good reasons to go low-tech here, and I covered some of them in an earlier post. One reason I put down the camera and picked up the sketchbook was simply practical: I was chasing birds in tropical, wet, dense, dark habitats with bad light and uncooperative subjects. I had a Nikon FM2 manual with a 500mm mirror lens mounted on a monopod, which doubled as a walking stick on muddy trails. With a lot of practice, I managed to get some fairly bad pictures. And use up a LOT of film. Then in Palenque, Chiapas, I had the good luck to run into a real bird artist, Sophie Webb, who was then illustrating Steve Howell’s Birds of Mexico. She showed me her sketchbook and that was that. I had to learn how to draw birds on the hoof. Here’s how you can do it, too.
1) Establish Familiarity. Start with the birds you know, even if it’s a pigeon in the park. Whatever’s on your feeder, watch it carefully, predict how it’s going to move, when it’s going to fly, how the head fits on the body. Does it have a small head and a fat body? Does it have a round, fluffy little body with a relatively large head? Pick out one bird and get used to it.
2) Learn Some Basic Anatomy. Almost every field guide out there has a schematic drawing of a generic bird, with all the parts labeled. Find out how a wing is constructed, where the hips should be, what the legs are doing when the bird is perched, and when it’s standing. Do a kitchen dissection: buy a fresh, whole chicken at your local supermarket and cut it up, noting where the joints are, how the wings fold, how the whole thing is built. It’s the basic blueprint for almost every bird and quite a few therapod dinosaurs. Then cook and enjoy.
3) Practice Short-term Memory Storage and Retrieval. You want to start by “freeze-framing” a mental image of your bird. Don’t worry about anatomy, accuracy, species, or making a pretty drawing. Just look, “snap” a picture in your mind’s eye, squeeze your eyes shut, and STOP LOOKING AT THE BIRD. Instead, look straight down at your paper and stare at the blank page, conjuring up the quick little snapshot out of your retinal area, until you see it floating on the paper. It will only be there a moment. Move your pencil through and around it, and get it down before it’s gone.
4) Draw An Egg. I’m not kidding. Someone showed me this a long time ago, as a joke, but secretly I kept that advice close to my heart. If you don’t know where to start, draw an egg. That’s where birds come from, right? Most of them are roughly shaped like one, too. An egg with a round head and a couple of legs sticking out at the bottom. If you’re frozen in fear of drawing, get the hand loosened up with some nice, easy ovals. Draw an egg.
5) Work Fast. Your bird isn’t going to wait around for you, probably. Unless it’s in a cage and even then you can’t count on it. To capture the lively quality of a bird all you really want is a loose bit of gesture. Don’t get bogged down in details.
That should get you started, now go draw!