Category Archives: Natural Science Illustration

Bird Sketching – Life in Progress

When the weather was too poor this winter for outdoor sketching, I set up my drawing supplies on the porch, plugged in the space heater, and worked on sketching birds from life. I found the chickadees and finches very challenging. Why couldn’t I observe some sleeping ducks on a pond instead? But the most convenient, numerous collection of live birds was right there on the other side of my window.

February feeder birds sketches, mostly Juncos and House Finches.

So I worked, and struggled, and wondered how anyone completes an actual sketch of a bird in the field. I started with basic gestures, borrowing ideas from books, blogs, and videos. I knew I could draw from photos, but I wanted to be able to complete a finished-looking sketch during my sketching session. Then I found a bit of helpful advice: build your memory.

Always on the lookout, and constantly on the move: House Finch in the Ponderosa Pine. You only get a moment to capture something about a live bird.

Hmmm, I thought. I guess I should memorize the shape of that finch bill. But no, it’s not like school. I couldn’t memorize a set of visual facts. Putting the right information into memory requires repeated drawing from life, which enhances both my observation and drawing skills.

The more we look, the better we understand. A second observation of a House Finch bill at bottom right.

When I realized that the practice itself would build my memory and make sketching faster, I stopped struggling. Drawing from life is recommended by successful bird artists like John Busby and William T. Cooper. Busby was a British wildlife artist, educator, author, and a founding member of the Society of Wildlife Artists. He described bird sketching as a long-term practice:

Encounters with wild birds are usually measured in split-seconds, and one is rarely given another chance to react…It does take time to learn to draw quickly and a good memory and a high-speed response is something to cultivate…there is much that can be done to sharpen observation and fix events in your memory.

John Busby, Drawing Birds Timber Press, Second Ed 2006

William T. Cooper was a prolific Australian bird illustrator who worked from life. Here he explains the experience of developing a working memory of your subject:

Drawing from life is very important: it allows much more information to penetrate the mind than when copying from a photograph. This information enters the subconscious and will be drawn upon when required some time in the future.

William T. Cooper, Capturing the Essence, Techniques for Bird Artists Yale University Press 2011

He makes it sound almost magical. And I’m discovering an ease to developing these skills when I stop struggling and let the process unfold. I’m working on more responsive gestures while I let bird behavior and proportions seep into my brain. As I work more quickly, that thinking, left brain settles down, and I also feel more present.

Migratory birds add color and excitement to the feeding stations.

It’s May now, and migration season in Colorado is in high gear. Western Tanager, Bullock’s Oriole, and Black-headed Grosbeak are competing with a small, noisy flock of Pine Siskin for seeds and oranges. What a delight to sit here for an hour working with the birds, gently encoding all that behavior, noise, and color into memory.

A Passion for Birds

It’s late winter, just around the corner from Valentine’s Day. It’s the perfect time to reflect on the many loves in my life, including my passion for birds, art, and science.

These three loves coalesce in the practice of natural science illustration, often referred to as “art in the service of science.” But science can also serve beauty. Accurate, detailed drawings can capture our imaginations and hearts in a way that leads us to curiosity, delight, and a desire to protect.

In the end we will conserve only what we love, we will love only what we understand, and we will understand only what we are taught.

Baba Dioum
Untitled watercolor painting of a european goldfinch, campanula flower and dutch poppy by scientist and artist Maria Sibylla Merian, 1600s
Maria Sibylla Merian 1705

In 1699, Maria Sibylla Merian left her home in Amsterdam and traveled with her daughter to Surinam where she continued her work as an entomologist and natural science illustrator. Sibylla Merian was an entomologist, illustrator, and publisher. Her work redefined what was known about metamorphosis. You can see in her engravings and paintings how lavishly she loved what she encountered.

Today we encounter natural science illustration almost everywhere we look. If you’re a birder, you probably have at least one field guide on your shelf. We rely on the adept illustrations of each species to help us identify birds (and other life) in the field. But we may not be aware of the thousands of hours of research, field observation, and craft needed to produce these complex works. That’s what natural science illustrators excel at: simplifying complex scientific ideas with rigorous accuracy. This is a job for people with passion.

Photograph of a bookshelf showing a handful of bird field guides

At the Denver Botanic Gardens School of Botanical Art and Illustration, I learned how to be rigorous in researching and understanding the plant species I illustrated. When I decided to concentrate on illustrating birds, I wanted to apply that same rigor, but with a shift in focus. I wanted to render birds as accurately as possible for the sheer joy of it. My hope is that the delight and joy of rendering the beauty of birds comes through in the lush details and colors, the soft textures, and even the scaly feet (always challenging for me to see properly, and endlessly fascinating). My bird studies are just beginning.

Color pencil illustration of a pygmy nuthatch upside down on a large tree branch
Pygmy Nuthatch / 2020
Copyright Christine Hubbell

Drawing and illustrating birds is a highly rewarding, challenging practice. You can start at any age, and with the basic skills of handwriting. A great place to start is in your nature journal. This is where you record what you see, hear, and experience. And you don’t need big outdoor spaces. A porch, patio, or back yard will do. Record your observations over time and you’ll also have a rich historical record of your experiences.

Photograph of a page from a nature journal that shows a color drawing of a european starling; dated April 27, 2020. Includes some text in the margin “The starlings were foraging on the shore in the tall grasses, climbing up the bank on my side of the creek. Silent hunters.

Some of my favorite nature journaling resources are by John Muir Laws. His books on journaling, drawing birds, and teaching are carefully written, easy to follow, and enormously helpful. David Allen Sibley has wonderful process and drawing videos available from his website as well.

For all things bird, explore the amazing artists and educators at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology Bird Academy. They offer both real-time and recorded nature journaling workshops as part of their extensive series of classes and workshops.

Hermit Thrush / 2021
Copyright Christine Hubbell

There are so many reasons to love the artistry that allows us to understand birds, and so many reasons to love birds through making art. When we draw birds as a way of studying them, our minds shift to observing with intention. We learn to see aspects of birds that we would otherwise miss.


I’ve posted the following for anyone who’d like more time to draw along with the images in my Aiken Audubon nature art presentation.

If you’d like to watch the 44 minute presentation, you can see it on the Aiken Audubon YouTube Channel.

At the Tail End of Quiet

I understand why we use the beginning of the year to make a fresh start. The holidays are behind us with their noisy chaos and overindulgence. Closets and arteries need cleansing. And even at the end of January, the calendar still has a compelling sense of possibility.

But I don’t want to race ahead. I’ll be very grateful for spring’s renewing energy. I just want to stop a while at the edge of winter and take one last look around.

Magpies on a snowy trail

Magpie feathers are structurally blue in sunlight

What I see are the dusty browns and gray-greens of faded plant material providing camouflage for the birds. That’s Colorado, of course. Fifty thousand shades of tan! Look closer and you notice that song birds and other critters are surviving on grass seed and the fruits that have persisted into winter. So there’s life in this season if you know where to look.

House finch on a branch eating ash seed

A house finch gleans seeds from an ash tree

When I decided to illustrate the common hop plant, I was thinking about the plump green flowers I’d seen in early September.

Hop flowers and hop leaves on a barbed wire fence

Fresh hop flowers

But by December, the plants had long since dried. Botanical illustrators often reconstruct plants from herbarium specimens, which are specially prepared by trained collectors from living plant material. They are works of art in their own right, arranged to show the flowers and growth pattern of the plant. They bring the plants back to life.

Without a herbarium specimen, it was a bit of a stretch to think I could get the information I needed from a handful of dried hops. I got as far as soaking some curled leaves in water, unfurling them to get a look at their shape, and making a few sketches. The flowers were another problem. Hop flowers open and curl as they dry, so I couldn’t confidently use them to simulate fresh flowers.

A dried hop flower

What I did learn from the dried hop flowers was just how interesting they are in their own right. There’s something soothing about their monochromatic warmth. The bracts and bracteoles swirl around the strig, reminding me of a paper chandelier or a folk dancer’s skirt adorned with ribbons.

An illustration of dried hop flowers

Detail of dried hops. See the full illustration in the gallery.

There are many things pulling me forward as January drifts into February. In a few weeks I’ll be hosting my first ever open studio sale. Artwork needs to be matted, packaged and priced if it’s going to find a new home. I could jump into a swirl of activity.

Or I could ease into my studio while juncos forage for seeds in last year’s monarda. I could think about all the winter birds making a living among the last of the berries, and I could be grateful for a handful of dried hops on my drawing table.

Pencil cartoon

Basic Black

They say the little black dress never goes out of style. It’s simple and can anchor an entire wardrobe. Maybe that’s why I love working in graphite. When I’m overwhelmed with juggling color, it feels good to go back to the basics. Composition, value, and shape. Graphite is the little black dress of my art wardrobe.

Some of my favorite drawings are smudgy graphite sketches. Smudgy is good because it adds instant mid tones. I like to work on toned paper, too, but lately I’ve been heading out with nothing more exciting than a 2B pencil, an eraser, and my Canson sketch pad – the perfect “go anywhere” medium. I’ll confess to a little color excitement here. I made this bag from fabric I designed last year. It’s the perfect companion for sketching trips to the Denver Museum of Nature and Science.

Purse and sketchbook

We often get an audience when we’re working in front of the natural history dioramas. This trip, I showed one summer camper how easy it is to pick out shapes with a kneaded eraser and smudge them back in again when I don’t like the results. “It’s like magic!” she said. I agree – a happy kind of magic where drawing is more like painting.

Seal face

After scribbling in some tone and smudging it with my finger (which is not exactly archival, but hey, it’s just sketching), I lay in a few shapes and pull out highlights, then work in the details. It’s relaxing to sit very still and look carefully, rechecking proportions and reshaping something to be more accurate.

Seal family

So bloom on, tawdry flowers of summer. I know you’re calling to me too, but for now I’ll wear basic black. And shades of grey.

 

Female downy woodpecker

Winter Inspiration

Winter can be full of surprises. This year I decided to walk a single stretch of Cottonwood Creek several times a week. I took my camera along, birding and observing. We’ve had more snow than usual, but the birds don’t care. They ignore me as I trudge along in my boots under the bare branches.

My favorite discovery has been a pair of downy woodpeckers that I saw spiraling up the narrow trunks of stunted trees. I’ve gone back many times to find the female, listening for her brief chirp or light tap-tap as she hunts insects under the bark. She has so much personality, I wanted to capture it. Working from photos, I first composed and painted the pair together, then decided to draw them separately. I read that downy woodpeckers are more solitary in winter. Here’s my study in oil. This was a big help in preparing the more finished graphite painting above.

Hubbell1626

The creek hosts a nice range of bird species. Right now, it runs under a mantel of ice, emerging in matted vegetation at the edges. I caught this cat keeping a close eye on some mallards near the foot bridge.

Hubbell1625Hubbell1627

Song sparrows, goldfinches, juncos, house finches, and chickadees all flit among the shadowed branches. This area also contains a number of dead trees that are perfect habitat for flickers.

Northern Flicker

As the weather warms and the trees leaf out, it will be harder to spot the birds. But I’ll keep looking. I wouldn’t want to miss spring migration and mating season, and all the lovely surprises that are sure to inspire new paintings.

Hubbell1628

Cottonwood Creek, looking west.

Serendipity

Recently I needed reference photos of mice. I’ve snapped bighorn sheep, pocket gophers, praying mantis, flies, fish and salamanders. Rabbits by the bucket. Squirrels by the tub. Not one mouse.

Be careful what you wish for.

Hubbell031

My husband and I were having dinner on our porch when I heard him say “what the heck is that?!?” He’d spotted a mouse gathering spilled thistle at the base of the bird feeder. We spent the next few nights photographing and counting mice. We may have to think about a relocation plan. Or at least a little tightening up around the foundations before fall.

But how nice to have the universe respond in a moment of need. In fact, it’s been a season of serendipity. When I attended the annual conference of the Guild of Natural Science Illustrators in July, I lucked into the perfect experiences.

I learned about advocating for tiny members of our ecosystem in a talk by Marla Coppolino. Her presentation gave me ideas for raising awareness of Colorado native bees and pollinators. I took home an incredible piece of artwork sculpted by Karen Johnson. I want to wear it everywhere!

Linda Feltner taught a workshop using the principles of notan – creating a balance of lights and darks, warms and cools in a composition. I’ve taken a bird workshop from Linda, and love her teaching style and her depth of knowledge about painting the natural world. Her GNSI workshop was an eye-opening exploration of composition for natural science subjects. I gained an understanding of how to situate the birds and insects I want to illustrate in their environment. I can’t wait to get started.

Hubbell032

Leon Loughridge (Dry Creek Art Press) also demonstrated notan principles in his field sketching workshop. Leon showed us how to see the lights, darks, warms and cools in the landscape and to shape them for good balance. Something else I’m anxious to practice.

Recently, I needed some raven photographs. There are ravens just up the hill, but they are cagier than mice. I may need more than serendipity.

Hubbell036