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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.

zoo

Five Pages at the Zoo

Saturday was incredibly warm, and a perfect day for the zoo. Though we love the animals and the hilly terrain of our local zoo, “Stout Month” at a favorite Denver brewery drew us north — to a city-scape of shirtless joggers, flip-flopped teens, and sun-soaked animals.

As soon as we passed the entrance gate at the Denver Zoo, we noticed two quiet dik-diks warming in the sun. Over the next two hours, I stopped for a minute or two every few feet, wedging myself into a little space in front of crowded enclosures. It was a nice “museum pace” that worked for me and didn’t bore my husband.

Dik-dik animal sketch

I found myself using each opportunity to try something different. When animals were backlit by the afternoon light, it was easy to read the shadows as abstract shapes and quickly put them in place to build form.

Dromedary camel

I tried to look more than draw, concentrating on understanding proportions and shape relationships. As a result, I made lots of blind contour scribbles. This was a great exercise, but I was messing up my journal.

ink sketch

I was tempted to rip out these five pages. I also wanted to keep my memories of a lovely day at the zoo. Back at home, I decorated the pages with watercolor pencil, and I think that’ll do the trick for me. This fits better with the neat-freak vibe of the rest of my journal, and the words reflect what I was thinking about while I sketched.

It won’t be long before warm weather returns, and we’ll visit our own Cheyenne Mountain Zoo. After all, it’s a short trip from the zoo to another favorite watering hole – the excellent Bristol Brewing tap room.