Tag Archives: nature journal

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.

Nature Sketching: Color Your World

I love to use mixed media in my nature journal. That means making tough choices about how many pencils and pens to bring along, and what types of color media to include. This post explores ways to mix up your color tools without breaking the bank, and without loading down your sketching kit.

Pencil and water color sketch of a House Finch eating an orange from a feeder tray. Illustrates the application of water color to a pencil sketch.
Nature sketching with color can be quick and light

A basic kit might contain nothing more complicated than a sketchbook and a pencil. Add a bottle of water (and any necessary comfort items), and you’re ready to go. This is a light option, not just in terms of ounces, but in terms of attention. You won’t be distracted by extra supplies – Did I lose my eraser? Where is that darned sepia Inktense???

My basic nature sketching kit

So when I want to bring color along, I try to keep it simple and go for tools that are lightweight and offer little distraction. I have a small watercolor palette, which requires a brush and a bottle of water. This is my “fussy” choice. Or, I might bring water color pencils (a few, not the whole set!) and a water pen (a nylon brush with its own water reservoir). Occasionally, I’ll trim my kit down to just three colored pencils: red, blue (or black) and yellow. I mean, you can make any color of the rainbow with those, right?

Everything fits inside this zip bag, then tucks into a backpack.

By packing thoughtfully, I can bring a small range of colors in multiple media. This lets me have fun with layering them in one sketch. For example, I might apply water color pencil, then reinforce it with regular colored pencil after the paper has dried.

Lay down water color pencil, then activate it. Once dry, top with regular colored pencil or graphite.

I also like to create my own coloring pages of birds and flowers from my nature journal. I start with a sketch, outline significant lines in permanent ink, and let the ink dry. Once I erase the pencil, I’ve got a lovely contour drawing, perfect for sharing. If I’m still out of doors, I snap a photo, color the original, and keep layering!

Make your own coloring page by inking in your lines and erasing the graphite.

I can also capture the tones of a subject with just ink or graphite, and leave color for later (or not at all). Colored pencil, water color, and marker can all be layered over the graphite, which will also help to seal the graphite in place (less smudging).

For darkest areas, try starting light, then crisping up edges and lines as you get darker.

For me, keeping a light kit makes a sketching session easy and unlabored. And the more I enjoy my nature sketching session, the more likely I am to grab my kit and head outdoors, which of course increases my enjoyment. So pack light, and get out there!

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.

Under the Reading Lamp

If you’re anywhere in the northern United States today, you’re probably experiencing dangerous cold. It’s the perfect time to take shelter with a good book. Here are three books on nature and art that are absorbing my interest this week.

The Revolutionary Genius of Plants by Stefano Mancuso

What a delight to breeze through this exploration of how plant adaptations can inspire us to achieve our very human needs and desires. I kept saying to my husband “this book is crazy!” But I also kept reading, even after Dr. Mancuso argued that plants may have a form of vision. No kidding. There are wonderful stories here about how plant structure informs some of our most creative architecture or how the decentralized organization of plants could teach us to create robust democracies. I’ve always been more into birds than plants, but this book could tip the balance in favor of plants.

Keeping a Nature Journal by Clare Walker Leslie and Charles E. Roth

I spent a happy half hour on my chilly porch sketching our resident rabbit and a few end of day birds with this book at my side. Leslie and Roth encourage readers to begin where they are by observing everything around them and recording it with any available tools. The object is to connect to the natural world locally, by exploring our cities and neighborhoods and parks without judgement. It’s the perfect message I hope to carry into the sketching workshop I’ll be giving in May, plus my sketchbook is filling up with happy observations.

The Laws Guide to Nature Drawing and Journaling by John Muir Laws

I love this comprehensive guide to drawing from nature. At 300 plus pages, it’s hard to imagine anything Laws hasn’t covered. From how to observe nature (including how to estimate groups of birds) to contextualizing observations by including maps and landscape sketches, there is enough material here for a lifetime of study. Because I struggle with page composition in my sketchbooks, I skipped to that section and picked up some good tips. It’s that kind of text – dip in and find what you need or absorb it cover to cover.

The arctic temperatures may be ending, but we’re not quite done with winter. So stay warm, make some art, and keep reading!

Got a good nature or art book to share? Post a comment!

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.

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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.

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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.

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