The snowy egret I’m sketching is not cooperating. I can’t get its kinked yet sinewy neck to look right. And its legs—there shouldn’t be four of them! My bird looks like a pistachio stuck with a speared olive, walking on clothespins.
Meanwhile, as I scrawl with a pencil on a small sketchpad, my model—a wild bird—continues pecking at mudflats in Bolinas Lagoon, between Northern California’s Point Reyes National Seashore and the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, completely oblivious to my artistic frustrations.
I’m enrolled in an avian drawing class at the Point Reyes Birding and Nature Festival. My instructor is John Muir Laws, a California-based artist, naturalist, educator, scientist, and field guide author (he’s related only “by spirit” to the legendary naturalist). After a morning crash course on the basics, set in the classroom, Laws has led about a dozen of us adult students into a breezy, sun-streaked April day to try our hands at field sketching.
Raised by an amateur botanist and a birder, Laws learned to love nature at an early age. A family friend turned him on to drawing, a pursuit that became an essential tool—Laws is severely dyslexic and supplements written observations of the natural world with sketches. Now 46, Laws has devised a novel array of tips that may not transform you overnight into the next David Sibley but are easy and rewarding to follow. They make their print debut this September in his new book, The Laws’ Guide to Drawing Birds (Heyday Books). “We have this myth that drawing is a gift,” says Laws, but “it’s a skill that any of us can learn.” What’s more, developing that skill leads to much more than just artwork—it can make you a better birder or naturalist by forcing you to pay close attention to what you’re sketching. “You’re seeing details that have always been there in front of you but you’ve never really been able to focus on,” says Laws.
While I am somewhat artistic, until my course with Laws, I had virtually no experience drawing birds aside from the occasional doodle. If tasked with penciling in, say, a blue jay perched on a nearby branch, I probably would have begun by outlining its contours. But that’s not the best approach, according to Laws. To get started, he instead suggests three basic steps. First, before anything, notice the bird’s posture—is it looking up? Head down?—and draw a simple line, like an axis, suggestive of that position.
Next, focus on the bird’s proportions. Where is the head relative to the body, and what size are the two? Using the initial line you drew as a guide, block in the proportions with circular shapes. The result should be something vaguely resembling Frosty the Snowman. At this stage—and this is critical—double-check your work. Those who don’t will learn the hard way. “At the end of the drawing they’ll say, ‘My bird looks wrong’,” says Laws. “That’s because you have a western sandpiper with a head the size of a chickadee. And at that point, there’s nothing that you can really do to fix that.” (You can use an eraser, but I find it cumbersome.)
Once the proportions check out, look for the bird’s defining angles, such as where the head and tail connect with the body. “I think of carving those into these bubbles of proportion that I’ve set up,” says Laws. “I then have a framework [in which] I can come along and start to put in the detail.” To better identify these angles, take note of “negative space”—that is, the area around the bird that’s not bird. Focusing on this open space will bring the individual’s defining edges into stark relief.
Mastering these three steps helps capture what Laws calls the bird’s oomph or, as some birders say, its jizz—the essence of the species. “What is finchiness, finchosity? You want your chickadee to be chickadee-esque,” says Laws, your magpie to be “magpie-y.” Think of Roger Tory Peterson’s silhouettes. They’re deceptively simple, black shapes, yet they clearly represent one type of bird, even without the details.
What comes next depends on what you want to focus on—individual feathers or markings, perhaps an eye, maybe the patterns of light and dark from plumage and shadows. Understanding birds’ general anatomy, discussed in Laws’s book, will help you make sense of your observations. But the key to field sketching is to draw what you see, and not what you think should be there. For example, even if you know that birds have three forward-facing toes but only one is visible, “you can just draw one toe,” says Amanda Krauss, an artist and fellow student in my class who has had trouble rendering bird feet. “It was like a lightbulb went off for me.”
Nature sketching guides abound, but where birds are concerned, Laws thinks his fills a void. “Some books will have illustrations that are really inspiring,” he says, but they don’t explain how the drawings are made. “I wanted to really deconstruct what is happening when I make my lines, where I’m looking, where I suggest that people focus.”
He’s breaking new ground, says Hannah Hinchman, a nature journalist and artist who once taught Laws in a workshop and reviewed an early draft of his book. “There’s nothing static,” she says. “He just refuses to see these mobile, fluid birds as objects. He sees them as alive, and that’s the way they come across on the page.”
Drawing outside is crucial to creating a realistic bird in two dimensions. The easiest species may even be one that’s most accessible, like your backyard cardinal or house finch. As you observe, jot down notes in addition to sketching, and ponder out loud, asking yourself questions such as, “What does this bird remind me of?” or “I wonder why it has markings like that?” (At Bolinas, one classmate suggested that a flock of swimming cormorants resembled Phoenician ships.) While the very act of drawing helps solidify a memory, verbalizing what you’re seeing ingrains it that much more. Should the bird fly off, you’ll still have a few details in mind to flesh out your drawing.
Sketching outdoors will also help you achieve what Laws considers one of the most important goals in drawing birds: forging a more meaningful connection with nature. In other words, don’t aim for the perfect picture; you’ll only get frustrated if it doesn’t turn out right. Instead, draw to observe more deeply and to remember those precious moments removed from the mechanized world. The more focused you are on experiencing what you’re seeing, the less you’ll care about your masterpiece, and “that frees you up to make lots of drawings,” says Laws. As a pleasant by-product, “the more you draw, the better it gets.”
I’m still learning the ropes. My snowy egret is hardly a mirror image, but now I know that I can ignore my inner art critic—a liberating concept. Even so, establishing a drawing habit is hard; I’ve practiced a few times since my class. On one gorgeous, mild day in May I visit a lake near my Brooklyn apartment. Spying several mute swans, I settle down with my sketchpad near a tree. I notice how one bird’s neck fluidly recoils like a snake, and I admire the species’ dramatic, inky eyeliner. A man and a boy study the way one swims—something I see, too, marveling at its feet like built-in paddles. I’m reminded of what Laws told me: “If you can get yourself to slow down and appreciate that bird, for whatever it has new to teach you, the wonders that you’re going to see in even the most common things are infinite.” How could I resist?