People often ask me which came first: my interest in drawing birds or watching birds. I have to answer, "both." The two things have always gone together for me, and they complement and support each other. Drawing forces me to look at a bird more completely and to ask questions that I would not have considered if I were just watching. In that sense, drawing becomes a way to interact with the bird.
Here are some tips I've learned over the years, as well as 10 video tutorials to help you get started.
Start With Big Shapes
Birds are complex, and drawing is about simplifying. Begin your drawing with large shapes to establish proportions and posture—an oval for the body, a circle for the head, a line to show the angle of the bill and eye. Imagine the point on which the body would balance, and put a vertical line for the feet right there. Draw these lines lightly and use them as a guide. Then use stronger lines as you build up the shape. Practice seeing simple shapes on a live bird, and experiment with putting them on paper. Soon you'll be able to see the bird in your sketch even when all you've drawn is a few generic shapes.
Smooth the Feathers
Almost everything we see when we look at a bird is feathers. Keeping that in mind, and striving to develop an understanding of feathers, is fundamental to drawing birds. Feathers' primary function is streamlining—allowing birds to move easily through the air even at high speed. All feathers grow toward the tail and press against each other to form a sleek, aerodynamic shell. After starting your drawing with big shapes, you need to connect those with smoothly curved lines with no sharp angles or breaks. The only place a bird normally looks "fluffy" is on the underside of the body between the legs and the tail, and sometimes on the back of the head.
Place Feathers Intentionally
Every individual bird possesses a staggering array of different sizes and shapes of feathers, each specialized for a particular function and a particular position on the bird. The organized arrangement of these feathers follows a similar pattern in all birds. Lines of feathers radiate out from the base of the bill and continue down the back and the flanks. Feathers on the front of the head, close to the bill, are the smallest, and these tiny feathers barely move. Feathers on the body are longer and more flexible, with feathers on the flanks often fluffed out and up to cover the lower edge of the folded wing. The long feathers of the wings and tail are long, straight, and stiff, and move in very different ways from the feathers of the body.
The color patterns of birds are also determined largely by the arrangement of the feathers. Learning the basic arrangement of feathers, and how each group of feathers moves, is critical to understanding the appearance of a bird.
Birds move a lot and quickly. This makes them challenging, but not impossible, to draw from life. I spend a lot of time watching birds and just thinking about drawing them. Paying attention to how a bird holds its wings, or the pattern of dark markings on the flanks, or details of bill shape and color, or any number of other characteristics, will help you to draw those things.
Studying close-up photos of birds will allow you to decipher details that are very difficult to classify in life. Drawing what you see in a photo will help you explore shapes and patterns without having to deal with a live bird's movement (or disappearance); you can take as much time as you need. Try a study drawing, where you methodically replicate the intricacies of a photograph. Then test how much you've learned with a quick sketch of the same image.
Be sure to also study and draw live birds whenever you can. While photographs are helpful for learning technical details, the only way to really get to know birds is to watch them in life.
Learn by Doing
Most of your illustration attempts will not result in pretty pictures, but don't let that discourage you. Measure your success by the insights and understanding that come from the process. Each drawing is a demonstration of what you know about a bird and will also reveal what you don't know. With practice, you can fill those gaps in your knowledge.
Try a few drawings. Watch some birds. Try a few more drawings. Watch some more. Have fun. I guarantee your drawings will get better. But don't worry about that. Drawing birds is about so much more than just drawing birds. Enjoy the satisfaction of seeing the world a little differently and understanding it a little better.
Watch and learn with this series of videos by David Sibley, each focused on drawing a different North American bird species. Share your finished drawings on Instagram: #SketchWithSibley @audubonsociety.
Great Horned Owl
Great Blue Heron