How to Go From Watching Birds to Drawing Them

Sketching while outdoors or even at home will broaden your birding skill set and add a whole new dimension to the hobby.

These creeping summer days are an invitation to observe birds at a slower pace. They stay active later in the day and tend to circle back to their small nesting patches, delighting birders with frequent sightings. Instead of choosing the usual view through your binoculars or scope, however, perhaps it’s time to settle into a chair for some field sketching. 

If you’ve never tried your hand at drawing a live bird before, it’s tough to know where to begin. Scientific illustrator Alex Warnick can relate. She began drawing birds in elementary school and studied landscape painting in college, but she only recently turned art into a full-blown career. Three years after going pro, Warnick already has a strong following and steady string of customers. The Indiana-based artist (who was born in the same town as Roger Tory Peterson) melds vintage styles drawn from Mark Catesby and Jacques Barraband with modern precision, crafting each project around hours of sketching outdoors. Her latest pursuit is a commissioned field guide to the endemic birds of Hispaniola, to be published in November of 2017.

For Warnick, sketching doesn’t just make you a better artist; it also makes you a better observer of the natural world. “It’s the best way to learn birds because you have to stop and process what you're seeing. It helps field marks stick, she says. This rings true across species, from the unforgettable Hispaniolan Trogon, the national bird of Haiti, to the feisty Scissor-tailed Flycatcher, a common sight in Oklahoma and Texas. 

While she also relies on reference images for her artwork, Warnick’s time in nature helps inspire her most distinct details. “When I’m field sketching I pay close attention to the bird’s scale within its environment, and how it interacts with its surroundings. These points can be difficult to infer from a photograph.” Here are her tried-and-tested tips on how to bring your field experiences to pad and paper. 

Consider Your Timing 

Any month is great for drawing. Warnick sketches year-round because each season offers different approaches to finding subjects. Over the summer, birds are easy to track while they stick to their homes. Plus, there’s the option to observe young. Fall migration brings waterfowl like Snow Geese and larger species like Sandhill Cranes, which are simple models for illustrations. And the colder months can mean sketching from the comfort of home. “Many birds come to feeders when their natural food sources are less abundant,” Warnick says. Those more adventurous, though, may find inspiration in the stark white canvas of the landscape. Meanwhile, spring has its own joys: getting back outdoors after a long winter as birds defend their territories and flash their best selves.

Find a Great Sketching Spot

Warnick suggests overlooks or platforms at marshes as a starter location, as wetlands attract a variety of birds, many of which are conspicuous and pose for long bouts of time. Great Blue Herons, Snowy, Egrets, Wood Ducks, and Hooded Mergansers are some fancier examples. The habitat also provides a standard set of vegetation such as cattails and peat mosses.

Backyards are ideal for honing your skills through ease and repetition, too. Set up feeders and bird-friendly plantings within view of your windows (or right on the panes with a suction feeder) to encourage your feathered models to linger. Just be sure to prevent nasty accidents by bird-proofing the glass.

Choose Your Accessories

If you’re already a birder, you probably don’t need to buy anything special to start sketching. Warnick’s first kit consisted of a notebook, a pencil, and binoculars. She’s since added a few other items that help make her excursions more comfortable:

  • A cross-body bag to carry supplies
  • A folding travel stool or gardener’s knee pads
  • A hat to block the sun, which allows for better judgment of colors and shading values
  • A travel watercolor set and brushes, if you want to go beyond line drawings 
  • Rubber boots for walking through high grass or muddy terrain
  • Water and tons of good snacks

Do Your Research 

Warnick lets the avian world unfold in front her. “Observing personality, what keeps the bird busy, its interaction with its neighbors, and its idiosyncrasies make up the joys of field sketching,” she says.  

She does, however, advise learning about bird anatomy before trying to draw one. “Studying feet, feather tracts, and wing structure will help you understand what you're seeing. It can be discouraging to try and draw when you don't even know what makes a bird a bird,” she notes.  

For instance, Warnick curates a Pinterest collection of images that covers everything from eyes to wings. She then spends 10 minutes each day working on rendering a specific part, simply to refine her skills. She also recommends The Laws Guide to Drawing Birds, which she references frequently.

Go Solo or Social

“I often sketch alone since sketching can be time consuming and unpredictable. I also find it meditative and easier to be quiet and observant,” Warnick says. But be prepared to be interrupted in the field and have people asking questions about your work. “Sometimes the spots that seem perfect and most accessible tend to be the busiest, “ she says. “If you’re shy about your sketches, then somewhere secluded is a better choice.”

But at times, company can be clutch, Warnick says. “Sketching with others motivates me to try harder. Also, with someone else, a ‘failed’ sketch tends to be funny rather than discouraging.”

Put Pencil to Paper

Once you’re perched in the right place, at the right time, with the right supplies, it’s time to think strategy. "Working from big shapes to small shapes is a good rule of thumb to help break a complicated subject into baby steps," Warnick says. She suggests looking through your bins as you imagine tracing over the view of the bird with your pencil. Start with two circles: a head and a proportionate body. Then move onto the tail, bill, and the edges of the wings to show length and countour. If the bird is being cooperative, you can dig into the biggest feather groupings, including coverts, secondaries, primaries, and face plumes. 

Use your observation time to cement the bird’s details rather than trying to finish it all while it’s in one place. Basic postures and colors are important, Warnick says, as are quick gestural sketches that capture the personality of the subject. “It’s easier to draw from memory than from going back and forth with the optics,” she notes. If the birds are missing in action, stay put and draw the surrounding plants and environment.

Short, frequent sketching sessions at a feeder or another accessible site can be as effective as a dedicated all-day excursion. Warnick recommends setting aside at least two hours for time to get acclimated to the conditions, decide on which birds to observe, and produce the sketches. 

Don’t Strive for Perfection

One of the most important lessons Warnick has learned is that a sketch is not the final product: It’s simply a form of notetaking. “For almost every painting I do, I use a combination of fieldwork, photographs, field guides, online resources, comparisons to similar species, and museum specimens. All these references are helpful, but sketching gives me the ability to find depictions that are true to life.” Even when her illustrations look terrible, Warnick says, they lead her to ask a lot of questions. That process allows her to get to know each species better.

So don’t be disappointed if you aren’t John James Audubon on your first stab—or even your hundreth. Warnick has been drawing most of her life as a hobby, but she’s still improving. “I thought I would pack up at the end of a long day with a stack of masterpieces under my arm,” she says. “That has yet to happen.”

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