Excerpted from THE LAWS GUIDE TO NATURE DRAWING AND JOURNALING. Used with the permission of the publisher, Heyday Books. Published March 2016. Copyright © 2016 by John Muir Laws. All rights reserved.
Writers, naturalists, and scientists in all disciplines use journals to preserve what have seen, done, and thought in the course of their work.
My journal is the most important tool I carry into the field with me—it is even more necessary than my binoculars. Journaling is a skill anyone who wishes to live life more deeply, a skill that you can learn at any age and that will develop with intention and practice. Sketching and writing as you explore is the more effective thing you can do to launch youself in the process of discovery.
Here's my step-by-step process for sketching a Lazuli Bunting, a common songbird in the Western United States. Whenever I draw birds, I start with a light framework, using an erasable non-photo blue pencil to block in the basic shape. Double-check your basic shape before continuing with the rest of the drawing.
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Step 1: Make one line to represent the posture or body angle.
Step 2: Place an oval over the posture line to block in the mass of the body.
Step 3: Place the head, adjusting the size and position if necessary. Note how it sits into the body and is placed further back on the body than the first (improper) head position.
Step 4: Add the eye-beak line. The bill will be centered over this line. The eye will sit on top of the line, toward the front. Observe the distance between the beak and the breast. If it's high, the bird will feel more alert; if it's lower, more tucked in and resting.
Step 5: Visualize the negative shapes (the shape of the air next to the bird) to help you see the angles of the body.
Step 6: Carve in the angles of the bird's contour. Look for the inflection points of the curves. At this state I overemphasize the angularity of the bird in order to overcome the temptation to simply trace over the body ovals.
Step 7: Note the location of the feet and the leading edge of the wing. Carefully place the point of the wrist where the wing starts. How high and close to the front of the bird do you first see it? Where does it end? Connect these points with a line. Add a line across the wing to note the extent of the secondary feathers.
Step 8: Draw the details directly over the blue pencil lines. Note how I've simplified the shape of the wing, suggesting the major feather groups instead of drawing every feather. On the head, I indicate the ear patch, eye ring, and malar feather groups.
Step 9: Using a mixture of Daniel Smith Shadow Violet and Raw Umber, paint in the shadows. Adding these first helps you think of the drawing three-dimensionally.
Step 10: Paint the body with Phthalo Blue, giving the bird bright cyan plumage.
Step 11: With watercolor it's easiest to start with lighter coats of paint and work your way toward the darks.
Step 12: Once the paint is bone dry, add texture with a white colored pencil. This suggests a lot of detail and is a very fast way to work.
Step 13: Share your bunting sketches in the comments below!
The Laws Guide to Nature Drawing and Journaling, by John Muir Laws; Heyday Books, 303 pages, $35. Buy it at johnmuirlaws.com.