So You Want to Draw Birds? What to Pack in Your Field Sketching Kit



White-throated sparrow, by John Muir Laws. 

You love birds. You fancy yourself somewhat artistic. And you really want to get into avian sketching. You’ve even tried it a few times, but you haven’t improved, and you’re frustrated. There’s just too much to think about—so many supplies to gather, like binoculars, pencils, paper. A lunch for the field. The whole process seems so hard.

Sound familiar?

Yet, there’s no way around it: As with any skill, practice makes perfect. “We’re creatures of habit,” says John Muir Laws, author of The Laws’ Guide to Drawing Birds, “So what you have to do is make it your habit and pattern to draw on a regular basis.” Okay, then. How does a fledgling bird artist overcome her inertia?

First, get over the fact that you’re not Rembrandt. In other words, tell your brain’s “inner art critic” to bug off while you learn. Second, remove obstacles that inhibit you, such as disorganization. “If the logistics are difficult, then there’s negative reinforcement,” says Laws.

To help establish a drawing habit, Laws recommends preparing a sketch kit that you can easily grab on a whim. His motto: “simple, light, and portable.” Here are a few tips and considerations for your kit. For more detailed recommendations, visit Laws’ website (and for more on how to draw birds, click here):

  • -Use a lightweight bag to carry your supplies. A heavy bag is like a ball and chain, so pick a carryall that won’t contribute much to the overall weight. Laws suggests a shoulder bag, which makes retrieving tools easier than rummaging through a backpack. This particular satchel features two internal pockets, allowing you to separate your drawing supplies from, say, your lunch or water bottle.
  • -Find a sketchpad you like. Laws suggests avoiding spiral bound books, because the pages are apt to rub against each other and smear pencil work. A Laws favorite is the Canson Basic Sketchbook (8.5”x11”) 
  • -Include only your favorite pencils. Among his, Laws packs a Prismacolor® Col-Erase® nonphoto blue pencil, “an essential tool for sketching in the posture, proportions, and angles before you start a detailed drawing,” according to Laws. If you want to use colored pencils, forget the jumbo box. Just choose a few important colors, including “process red,” “true blue,” and “canary yellow,” and a few muddy grays, greens, and browns, Laws suggests. Use a rubber band to group similar pencil colors together (reds with yellows, blues and purples, earth tones). Then, store those bundles in a box or bag so the tips don’t break.
  • -If you want to paint your birds, pick a portable watercolor kit (that is, one that compactly folds up and can be reloaded at home with paint tubes) and a waterbrush. The latter stores the liquid right in the handle so you don’t have to fiddle with a cup of H20.
  • -Pack a rag (for dabbing the paintbrush). Laws made his out of a sock by cutting the tip off; he wears the resulting tube on his wrist.
  • -Choose binoculars wisely. Laws is a fan of the Pentax Papilio 8.5×21 Binoculars because they can focus on subjects far-afield as well as up-close-and-personal ones.

After your bag is packed, you’ll be one step closer to that drawing habit. The good news is, “Once you’re into it, then it’s the most natural thing in the world,” says Laws. “You look forward to doing it, and it will self-reinforce.”