Monday, February 11, 2013

Tiny Voices, Part II (A Tricks of the Trade Tutorial)

In Part I of this article I introduced some of the song birds that are to be found this time of year amongst the hardwood trees that border the Clear Fork of the Trinity River as it meanders through my back yard. I'm working on images of the water fowl that call the nearby nature reserve ponds home during the winter months. But, at the request of some of the Part I readers, I'd also like to offer some step-by-step information regarding how I approach bird sketching. I hope you find it useful.

Before we begin though, it might be good to offer a qualifier of sorts; for me, drawing is an opportunity to focus on the here and now, to become more aware of the specific nature of my subject, to develop an intimate relationship with that subject, and maybe share that awareness with an audience. If my chosen goals match your own you may find some or all of what I offer here useful. But you should always feel free to pick and choose for yourself from any instruction you receive; adopt that which you find useful and ignore (or set aside for possible use at some point in the future) that which you don't find relevant. How far you push the development of your drawing and what you hope to achieve in your drawing is subjective; you should decide that for yourself, and maybe review your intention from time to time as your experience grows and (possibly) your desired goals evolve.

the complete kit packed and ready for a day-long sketching safari

 my complete kit (everything except the binoculars and stool fit in the bag)

I stock a variety of journals & loose paper, picking one for a day of sketching as the mood strikes me

The Kit

Keep this simple, the fewer items the better, and carry it with you all the time: a handful of No. 2/HB pencils. (And, to maximize drawing time and minimize "down time" required for sharpening, you could even opt to sharpen both ends.); a small pen knife for sharpening your pencils; a few Micron-style pens (waterproof ink); a vinyl eraser; and a small sketchbook. I'll also add four very useful optional items: a pocket-sized pair of binoculars; a point-and-shoot camera; a field guide; and a small sturdy bag for carrying everything (and keeping it all together). A folding stool can also be very helpful if standing for extended periods is an issue.

like Stillman & Birn's Epsilon Series, he new Zeta Series works splendidly with both graphite and pen & ink


If you're brand new to sketching in general and birding in particular, take a little time before you venture out the first time to look at the beginning of your field guide. (Or, if you don't have a field guide yet, do a Google search for diagrams of bird anatomy.) Try to pick the most common bird in your area for this and let it be the "base line" for quick comparison with other birds you encounter. (For example: in North America and Europe it might be the common House Sparrow.) Copy the diagram in your sketchbook, paying careful attention to the overall shape and proportion, the shapes and proportions of the head, wings, tail, and legs. Study the groupings of feathers on the wing, and how the wing folds. Try, if at all possible, to put this to memory. (The more knowledgable the "foundation" you bring to your sketching, the easier it will be to build good drawings.) But don't worry about what you can't remember -- that will come to you as you sketch more and more. (And don't worry about scientific terms and nomenclature; that's useful for an accurate discussion of your subject, but it won't necessarily improve your drawing skills.)


OK, you've got your kit, you've gone to the woods, you've found your subject. What now? Well, the first thing I recommend is, "Let yourself slow down." Before you pick up a pencil, take a few deep breaths and just observe. Observe your bird's size. (Is it bigger than a sparrow? Smaller?) How does it move around? (Walk? Hop? Flit?) Does it tend to stay in the trees? bushes and shrubs? or is it a "groundling"? What does it eat? (You can frequently tell this from the shape and size of the beak and, over time, will learn to identify this on sight.)

"From the General to the Specific"

Now you're ready to begin your sketch. Keep your first marks light ("dark enough that you can see them, light enough that you can erase them if they need correcting"). Don't be surprised if your first drawings tend to look like the common species you've been studying in your field guide or online (You'll come to love the little sparrow.) -- that is, after all, your "base line".

the preliminary gesture -- begin with a vague, searching line as you strive to 
find proportion, scale, and proper position on the page

Now look at how your bird differs from your initial drawing; how are the general proportions different? If you see a difference, correct it. What is the precise shape of the head? (Draw it.) What is the shape and size of the beak? (Draw it.) How do the wings fold across the back? (Draw that.) Is the bird aquatic? If so, the feet will be webbed or semi-webbed. If not, they won't. (Draw them.)

developing the sketch -- make notes about your subject (and move them about to "fit" your composition) as you continue to refine the details of your drawing, begin to add middle tones (which will make it easier to judge the 
accuracy of your sketch) 

People see general shapes and movement first, details come with time and careful observation. Allow your drawings to develop in that order and you will see steady improvement. And don't let it get you down if your subject leaves before you "finish" (or even before you get started). If you are observing carefully you are learning, and if you are learning your drawings will improve -- if you give it time. Don't worry about mistakes, in the long run they don't matter. (If you doubt that ask yourself how many times you fell down in the process of learning to walk. Can't remember? No, because it didn't matter. What mattered was that you kept trying... and finally succeeded.)

Focus on line only initially. If the line work isn't correct, everything else will be off too. Once you have enough experience that your line work can accurately convey the specific species your observing, begin adding tone. Observe how the bird's form interacts with the light source. Record highlights, middle tones, and shadows.

detailing -- a sustained study allows you to more accurately convey the form & to discover greater detail
(if a more subtle image is desires, finish the detailing in graphite and proceed directly to watercolor)

Middle Tones

If you've been drawing for awhile you've no doubt noticed two things: that the majority of any subject (and, therefor, any drawing) is middle tone; and that (if you're working on white paper) you spend a lot of time covering up the tone of the paper. So, to expedite the drawing, save yourself a lot of unnecessary drudge work, and free up more time for more detailed observation, consider trying your hand at working with middle toned paper.

toned drawings on toned paper are frequently much faster to complete than those done on white 
paper and can be very engaging visually (you may remember this big guy from an earlier post)

For this you'll need to add some white pencils to your kit. And I recommend that, as soon as you have established an accurate outline of your subject, you draw in your highlights before adding your shadows. (This will graphically remind you that the paper has already provided the middle tones and help you avoid overworking your study.)


Color memory in the human brain is vague at best (It has to do with enabling us to recognize colored objects under different lighting conditions at different times of the day.) and, as a general rule, should never be depended on to produce an accurate and detailed rendering of any subject -- including birds.

Once your drawing skills reach the point where you can render the shape (line) and form (shading) of your bird before it flies away, and if you decide that you'd like to include accurate information about the bird's coloration, I recommend utilizing a method I learned from the watercolor studies Thomas Moran created during his travels in the Yellowstone country in 1874. Specifically, after carefully completing the light drawing make some specific notes regarding color, and then add the color later at your leisure.

At first these notes may be as vague as your line work was. But, over time and with more precise observation, a generalized "green" will give way to "light green" and in turn will be replaced with "high value, low intensity viridian with a hint of Cadmium red medium".

color development -- washes can be utilized to further develop the form and/or to add finer details


Notation in the sketch can be used to record your initial response. It can be used to note a fleeting detail the drawing doesn't, or can't, convey (color in a black & white sketch, movement in a still image, sounds, feeding and mating habits, habitat, weather conditions, even how the subject makes you feel).

Most annotation probably takes the form of prose. But if you're gifted with words you may find poetry just as useful.

Photography and Cameras

Whether or not to use photographs as supplemental source images when creating drawings is a subjective argument that has raged since the advent of light-sensitive film in the early 19th century -- maybe even as far back as the 16th century and the development of the camera obscura. But, since artists as significant as Edgar Degas and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec were certainly making use of photography over a century ago, whether you choose to use a camera to produce your own reference images is your call. Experiencing a subject firsthand and sketching it in that time and place is certainly the ideal. But, just as reading a book on a subject can offer significant supplemental information, so too can photographs offer valuable learning tools. As for me, I feel that while I may learn something about my subject when I work from a photograph I am learning mostly about the photograph -- and my enriched experience of "the moment" (of the "here and now") is nil.

If you choose to work from photographs, use the most detailed, highest resolution images you can make. (A sharply focused image with a file size of 1.5 MB or more would be good.) Try to shoot your subject from a variety of angle so as to better understand its three-dimensional physical structure. Photograph your subject under a light source that produces good highlights and shadows. (The wider the range between lights and darks in your subject, the easier it will be to convey three-dimensional form.)


Leonardo de Vinci included studies of birds in flight in his sketchbooks. But, unfortunately, most of us lack his gifted photographic memory. Modern point-and-shoot cameras can produce marvelous hi-res images that can capture the briefest moment in time, but are notorious for their lagging shutters. (Push the button and wait, and wait, for the shutter to release.) This can be very frustrating and will all but rule out trying to capture an image of your subject in motion.

Fortunate, if you have a modestly priced digital camera that you purchased within the past year or so you may very well have an excellent working alternative to "press and pray". Your camera may offer an HD video option. And HD video -- teamed with either your computer or large-screen TV -- can provide excellent photo-quality stills for you to study and learn from.

Where to Find Your Subjects

Zoos can be a marvelous source of "study material", especially children's petting zoo aviaries. (Traditional wire cages, on the other hand, can make careful, detailed observation a real challenge.) Nature centers are an excellent venue, as are duck ponds. And don't overlook the potential of a simple bird feeder. (If strategically placed just outside a window, excellent drawing opportunities can be had even during the coldest winter weather.)

I had wanted to include a reproduction an image of Roger Tory Peterson's last bird studies and of the finished plate. They demonstrate that even an expert ornithological artist works "from the general to the specific", and that drawing birds can provide a lifetime of fascination. Regrettably, as of press time I haven't yet heard from the publisher regarding a reproduction authorization. However, if you have access to the 5th edition of Birds of Eastern and Central North America, look on page xviii to see the preliminary drawings Dr. Peterson was working on the day he passed away, and look at page 229 to see the plate as it was completed by H. Douglas Pratt.

Hopefully you've found a few things in this week's article that will help you to begin, or improve, your own bird studies and nature journaling.

Next week I'll show you the other four birds on the waterfowl double-page spread -- and unveil the finished, annotated version of the double-page woodland birds plate -- in Tiny Voices, Part III. Until then, I hope you all have a wonderful, sketching-filled week. (And don't forget, feedback is always helpful and appreciated.)


A Note About Field Guides

There is an amazing range of field guides to choose from and, generally speaking, they are of a remarkably high quality. On a personal level, I generally prefer artist-illustrated field guides to those using photos, as drawn illustrations tend to focus more sharply on the details that are most helpful in bird identification while subordinating or eliminating details that might otherwise distract. Roger Tory Peterson's books were the first guides designed specifically for quick and easy use in the field and are an excellent choice for carrying afield. And, for the ultimate artistic experience and perfect home reference volumes, The Sibley Field Guide to Birds (Vol. 1 Eastern North America and Vol. 2 Western North America) are gems.


  1. Thank you so much,Earnest! I always love your posts and I check your site every day. Wonderful post!

  2. Earnest! Thank you for this engaging post. It must have taken forever! My hat is off to you :)

    1. Thanks Pam.

      I would have to say that it has taken years of hiking, observing, reading, and sketching wild birds (and wild flowers, and insects, and landscapes) to hone my observational skills. But the rewards have been sublime (and you can build a really nice sketchbook library along the way too.)

      As for this week's post, the writing was far more time consuming than the drawing. Everything seemed to fall into place though and I was able to complete it (and three quarters of next week's) in just under a week.

  3. This is wonderful, Earnest, thank you for sharing!

  4. Really wonderful description of the combination required for field sketching - observation and drawing skills. I'm bookmarking this for reference when I next teach field journaling/nature sketching.

  5. Thank you so much. I needed a step by step method to improve my bird sketches and this post has so much information I feel that maybe I can do this after all.