How To Draw a Bird
A new guide to bird drawing inspires a deeper connection with nature.
The snowy egret I’m sketching is not cooperating. I can’t get its kinked yet sinewy neck to look right. And its legs—there shouldn’t be four of them! My bird looks like a pistachio stuck with a speared olive, walking on clothespins.
Meanwhile, as I scrawl with a pencil on a small sketchpad, my model—a wild bird—continues pecking at mudflats in Bolinas Lagoon, between Northern California’s Point Reyes National Seashore and the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, completely oblivious to my artistic frustrations.John Muir Laws, a California-based artist, naturalist, educator, scientist, and field guide author (he’s related only “by spirit” to the legendary naturalist). After a morning crash course on the basics, set in the classroom, Laws has led 16 of us adult students into a breezy, sun-streaked day to try our hands at field sketching.
Raised by an amateur botanist and a birder, Laws, 46, learned to love nature at an early age. His grandmother first, then a family friend, turned him on to drawing, a pursuit that became an essential tool—Laws is severely dyslexic and supplements written observations of the natural world with sketches. He has devised a novel array of tips that may not transform you into the next David Sibley overnight but are easy and rewarding to follow. His new book, The Laws Guide to Drawing Birds (Heyday Books, $24.95), just came out. “We have this myth that drawing is a gift,” says Laws, but “it’s a skill that any of us can learn.” What’s more, developing it inspires much more than just artwork—it can make you a better birder and naturalist by forcing you to pay close attention to what you’re sketching and look beyond what you need to identify the bird. “You’re seeing details that have always been there in front of you but you’ve never really been able to focus on,” Laws explains.
While I have an artistic bent, until my course with Laws, I had virtually no experience drawing birds aside from the occasional doodle. If tasked with penciling in, say, a blue jay perched on a nearby branch, I probably would have begun by outlining its contours. But to get started, Laws instead suggests three basic steps. First, notice the bird’s posture—Is it looking up? What’s the body’s angle?—and draw a simple line, like an axis, suggestive of that position.
Next, focus on the bird’s proportions. What size are the head and body, and where is one relative to the other? Using the initial line you drew as a guide, block in the proportions with circular shapes. The result should be something vaguely resembling Frosty the Snowman. At this stage—and this is critical—double-check your work. Those who don’t may learn the hard way. “At the end of the drawing they’ll say, ‘My bird looks wrong,’ ” says Laws. “That’s because you have a western sandpiper with a head the size of a chickadee. And at that point, there’s nothing that you can really do to fix that.” (You can use an eraser while you draw, but I find it cumbersome to fiddle with one while trying to capture a moving bird.)
Once the proportions check out, look for the bird’s defining angles, such as where the head and tail connect with the body. “I think of carving those into these bubbles of proportion that I’ve set up,” says Laws. “I then have a framework [in which] I can come along and start to put in the detail.” To better identify these angles, take note of “negative space”—that is, the area around the bird that’s not bird. Focusing on this open space will bring the individual’s defining edges into stark relief.
Mastering these three steps helps capture what Laws calls the bird’s oomph or, as some birders say, its jizz—the essence of the species. “What is finchiness, finchosity? You want your chickadee to be chickadee-esque,” says Laws, your magpie to be “magpie-y.” Think of Roger Tory Peterson’s silhouettes. They’re deceptively simple, black shapes, yet they clearly represent one type of bird, even without the details.