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Birding and the Art of Careful Observation

A review by Johanna Beam

A–Z of Bird Portraits: An Illustrated Guide to Painting Beautiful Birds in Acrylics, by Andrew Forkner

Search Press, 2015

144 pages, hardcover

The Laws Guide to Nature Drawing and Journaling, by John Muir Laws

Heyday, 2016

303 pages, softcover

ABA Sales / Buteo Books 14644

Bird Art: Drawing Birds Using Graphite and Coloured Pencils, by Alan Woollett

Search Press, 2017

144 pages, softcover

ABA Sales / Buteo Books 14777

Sketching, drawing, and painting can be helpful tools for the birder with even the least artistic talent. The three books reviewed here, each with a slightly different focus and approach, teach the aspiring artist how to develop that talent to tell a more complete story about birds and birding. We learn to pay careful attention to seasonal variation in plumages, to the ways birds use the endlessly varied specializations of bills and feet, and to the visual and ecological aspects of habitat. The informed consideration of these and many other details not only makes good art, it leads to better birding, whether you are a hardcore artist or not.

Birders, artists, and natural historians of all kinds ask the same question—What exactly am I seeing?—and these volumes offer new ways to help us answer it.

Andrew Forkner’s A-Z of Bird Portraits is the simplest of the three. It is most akin to the traditional how-to-draw books common in bookstores. The book focuses on the practice of acrylic painting, but the author does talk about using watercolor washes, along with some other less traditional ways to use acrylics. The layout is easy on the eyes, starting with simple composition tips and then moving on to a consideration of the finer parts of birds. Among the birder-specific items are the notes about ensuring that plumage details match the habitat for that species at the right time of year. This is a small detail for artists, but for a nature illustrator or birder, it is a crucial part of telling the story of the bird.

Both Bird Portraits and Alan Woollett’s Bird Art use the tracing method for sketching, a method that is particularly useful if you plan to have your art reproduced. However, if you’re just drawing birds for fun or as part of your field notes, I definitely recommend considering John Muir Laws’s Guide to Nature Drawing and Journaling. I’m most excited about this title’s section introducing the distinctive features of a bird: Wing structure, eyes, feet, and bills are obviously of extreme importance to identification, and they all need to be treated with care by the artist. The Guide goes into detail not only about specific bill shapes, but also about the uses each is put to by the living bird. This book is not just an introduction to drawing, it is also an educational resource.

Before proceeding to a rather obnoxiously long series of tutorials, Laws explains that the sample drawings he provides are meant to help the artist develop their own style while increasing their confidence in their skill. I’m not against this approach, but the execution here is not effective. By supplying the reader with the exact colors used, an outline of the bird, and the step-by-step process to draw the bird in the original artist’s style, Laws in fact deprives readers of sufficient opportunity to find their own style.

The Laws Guide is devoted entirely to nature journaling, a quite different concentration from that of Forkner’s Portraits. Instead of focusing on scientific illustration and painting, Laws zooms out to a more general theme, one that encompasses the finer points of being a naturalist. His first section discusses the importance for naturalists of journaling and, more fundamentally, simple curiosity.

The journaling observer connects in a very personal way with the world, posing questions freely and openly while watching a plant or animal. That practice of curious observation is more important to this book than is the actual doing of art, making it a good choice for the hardcore naturalist who is also a casual artist. Bird Portraits, in contrast, is primarily focused on the art itself and less so on the objects and phenomena behind the art, whether plumage wear, climate, or geography.

Laws writes about the importance of building a portfolio of work, for the personal use of the observer and for potential publication, or as material for future finished scientific illustrations. The Guide covers all the important details of making a field sketch: patterns, overall impressions, details, and questioning what you are seeing.

The layout of the book is what I would call traditional art how-to. Two-page spreads cover quick nature sketching, skulls, shading and value, and some odd things such as spider anatomy. In short, this book covers everything you could possibly need to know about nature journaling. The book is as large as a college textbook, but the information inside makes up for what the book lacks in portability. Probably not a great choice to take out into the field, the Guide is well suited to home study in preparation for expeditions into the wilderness. It is most definitely not restricted to birds, but I would still encourage birders and naturalists of every level to pick up a copy: Laws’s emphasis on simple curiosity and close observation combines with the introduction to quick-sketching techniques to reinforce any birder’s all-around skills.

Colored pencil is usually considered the most basic of color media, and because of its simplicity is only rarely used in professional art. But colored pencil can be very precise, yielding detailed and robust drawings, making it an excellent medium for bird artists. In his Bird Art, Alan Woollett dials in to some of the finest detail possible with colored pencil. Just flipping through this book gives you a view of a master at work. From his Scarlet Macaws to his American Goldfinches, Woollett has transformed the world of colored pencil from a largely recreational medium into a rich and delicate artistic resource.

As in most art books, including the other two reviewed here, Bird Art includes a section on choosing materials. While you might be tempted to just pick up a mechanical pencil from your desk and start drawing, quality materials make quality art. Woollett briefly reviews various brands of colored pencils and graphite pencils. Depending on which techniques an artist uses, one brand may be better than another: For example, if one prefers to layer and blend, Faber-Castell Polychromos would be preferable to Prismacolor Premiers, which are softer and thus make it more difficult to effectively blend colors without overloading the paper.

Bird Art dedicates a two-page spread to educating the reader in basic birding, field study, and general nature observation. Once you turn the page, it’s obvious to see that the pieces reproduced here are meant as art, not as scientific illustration, a significant difference from both The Laws Guide and Bird Portraits. In fact, Woollett’s style here very much reminds me of an exhibition I visited at Wausau, Wisconsin’s, Leigh Yawkey Woodson Art Museum, home of the annual Birds in Art show.

The pieces in Bird Art and those in the exhibit at the Yawkey Woodson, Birds in Our Landscapes, nearly all depict common birds in everyday locations atop statues, fence posts, power lines, and the like. Perhaps this is meant to create an interesting composition, but personally I find the inclusion of man-made objects in bird painting both distracting and distasteful. The artificial elements desensitize the viewer to the unnaturalness of such habitats. This is deeply frowned upon in wildlife photography, and if the illustration of nature and wildlife illustration is to rise to the same level as its photographic counterparts, I would suggest that artists keep to the depiction of natural habitat elements.

Woollett’s chapter on composition is exactly what I would have imagined. It focuses on placing the bird appropriately in the space while still giving it room to breathe and move. This is different from scientific or nature illustration, where the bird is placed so as to reveal the field marks needed to identify it, usually paired with appropriate habitat features.

This chapter leads the author into a section treating background. I was very excited to see this topic addressed. I have myself struggled to incorporate a suitable background into a bird illustration, and it’s not unusual in nature illustration to see a bird drawn without any at all. Woollett goes into welcome detail about choosing an interesting background that doesn’t leave the bird out of context. I was happy to see a page exploring the relevance of the bird to everything around it. The author points out that the bird should not be eating a bug if it is a frugivore, or be wearing winter plumage in a summer setting. Details like these are crucial to making an excellent bird portrait.

The pieces in this book are largely focused on art, whereas in The Laws Guide and Bird Portraits, the focus is on the birds themselves. Because of this, I would recommend Woollett’s Bird Art most heartily to an artist who loves birds but isn’t necessarily interested in scientific illustration. Woollett’s book is for the art’s sake, not for the birds’ sake.

No matter if you’re a hardcore artist or a hardcore birder, The Laws Guide to Nature Drawing and Journaling should have a place on your shelf. As for the other two books, A-Z of Bird Portraits is fantastic for the beginning bird artist looking for tutorials, and Bird Art should be the companion of any nature artist looking for inspiration and mastery of pencil. Many birders may not need the detailed advice offered in these books about composition, media, and artistic technique, but every one of us can profit from a renewed emphasis on looking closely and critically.

– Johanna Beam is a sophomore at St. Olaf College in Minnesota, with a double major in Biology and Studio Art. She is interested in population genetics and scientific illustration, and has had artwork commissioned by Colorado Field Ornithologists. Beam is the ABA – Leica 2017 Young Birder of the Year. 

Recommended citation:

Beam, J. 2017. Birding and the Art of Careful Observation [a review of A–Z of Bird Portraits, by Andrew Forkner; The Laws Guide to Nature Drawing and Journaling, by John Muir Laws; and Bird Art, by Alan Woollett]. Birding 49.5: 65-66.

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Birding Book Reviews

Birding Book Reviews

Birding Book Reviews publishes Birding magazine's reviews on line. Book reviews are edited by Rick Wright.
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  • Rick Wright

    This is a great review, and I’m still musing on this statement:

    “…common birds in everyday locations atop statues, fence posts, power lines, and the like. Perhaps this is meant to create an interesting composition, but personally I find the inclusion of man-made objects in bird painting both distracting and distasteful. The artificial elements desensitize the viewer to the unnaturalness of such habitats. This is deeply frowned upon in wildlife photography, and if the illustration of nature and wildlife illustration is to rise to the same level as its photographic counterparts, I would suggest that artists keep to the depiction of natural habitat elements.”

    What do you think?

    • ramanauskas

      I think the insistence on always framing the scene as if the environment were pristine is an unpleasant affectation of wildlife photography. The environment is _not_ pristine; the man-made objects, clutter, and litter exist; the wildlife lives with it all, and art should not ignore that.

    • Reuven_M

      I really disagree with this statement, both in the context of photography and other visual art. Our birds live in a human landscape. How many meadowlarks have never sat on a fencepost? How many Ring-billed Gulls have never landed in a parking lot? How many Sandhill Cranes have never tasted corn?

      Art is art, different people have different tastes, and if you prefer natural settings that’s your call. But I think there must be room for showing birds living in the way they actually live in the places they actually do.

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