I’m not an artist. I’m not even close to being an artist. When I hear about artist-in-residence programs at the national parks, I envision the participants as supernatural beings with a talent that is incomprehensible to me.
Thus it was with some trepidation that I approached The Laws Guide to Drawing Birds by John Muir Laws. Luckily, as a non-artist birder who admires people who can draw, I have an artistic friend who admires birders. So I offer you dueling reviews of this exciting new book with the birders represented by me and the artists by my colleague Catherine Gyde of Lansing, Michigan.
The Birder’s Thoughts
With a forward penned by David Allen Sibley, it was clear this book is intended to appeal to birders. Sibley authored one of the most popular field guides we carry, essentially bearing the torch forward from the father of hand-drawn field guides, the late Roger Tory Peterson. So to hear Sibley say he wished this book had been around when he got started drawing birds is high praise from a deity in the birding and art world.
As an experienced birder ever in need of more expertise, I’m always looking for another angle from which to approach birding. The idea of drawing has crossed my mind several times, quickly to be banished amid the snickers of friends who have seen my attempts.
Laws titles the second subsection on the first page of text, “Give Yourself Permission to Draw.” Sounds good to me, but I have no talent. A few sentences later he tells us that the idea that the ability to draw is an innate talent is “utterly false.” At this point it seems Laws is both reading my mind and doing a good job of convincing me I might be able to do this. Reading through the book, it seems a bit over my head, but the author assures that with one year devoted to drawing birds, I will achieve success. I continue to be skeptical, but I have room for one or two more obsessions in 2013, so who knows. That part of this review will have to wait. Look for part two in about 14 months.
Getting back to my role as an experienced birder, I find myself frequently giving hints and tips to those who are just starting out. “Look at size and shape,” I’ll say over and over, reminding a new birder that color can be deceptive as a field mark. What does the bill look like? How long are the primary flight feathers? Is the body round or football or teardrop shaped? These are questions we learn to ask ourselves as we peer at an unknown bird through binoculars.
It turns out these are the same critical questions you have to ask when preparing to draw a bird. As I looked at this book section by section I realized it was a blueprint for the litany of field marks we should be looking for and muttering to ourselves when seeing that bird. More than once, I said to myself, “that’s something I need to pay more attention to in the field.”
At the very least, The Laws Guide to Drawing Birds will make me a better birder and a better teacher of birding. In the best case, and I assume this was the author’s intent, it might inspire me to draw a sparrow or two. My first attempts won’t appear in a field guide, nor will my hundredth attempt, but I’m wondering if I’ll start looking at sparrows differently. If so, the mission has been accomplished.
The Artist’s Thoughts
I need this book. I’ve always shied away from drawing birds, because, well, they’re birds. Birds are different than horses or butterflies. It seems like every subtle movement a bird makes alters its anatomy more than it would with other animals. Feathers shift, wings move, necks stretch. A horse has hair on its legs, but a bird has several shapes and sizes of feathers on each wing. When I opened up to a double-page spread detailing the drawing of a typical wing, followed by a table of the number of different types of flight feathers possessed by different birds, I knew this book would be a great help to me.
Drawing animals is all about understanding their anatomies on an intimate level. The Laws Guide to Drawing Birds could be subtitled as a guide to bird anatomy as much as it is a guide to drawing. That’s how it should be, of course. I just hope a beginner learning to draw birds isn’t overwhelmed by the anatomy course that comes along with that desire.
Speaking of overwhelming, my only real complaint about this book (and complaint is too strong a word), is that it could focus a bit more on the very beginning of drawing. Since I like to suggest subtitles, I think adding “for Birders” to the title would be appropriate since the thrust of the text and demonstrations seems to be the synthesis between birding and drawing birds. That’s fine, and very enlightening, but if I was teaching a beginner to draw from this book, I think I’d dedicate more time to the always important first line.
Laws devotes a page to the first line and eloquently describes how that first stroke can be a “suggestion of the life energy” of the bird. As an artist with an interest in taking up birding, that appeals to me, but I’d like to spend a little more time on the particulars of how that line pertains to the future of the drawing. That comes up later, of course, but we jump right into proportions on the next page, and I hope the reader isn’t presented with too much, too quickly.
That admittedly personal preference for teaching approach aside, the book is filled with tips that are well-presented and well-illustrated. The author cautions against avoiding the infamous “snowman” by cutting angles between the head and body. He also admonishes us to avoid making the bird “too cute” by exaggerating proportions of heads and eyes. Cute birds are great for cartoons, but not for a field sketch!
A section at the end of the book focuses on tips for coloring drawings, with an emphasis on watercolors. A whole book could be written on this subject alone, with all the plumages of birds from the subtle to the outrageous. Laws treats it well in the space allowed, including a recommended suit of colors and a guide to efficient use of the pallet.
I would highly recommend this book to someone like me who’d like to be less intimidated by the thought of drawing birds. Since I’m also starting to get a little bit of the birding bug, the fact that this book is unabashedly a cross between a drawing guide and a field guide is a bonus. Most drawing books show page after page of step-by-step demonstrations from start to finish. This guide has a few of those, but focuses more on giving me the tools I need to do it myself. Along the way, I learned a lot about birds, so the next time friends drag me out with binoculars, I’ll look at those feathered friends a bit differently. That’s a good thing.
And finally, how many drawing books caution against the potential self-injury that can be incurred when holding your pencil and your binoculars in the same hand while drawing in the field? I laughed out loud at the photo demonstration of this, mostly because I can picture one or two of my birding friends impaling themselves this way. Who said drawing birds wasn’t an adventure?