Friday, January 18, 2013

Book Review: The Laws Guide to Drawing Birds

12/28/12 Private Reserve Velvet Black ink, Stillman & Birn Gamma
I’m a sketcher who enjoys sketching birds, I’m not a bird watcher, but The Laws Guide to Drawing Birds makes me want to become one. Published by Audubon and written by a naturalist, the book offers many excellent step-by-step instructions on drawing and painting birds in their natural environment.

Unless we are trained artists, we all have a template or code in our brains about what a bird is supposed to look like. Getting past the template and drawing what we actually see is one of the difficulties of learning to draw, so I particularly appreciate the author’s many tips on avoiding common pitfalls. For example, an inexperienced sketcher might draw a duck as if its body is skimming the surface of the water, but in reality, quite a bit of the lower portion of the body is underwater and isn’t visible.

In addition to stepped-out drawing instructions for common species, the earlier chapters focus on bird anatomy. With no previous interest in zoology, I didn’t think I’d find this interesting. Yet as I read, I found myself completely fascinated by the arrangement and types of feathers, and the varying structures of wings that help different species soar or flap. With a few paragraphs of text and many beautiful illustrations, the book debunked a myth I have always carried in my head: Birds’ legs look like they are bending “backward” at the knee. It turns out that what I have always thought of as the knee is actually the ankle, and birds essentially walk on their toes. Written in lay language, the text points out clear – and surprising – analogies between bird and human anatomy.
12/28/12 Diamine Chocolate Brown, Velvet Black, Zig markers

In later advanced chapters, Laws shows how to make a flight model from cardboard to help you visualize the foreshortening of wings as a hawk circles. A chapter is also devoted to sketching in the field with useful tips on using a spotting scope while drawing, how to draw a bird in constant motion, or visually memorizing a bird when you think it is about to take flight so that you will still be able to sketch it when it’s gone.

Finally, Laws gives a brief but excellent guide to using color, especially watercolor and colored pencils. I have read numerous books on watercolor technique that have been spotty in their explanation of color mixing. The Laws Guide to Drawing Birds has one of the most straightforward explanations for this potentially frustrating (and expensive, if you end up buying a lot of paints you don’t use) aspect of watercolor painting.

I recommend this book to anyone interested in nature sketching, even if you aren’t particularly interested in birds (because by the time you finish it, you will be!).

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