Sunday, March 5, 2017

Backyard Birds with Bonus Squirrel

3/1/17 water-soluble colored pencils (chickadee)
About a month ago we got a bird feeder. I had been noticing lots of small birds hopping around in the lilac and mock orange trees outside our kitchen window, and I wanted to sketch them, but I couldn’t see them very well through the branches. If we put a feeder out there, I said to myself, they would be easier to see and might even stick around long enough to sketch! A minute later I had ordered a hanging feeder from Amazon, and two days later, Greg put it up.

The tiny birds – mostly chestnut-backed chickadees and dark-eyed juncos – are easier to see now as they cling to the side or bottom of the feeder to peck the seeds out, but sketching them requires an incremental process. First I simply try to capture the gestures – the acrobatic stances they take to hang from the feeder or perch on a branch. This takes many tries to get the shape and proportions right, and I have several poses going at the same time. Animals repeat the same poses and motions over and over, so as soon as one bird moves, another will probably take on the same pose, or the first one will return to the original pose in a few seconds. Once I get a contour that looks adequate, it takes many more sightings to get the coloring and details, which I add or correct one at a time. I know this sounds like a time-consuming process, but I probably spend no more than 10 minutes per sketch.

2/26/17 (dark-eyed junco)
Yesterday I got a bonus: A pair of squirrels is nesting under our neighbor’s roof. One of them seems to be injured or sick, because it spent a good five minutes hardly moving, giving me plenty of time to sketch it.

I keep a pocket-size Stillman & Birn sketchbook and a couple of brown and black water-soluble colored pencils on the kitchen counter next to the window. Every time I walk through the kitchen, I glance at the feeder, and it’s easy to take a minute or two to work on a sketch. This winter the feeder has become my daily-sketching-habit lifesaver: If I’ve been cooped up all day, feeling restless with nothing to sketch, I can always draw a chickadee or two. A few minutes of drawing from life has also been an ideal antidote to the frustration I’ve been feeling about working exclusively from photos in my colored pencil class.

3/4/17 (gray squirrel)
2/18/17 (chickadee)


  1. Very nice work! I also sketch from my bird feeder and your process is the same --thank goodness for those repeat motions.

    1. Thanks, Alex! I'll have to chat with you sometime about feeders -- ours has some issues!

  2. Best one I've found is called the Squirrel Buster. Works great (definitely keeps the squirrels out). Needs to be cleaned with solution of water/bleach (90/10) at least twice a month to prevent spread of disease to birds.


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