Friday, August 26, 2022

Nature Sketchbook Retrospective


8/14/22 Steller's jay with accurate proportions

Over the past few years, I’ve shown sketches I’ve made of birds (and the occasional persistent squirrel) that have dined at our feeders or in our backyard. Almost all of those small sketches were done in a pocket-size Stillman & Birn Epsilon sketchbook that I keep by the kitchen window. The sketch on the first page is of a junco made on Nov. 26, 2018, which must have been the first year we put the feeders up. For a brief period in 2019, I tried the book as my secondary daily-carry sketchbook (the role now filled by Uglybooks and before that, Field Notes), but I didn’t like its bulkiness. I put it back on the kitchen counter, and it has stayed there ever since.

3/4/22 scribbles of a Bewick's wren

Now, nearly four years later, its 92 pages are almost full. Many pages show nothing more than scribbles trying to capture quick gestures that didn’t amount to much. Small birds, masters of grab-and-go, give me only a few seconds at a time. But it’s fun to thumb through the book now and see my progress, which isn’t necessarily progressive, of course. Just as I had observed more than a decade ago when I first started drawing, my skills are still being built with one-step-forward, two-steps-back.

The Steller’s jays are visiting us at meal times more regularly again this summer. By “meal times,” I mean ours – we eat lunch and dinner on our back deck whenever weather permits, which has been almost daily for several weeks. When the jays see us out there (or even before, when we’re still prepping meals in the kitchen and have the back door open), they wait for us in the trees or, more impatiently, on our deck railing. They know we will eventually put peanuts out for them. They are endlessly entertaining. Occasionally after gorging on peanuts for a while, they will fall into post-prandial preening or resting on our railing, which gives me the best opportunity to sketch.

12/11/19 first attempts at Steller's jays

My first sketch of a Steller’s jay in the small sketchbook is dated Dec. 11, 2019, which was before we started feeding them peanuts and giving them reason to stay longer. When I don’t have enough time to truly see, I’m drawing mostly from memory or even imagination, relying on my brain’s symbol for “bird shape.”

Over time, the repetitive sightings and practice combined with occasional treats of longer durations result in higher accuracy. At the top of this post is a recent sketch that is one of the most accurate to date in terms of Steller’s jay proportions.

When I look back at the older sketches, I see mostly generic bird shapes. It’s rewarding to watch them change into better renderings as I eventually learn to see them instead of think them.

4/1/22 Bewick's wren

12/25/18 Early sketches in this book are mostly symbols of bird shapes

8/4/21 When we started feeding peanuts to the jays, I had a little more time for each gesture, but not enough to capture proportions accurately.




9/25/21 This jay generously gave me many minutes to observe closely.

I keep the small Stillman & Birn sketchbook on the kitchen counter right next to our local bird identification books, binocs and, of course, colored pencils.


  1. These are great gesture sketches! And now maybe I understand the occasional mystery peanut that appears in my yard or on the street in front, even though we don't have jays in my immediate neighborhood. The closest thing would be the crows. But, who would feed peanuts (or anything else) to crows??
    Anne HwH

  2. I like your bird sketches and your way of getting them to pose. I remember an instructor advising us to "paint what you see" not what you think.


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