In June 2012, I had the great fortune to visit Trinidad and Tobago in a group that included birder and artist Matthew Dodder. Matthew began birding (and drawing birds) as a boy in Boston, during the Great Blizzard of 1977. He teaches Advanced Birding at the Palo Alto Adult School in California, regularly leads field trips throughout the state, and is a pelagic trip leader out of Monterey Bay and Half Moon Bay. He draws birds frequently, and displays his work on his Facebook page and on the Facebook community site he set up, “Artistic Nature.” This is Matthew’s first contribution to 10,000 Birds:

A review of John Muir Law’s recently released
“Laws Guide to Drawing Birds”
Heyday, Berkeley, California

At some point, I expect more than a few birders have tried (or at least considered) drawing their favorite bird. There is something quite natural about wanting to do this. If you are one of these birders, and even if you are not, take a look at the newly published “The Laws Guide to Drawing Birds“, and find out why I believe it is a must-have book for artist-birders. For that matter, I think it has value for anyone who simply wishes to improve their skills of observation. There is a lot to celebrate in the pages of this book, trust me. It is truly a birder’s guide to drawing…

Until recently, “how-to-draw” books about birds seemed to focus primarily on plumage-related issues. Specifics about barring and vermiculation were amply covered, as were things like the gross differences between Cranes and Herons. There was often a goodly description of how to draw a Duck step-by-step also. But what if one needed to draw a Diving Duck and not a Mallard, or compose a bird not shown in the book at all…?

Enter John Muir Laws. His work on the color-coded “Sierra Birds: A Hiker’s Guide” and the follow-up “The Laws Field Guide to the Sierra Nevada” are testaments to his position as an artist, but his most recent book firmly establishes him as a teacher of art as well.

Above: Spread from “Sierra Birds: A Hiker’s Guide”: Yellow birds.

Logically organized, the “Law’s Guide to Drawing Birds” succeeds in giving students something I believe was lacking in previous books. We get a better understanding of bird structure in this book, particularly what is desperately needed, a study of what lies beneath all those lovely feathers—flesh and bone. Appreciating avian inner architecture is basic to successful drawing. As well, Laws forces us to step back and see basic lines of motion, balance of stance, proportions of head and bill, the true nature of light and shadow on our subject, and what isn’t necessary to show.

“The Laws Guide” doesn’t jump into all this material headlong however. As with any user manual, it starts with a few pages of quick-start basics, allowing eager artists to start drawing right away with a few simple examples that simultaneously demonstrate concepts that set the foundation for more complex ideas. One-page sections on “Posture, the First Line”, “Proportion”, “Head Position” and “Angles” lay important ground work that allow the artist to continue. The book is in fact, assembled with many such short lessons, each complete in itself, but progressing toward a complete “picture” of the art of drawing birds.

Sections I found particularly interesting were those on “Feathers of the Chest” which informs about the direction of feathers of the breast and the subtle contours they create. Having struggled with legs and feet in my own drawings, I especially enjoyed the sections on “How to Balance Your Birds” and “Understanding Bird Feet”. Did you know, for example that the rear-facing toe (hallux) on a Passerine has only one bone that cannot bend around a branch as one might assume, while the inner toe has two, the middle toe has three, and the outer toe has four? Well, perhaps you did know this, but had you ever observed it? Additionally, why is this important? Well, for one thing, knowledge of such details provides more realism and accuracy to your drawings. But for non-artist birders as well, stopping to notice this feature in a bird enriches our birding experience whether we plan on drawing or not. Opening the book to any page is guaranteed to open birder, and artist-birder’s eyes alike to details we may have not given much thought to before.

John Laws has a great love for the subject of the book obviously. An avid birder himself, as well as an accomplished artist, his attention to detail such as those mentioned above, encourage us to look as closely at the birds we see in our binoculars as an artist would. What better advice could we give ourselves than to look more closely at our subjects, drink in the all details and remember them more vividly…?

The Laws Guide offers plenty of material for advanced artist such as a lengthy section on “Birds in Flight”, as well as “Observing Light and Shadow”, “Negative Space”, “Planes and Textures” and tips for those wishing to improve colored pencil practice and water color techniques.

Of all the sections in the book I found useful, perhaps the section on “Iridescence” was the most eye-opening. I’d been afraid of attempting this in my artwork prior to Law’s easy explanation. My attempts had always turned out like a brightly colored mud of rainbow colors, but nothing like the purple-blue-black flame we see on a Great-tailed Grackle, or the god-like golden-orange blaze of an Rufous Hummingbird. I feel I have a handle on this concept now, but by no means is my technique perfect. Everything worthwhile takes practice—lots of practice. And now there’s a whole lot more hope for others like me.

This is one of the important take-aways from the book, and it echoes what John Laws said in a recent presentation at Sequoia Audubon in San Mateo, California. Noticing details like the way the toes wrap (or do not wrap) around a branch, or the fact that the gape of the mouth is never a single hinged angle, but several… or that the median coverts switch directions on Passerines, while Raptors, Cormorants and Herons have several rows of reversed coverts… and on and on until morning. These tiny, lovely details deepen our experience with a bird—they give us something to watch for, something new to learn, and something beautiful to draw, if we care to try.

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