A “Pheasant” Afternoon Drawing Birds

By Ellen Hong

It’s not every day that you get to sit down with a real artist and get a lesson on bird illustration. On Saturday, March 8, I and about a dozen others had the pleasure of learning how to draw birds from Lisa Sindorf, a wildlife illustrator and expert in field sketching.

Lisa explains the basics- just start with two circles! Photo: Constance Taylor

Lisa explains the basics- just start with two circles! Photo: Constance Taylor

“It’s all about observation,” she explained. “Even though there may be harsh lighting, and the animals may be moving around, your job is to capture your observations.”

Lisa talked about how she always likes starting out her drawings with a light pencil, preferably a non-photo blue pencil. She uses this blue pencil to make the initial sketch, and then she goes over it with pen, and then may add watercolor later on.

“Use materials that aren’t precious to you,” she told us. “Buy the cheapest sketchbook, since you’ll be making hundreds of drawings. Give yourself permission to draw whatever comes out.”

Lisa’s step-by-step instruction for how to draw birds:

    • It’s important to think about grouping, so start from the biggest shapes before making your way to the smaller ones. Start out with the two biggest chunks of shapes: the body and head of the bird. Consider:
      1. Relative size. How big is the head compared to the body? — It may help to ask yourself how many heads can fit into the body.
      2. Relative position. Where does the head fall with respect to the body? How is the head aligned with the edge of the body
    • Next, look at lines and angles. There are 3 major things to look at:
      1. The angle of the wings
      2. The angle of the tail
      3. The angle the forehead makes with the beak

*One of Lisa’s tricks is to think in terms of a clock. What angle would the hour and minute hands make, and what time would it read?

*Also, angles are super important because they’re diagnostic. Capturing the right angles can tell you exactly what type of bird you’re looking at.

    • After all the initial shapes, lines, and angles are on your paper, you can start to add more detail to the face–starting with the eye. Ask yourself where the eye joins the face (angle is important!), and specifically, you can look at the “cheek circle”–the shapes and angles of the feathers covering the bird’s ears.
    • When drawing the wings of the bird, consider the fact that most birds’ wings form the shape of a parallelogram. Look at how long or how short each side of the parallelogram is and draw accordingly.

These were Lisa’s main tips, and she wanted to assure us this: “Will your drawing look real? Will it look like a fine-art illustration? Probably not–but if you observe something that you might not have noticed before, you are successful. You’re keeping a record for later, and that’s what’s important.” She also told us that it may be useful to make little annotations on your drawing–you may note that two lines are the same length or that the bird’s wings form a 45-degree angle with its body.

Practicing sketching.  Photo: Constance Taylor

Practicing sketching. Photo: Constance Taylor

After Lisa’s detailed lesson, it was time to draw! She gave us about 15-20 minutes to try all her tips firsthand, either by sketching some models of ducks she had brought along with her or by attempting to draw some live birds, since there were obviously many of them hanging around Lake Merritt.

From my own experience, drawing the live birds was HARD! Especially with them constantly moving around, I had so much trouble trying to figure out angles and the positions of certain parts of their bodies. It was definitely a challenge! This time to ourselves was really nice, however, and Lisa made sure to come around and check up on each of us, offering some helpful advice along the way.

After this individual drawing time, she gathered us all together again for some time to reflect on our experiences. She wanted to know what our experiences were like and how her tips and strategies worked out for us.

The feedback from the group was great; I gained insight from their comments and questions for Lisa, learning that holding your pencil up to measure angles may be one of the best ways to actually get the accurate angles. Also, it’s useful to define as many angles as you can; it will give you more details to be able to later identify the bird. And to what extent is it useful to stay committed to the initial two circles, the head and the body? “It’s not a huge commitment,” Lisa told us. “You can be flexible.”

Discussing what we learned.  Photo: Constance Taylor

Discussing what we learned. Photo: Constance Taylor

Ultimately, Lisa wanted to leave us with the message that the value in field sketching really is in the observations we make. It’s about really looking at nature, seeing things we hadn’t seen before, and capturing those moments by putting them onto paper.

Thanks to everyone who came out, and thanks so much to Lisa for such a great lesson and a wonderful time! If you’re interested in her work, she’s having an art show at the Albatross Pub in Berkeley from January 30 until June 30. Check out her website lisasindorf.com as well!

Ellen Hong is a senior in high school and interns for Wild Oakland.

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