Direct Sketching with Pen and Ink: Drawing Birds and Animals from Life

March 21, 2011

The full post is thoughts on sketching birds directly with pen and ink.

110306APuffins Left: Direct ink and watercolor sketches of Puffins, made from life at Como Zoo. Page size approximately 8 x 8 inches in a handmade journal of now defunct drawing paper. Staedtler Pigment Liner .3 pen with washes of Daniel Smith watercolors (using a Niji watercolor brush).

I'm on a campaign to get more people to sketch directly with pen and ink—with no pre-drawing with pencil, no erasing, and no fear. (See also yesterday's post on drawing people directly with pen and ink.)

On March 6, 2011 I went to a sketch out at Como Zoo. I go to Como and sketch about twice a month by myself. I was looking forward to seeing other sketchers. Sadly I went all day without seeing a single soul who was sketching—but I did get to catch up with people at the end of the day so there was some group fun to be had! 

In the mean time I had the puffins to cheer me. And I have to say that puffins really, really do cheer me. There is something bouyant about their personalities and spirits that transcends their physical bouyancy.

Let's get to it. Remember that billed cap I had you wearing yesterday. Wear it again today. The animals and birds might not care that you have it on but you want it for reducig glare and maintaining focus, and also blocking out curious bystanders. (At least a billed cap functions that way if you're short—if you're tall, heck you're on your own there.)

Stand in front of your subjects and watch them for about 5 to 10 minutes. This may seem like an eternity. If it does then maybe you need to rethink your life as a nature sketcher. Think of it this way, if you love something it is delightful to gaze at it. Well I'm advocating active gazing—all the time you're gazing you're also observing how the various parts of the whole go together. Absorb your subject.

After you've watched your subject at a zoo for about 5 to 10 minutes you'll have a sense of patterned behavior, favorite paths of travel, favorite perches, etc. Decide how you want to use your page. Do you want to do one large sketch or several smaller sketches? Here I decided to do the latter. I also decided to arrange them in a clockwise order starting in the top left and leaving the bottom left for overheard dialog and notes to myself.

Start sketching. Use the same method as described yesterday—look, mark, look again, correct. Work directly with pen and ink and don't do any pre-sketching with pencil. Make light strokes if you aren't sure, bold strokes if you are. Practice will be your friend. You can work confidently even on the most pitiful of messes, sure in the knowledge that you are learning and your next effort will be better—if you work with attention and focus.

If your subject moves, wait and watch. Chances are he'll return to the same position and you can begin sketching again. If he doesn't, start a new sketch in a new position somewhere else on the page. Now I guarantee he'll return to the first position and so can you. Work from one to the other as necessary. Sketching birds from life is as much about waiting as it is about sketching. You will be rewarded with infinite nuances of delight as you watch so don't worry. Birds are exquisite from any angle.

Look for and describe (with your pen lines) the negative spaces you observe. These will capture the character of the bird and often give it weight and balance, such as when you nail the negative space between the legs and give the bird substance and natural poise. (I'm not saying these sketches do any of that, I'm just pointing out the goal!)

When you have completed your sketch you can add watercolor washes as I have in the first sketch on this page. I use a Niji waterbrush and a small children's palette I've filled with Daniel Smith Watercolors (see the two small palettes in the center of the photo at this link).

Once you get some color and shading down it's time to complete other sketches on the same page in the same fashion. Here I tried to capture different postures. Color wasn't important in the remaining two sketches both because the birds moved but also because I already had color info on the first bird. In the third drawing, only the yellow of the feet was an important memory item for me, so I painted that.

Again, write notes about anything that will ensure you have complete information on your subject or your experience of the day. Here I have a question to myself about drinking water for puffins—after all these years I never thought to ask anyone because I was simply so charmed by their presence. Also I wrote down overheard dialog. The things parents say to children at zoos are really amazing. The page also contains observational notes about the individual birds.

I date and time all my entries. In the wild it will tell you when you can return and observe the same behavior. In a zoo it will tell you when to return to avoid or catch feeding time, etc.

When you make multiple sketches like this remind yourself it isn't about coming home with perfect sketches—it's about honing your observational skills. Give yourself the opportunity to leave perfection behind and observe and learn and practice.

  1. Reply

    Yeah, it’s great to sketch at zoos. Whether sketching or not – I always wonder about people rushing through zoos. “Oh, a bear! But it isn’t doing anything. It’s soooo boring. Let’s go on.” Less than 20 seconds on any animal! People obviously get so used to seeing animals behaving in a spectacular way on the tv documentaries that they are usually disappointed when encountering animals which are just sleeping or grooming or standing still. BUT: All the better for us sketchers! Those people move on so fast they usually disturb neither the animals nor the sketcher! 🙂

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