Direct Sketching with Pen and Ink: Drawing Birds and Animals from Life—Yet Another Look

March 25, 2011

Above: Staedtler Pigment Liner .3 on defunct drawing paper in an 8 x 8 inch journal I made. Light washes of gouache added to the bottom sketch. Click on the image and view an enlargement.

Since I began my series on "direct sketching with pen and ink" last week I have received a number of emails from people frustrated by models who are constantly in motion. I want to encourage you to keep at it both in the long term and in the immediate time frame.

Above is my next spread from the March 6 Como Zoo sketch out. I was pretty much warmed up by this time and looking forward to doing another large portrait like my full-page penguin. I came into the giraffe building and was immediately struck by the petite dimensions of the baby giraffe. It was standing still and fairly close to the fencing. I watched for several minutes and then started to sketch in the top left of this spread—thinking that I would expand across the spread to the right with a full neck and back.

Well the mother giraffe thought differently and she started to nudge the baby so that it would move, and then she stood between us. (We were across a moat like walk way that is about 4 feet wide. There is wire fencing all the way up on her side.) She just didn't seem to appreciate the attention I was focusing on her baby.

Disappointed but undaunted I decided to make a large sketch of the mother. You can see the initial lines for that face just to the right of the first sketch. But that was also not to be. She was moving constantly and I couldn't get any of my measurements to come out. Then suddenly she simply retreated to the back of the enclosure with her baby behind her and started to chew her cud and relax. I watched her and the other giraffe for a few minutes and then began the sketch at the base of the page spread—a sketch of the mom, with her full grown porportions. I worked several minutes on this sketch and then she started to pace. Each time she returned to this area and pose I added more detail about the markings on her neck. Finally I decided to paint what I had sketched up to that point. After a little painting it was time for me to move on, because I didn't have room to include the rest of her body.

I sat on a bench inside the building (it was still in the low 30s here on this day) for a few moments and wrote the large block of text on the right hand page. I wanted to remember what had happened and the conversation I had had with another visitor.

For me, even though there are two false starts on this page, it's one of my favorite journal pages ever. It has a little bit of everything I love: observation, multiple sketches, a more finished sketch, and of course notes.

If your first sketch, or even your second sketch doesn't work out, keep working, and working. Take a break and look around you to rest your eyes and restart. Take a break to look away just to see what is going on around you or join in a conversation if someone speaks to you. But keep coming back to your work. Get something down on paper. You just might end up with a page you really love. And if you work in ink it will all be there for you to see, and remember.

    • sue
    • March 25, 2011

    I can see why you like it–it’s beautiful! What good advice you give, too. It is frustrating when your subject up and takes off, so your notion of just sort of “going” with what happens is great advice. Your finished spread is lovely.

  1. Reply

    I like the page, and I was glad to read a detailed account of your giraffe experience. It can indeed be frustrating (and wonderful) to sketch at the zoo, so strategy ideas help. I”m wondering how long you spend when do a sketch session at the zoo, Roz. Formal sketchcrawls I’ve been involved with normally are scheduled for 2 hours, which never seems quite enough time for me. Not that anyone ever forces me to leave, but still …

  2. Reply

    Thanks Sue, I’m glad you like it. I like this page because it is a record of the struggle to capture those moving giraffe on the page, mess and all. It’s very satisfying to keep going, to work through the frustration. I think you can see from my notes that I was learning things even as I was leaving sketches behind. That’s fun for me too.

  3. Reply

    Karen, glad you like the page spread and notes on the outing.

    The time I spend on a sketch varies widely—the subject, the cooperation of the subject, the temperature (I wilt in the heat and do better in the cold—32 degrees to 75 is my ideal temp range). Time spent on a sketch also varies throughout the event as I tend to be faster when I am warming up at the start, ease into a sustainable speed and try to slow myself down and enjoy it, and then as I tire tend to speed up again, and get a little sloppy as my mind is tired, as the event comes to a close.

    On this particular day I completed 4.5 page spreads or 9 pages in my 8 x 8 inch journal. Two pages had full page sketches and one was the fastest sketch of the day (the penguin) and the other full-page sketch was a plant sketch which was the slowest sketch of the day (and resulted in my getting bitten by ants). One spread has 5 separate animals and views on it made quickly at different locations. Also during this sketch out there were several times when I was actually just looking at animals (too cold to paint outside because of water freezing) so I would have to factor those into my total somehow.

    I would say, looking over past journal trips that on average I spend 10 to 15 minutes on a sketch that is page-size and somewhat detailed. A little longer if I’m going to add some color. I work rather quickly, even when I’m doing detail work, because I want to be able to keep moving on, want to catch the animal before he moves, and want to give other folks a chance at the good view.

    I also work quickly because I am not worried about the final image—I want information and if there are errors I can write notes. I just need to get the essence of something (as I understand it, with whatever skill level I have at the moment) down.

    If we look at something similar to the zoo sketching, output at the State Fair, I typically turn out 13 page spreads or journal cards in a 4 hour sketch trip.

    I will be the first to admit that I feed off the adrenaline of live sketching—this adrenaline comes from my sense of play and adventure. Will I get the animal before it moves, what am I seeing right now, and now, and now. Making it a game of sorts helps me stay focused in utterly chaotic circumstances and locations. And I just keep working and working. Before the conk on the head I could keep up a good head of steam for 3 hours at a time. Now my duration varies widely on a host of factors.

    I see sketching of this type as a mental, visual workout similar in many ways to distance running (which I no longer do). It produces the safe after effects in someways, except of course calorie consumption.

    I sketch out typically by myself, but I have to say that when I’m with others we all tend to move along at the same speed or agree to meet up with each other at various points—because everyone will not want to draw the same view all the time, that’s what’s so wonderful about sketch outs.

    And within the group of friends I have who sketch out there are those who sketch an entire scene on one page the entire time we are out, and I have my 9 pages. I’d love to have their one scene, but that’s just not me, so I keep chugging along.

    If 2 hours at a sketch out is not enough for you think about going an hour earlier and getting some more sketching under your belt or getting progress on that one sketch so that you can finish it when the group is ready to close up shop—so you can join in with the cake (which I’m assuming is what’s calling you away from your sketch) and the post sketch-out “discussions.”

    But if on the other hand there is just the frustration that you aren’t sketching the volume or scenes, etc. that others are sketching in the time, DON’T WORRY or even think about it. It is what it is. If you want to get faster (which believe me is not a good thing necessarily) then you will by practice, which means going out frequently for varying amounts of time—sometimes I run over to the zoo and just sketch for an hour because I need to see the puffins.

    The great thing about sketch outs is that they are not competitions. We are all sketching at whatever skill level we have, and getting enjoyment from that.

    You could always return on multiple days. Lots of plein air painters do that, returning at the same time of day each day to work on a painting in the same light.

    Practice will make you faster (if that’s your goal, and again, I don’t know that’s necessarily a good goal). I think the most important thing is how do you feel while you are sketching? Are you enjoying the pace at which you are working? If so, don’t worry about it. Is your media slowing you down (e.g., is the paper you use taking for ever to dry when you watercolor on it?)? If so maybe something simply like switching media will speed you up, again assuming that’s what you want.

    Believe me, when no cake is on offer at the end of a sketch crawl I often just move along to another point of interest and keep on sketching.

  4. Reply

    Roz! I LOVE that page.
    I have been reading and enjoying the John Busby book, which has made me begin gestural drawing of the birds outside my kitchen window in the morning. Pigeons and House Finches. I am in the very beginning stage and it makes me happy to get a semblance of bird-ness.
    I have made a date with my Man to go to the Zoo in Central Park to get into the aviary where the birds are tame. Sunday is the day. I am excited.
    Thank you for writing posts like this. You really are an inspiration.

  5. Reply

    Great (long!) answer, Roz. I so appreciate the thought you put into it.
    I think speed is a skill to have in the tool box. You make a good point, though, about considering whether improved speed is a skill to hone. “Fast” usually means less-well-observed for me. That can have its place, but the downside is that it can lead to a habit of rushed observation. I read somewhere recently a quote that said something like, “Practice doesn’t make perfect, it makes habit. If you’re practicing the wrong things over and over, you won’t get better.”

    Anyway, these are things to wrestle with, think about, and play with in sketching moments. I would like to be more nimble — that I know.

  6. Reply

    Melly, I’m so glad you are enjoying Busby and are sketching the birds around you. Pigeons and Finches are amongst my favorite birds. I had a longstanding friendship with a neighborhood pigeon I called JoJo, who was quite a character. (I think a cat finally got him, or a hawk.) I hope you have a great time at the Aviary!!! I will be imagining that I can come along too.

  7. Reply

    Karen, glad it helped. Fast is a relative term. For some folks fast is the blink of an eye and because they are trained they capture a lot. Other people can look and look and take their time and because they haven’t actively engaged their mind in observation they don’t get much. And then add into it all the speed of the hand, again practice.

    I think a good way to think of it is it’s like playing the piano. You practice and practice your scales and Hannon (is it Hanon, I can’t recall now) exercises and then you sit down and play a piece with fast and slow parts and it all comes together because you have the control in your fingers and you do what is required at the moment.

    Practice of the wrong thing does make bad habits so you want to be careful. If accuracy matters to you (and photo realism) than I recommend you go as slowly as you need to to maintain the accuracy you desire, and with time you’ll be able to speed it up as you desire, or not.

    But I think the most important thing is that you keep having fun with it, regardless of the pace.

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