Above: Quick sketch of one of the wandering turkeys in our neighborhood in my 7.75 x 9.75 inch Strathmore 500 Series Mixed Media Softcovered Journal. I scratched this out with a Faber-Castell Pitt Calligraphy Pen standing on the porch looking into the yard. Then I retired indoors to slap on some watercolor from memory. Instead of coloring the background with a flat use of color I added some splats of Montana Acrylic Marker to the background by squeezing drops of orange acrylic paint out of the nearly empty marker refill bottle and smooshed (a technical term) the drops all around with a paper towel. Finally I added splats of blue acrylic paint.
I live in Minneapolis, in the city. It's a residential area but there is nothing suburban about where I live. It is the city; it is near industrial and office buildings. It is adjacent to the University of Minnesota campus. And I'm less than a block away from the Mississippi River.
And that's why I have turkeys in my yard.
They wander up from the river flats, get bored with the groomed lawns of the U, and mosey on over to our neighborhood where we have a large fenced yard that is protected from all but aerial predators (we have a female red-tailed hawk who likes to sit in our trees). When the turkeys have reached a certain age and ability hopping the 5-foot fence is a piece of cake (and impressive to watch).
I've drawn a lot of turkeys. Some in the yard—sometimes while I am also in the yard, and sometimes while I'm standing in the small porch looking out at the yard. Some of the turkeys I've drawn have been at the Minnesota State Fair, or at local parks, and along the bike paths I frequent. The last is a difficult drawing situation for me as I'm usually too shaky from peddaling hard to make more than a squiggle for a line. But if I'm not just off my bike I can usually hold my excitement in check and get a reasonable likeness.
I can do this, even when my subject is moving all around in my yard, because I've had a lot of time to look at a lot of turkeys and work on my visual memory of them. And because I take every opportunity to field sketch them!
What I end up getting in these situations, like today, is not necessarily an accurate portrait of an individual (though sometimes I'm able to include specifics that indicate an individual), but is an impression of the creature in the moment—me looking at the bird, and the bird looking back—an impression of what it feels like to me to see this creature.
It doesn't matter to me that the nostril might be too long, the bumps too blue with not enough brown. I make these decisions each time the bird returns to a pose, or by watching it in another pose, extrapolating what the part I was drawing looks like based on the new angle presented as the animal walks away. (If you don't startle them turkey's walk away slowly and turn frequently so you can work on different parts of your drawing and return to specific bits each time they present that bit.
So the accuracy isn't of paramount importance to me in these situations, it's what my eye saw at the moment and what my mind could retain.
Overtime I find that I've retained more and more, and that for me is the fun of sketching animals from life.
There are still days when I sketch a live animal from a distance, in zero time, and seem to get everything wrong, but I remember what the goal is—to observe as best I can; to consider a proportion here and there, a line, a slope, an angle; to see some value shifts; and to breathe in the same space with something wild, other, and alive.
I remember all that when a drawing doesn't quite come out the way I'd hoped. I'm grateful that an opportunity presented itself. I feel good about taking the time, putting something down on paper. It doesn't matter if I get a recognizable head on the page, or focus on the feet, or pay intense attention to a feather pattern (or a fur pattern—we're visited by squirrels, groundhogs, muskrat, raccoons, opposums…even a skunk once). It only matters that I get something down on paper.
Each piece I do brings me closer to my goals of keener observation and translation. Each piece is a necessary and welcome step towards that goal.
I encourage you to sketch from life whenever possible, even if it is only for a couple moments—those moments add together over time. And in the meantime you have a record of how you are spending your time.
Note: It's an obvious advantage to sketching when one of the largest birds alive comes to hang out in your yard, but you can do the same approach with smaller birds by carefully positioning feeders to attract birds you want to sketch so that you can get a lot closer to your smaller subjects.