Tag Archives: John Muir Laws

Nature Journaling at Year’s End

Update. Well, at least now we know why all the dead birds at Radio Road that day: an outbreak of avian cholera. Apparently the pond is going to be drained for a few months, to kill the bacteria.

Updated. What a way to start the year! My apologies if the version you saw included unfinished links.

It was a great way to finish the year: A field trip with the Nature Journal Club to Radio Road in Redwood City to watch and sketch shorebirds. About 20 birders and sketchers joined John Muir Laws on this unseasonably warm day near the sewage treatment ponds.

Avocets Napping, sketch by Stephanie Benedict
Avocets Napping by Stephanie Benedict. Sketch. Graphite and watercolor on paper, 5″ x 8″. Trying my hand at sketching live birds–and at using watercolors! (And yes, that’s a seagull in there.)

The (Bay Area) Nature Journal Club is a group of sketchers who take monthly trips to, well, sketch nature. But there’s a twist: they’re out to learn, too. I had only been to one other NJC event, a whale watching trip in Monterey Bay last October, so I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. Laws gave an introduction and a primer to sketching ducks, and he asked the “bird nerds” (which included me) to introduce people to the kinds of birds on the pond.

Sewage treatment ponds are havens for waterfowl. There were both kinds of teal, pintail, widgeon, ruddy ducks, canvasback—even a few Eurasian widgeon, rarities for the Bay Area. And that doesn’t include the flocks of avocet, dowitchers (probably short-billed), snowy egrets, cormorants; and the gulls and passerines and raptors who flew by. I also spotted some birders with very large camera lenses lurking about.

After our introduction, we sketched and shared a potluck lunch, showed one another our journals—with Laws encouraging us to sketch beyond the birding-book profile view—then sketched and shared some more. Seeing other’s work is always helpful. Some had focused on drawing heads very well; others had worked on an individual bird. I worked on sketching the birds I don’t normally see when I go out in the Central Valley, where I live.

We ended the day with an examination of the feather structure on a cooperative dead pintail that Laws found, and a comment that the individuals who do the most to protect waterfowl habitat are actually hunters, through both their duck stamp purchases and organizations like Ducks Unlimited. He’s right: too often birders don’t provide the monetary support needed to protect habitat. “[Leaving] only footprints” doesn’t help protect habitat from development.

The bright sunny day did have its shadows. The surrounding neighbors threatened to have our cars towed when we went to their (public) park for lunch. And the pintail was not the only carcass we saw; there were a number of dead birds in the pond. One birder said there were an unusual number of carcasses that day. No one could say why. They had not been shot by hunters; predators would have eaten them. Disease? Toxins? Last summer I saw an account of many birds in the Klamath National Wildlife Refuge being killed by some disease, and I wondered if something similar was at work here. The drought we’re having is likely to exacerbate any contagious or vector-borne illness, so that’s even more reason to hope for rain in the new year.

Still, I’m glad I went. Jack Laws and the Nature Journal Club are onto something, getting people out observing nature and turning their observations into art.

How did you finish out the year?

 

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The Laws Guide to Drawing Birds

A friend’s recent question—“why don’t you put birds in your paintings?”―led me to find one of the best books I’ve seen for drawing birds: The Laws Guide to Drawing Birds, by John Muir Laws.

The Laws Guide to Drawing Birds, cover illustration
The Laws Guide to Drawing Birds, by John Muir Laws. ©2012 John Muir Laws. Illustrations used by permission

Artists typically study human anatomy in figure drawing classes, studying skeletons and musculature to inform their work. After all, we are hard-wired to know when an arm is too long. But few classes teach how to draw animals, and few books are as clear as this one.

With simple, clear instructions and wonderful examples, Laws takes you through all the steps you need to learn to draw birds accurately and quickly. AND he warns you about common mistakes, such as making the head too large.

Laws starts with the basics, of course: getting posture and angles, the proportion, head position, and angles. Only then does he go into shading and, finally, color. (The cover illustration is a good example of his process.)

Then the book goes on to bird anatomy, birds in flight, using negative space, field sketching, and materials. And he offers lots of tips. Here’s an example:

?©2012 John Muir Laws.  Used by permission
This image highlights the duck’s shoulder. See how the duck balances its mass in the water?©2012 John Muir Laws. Used by permission

This image, of a duck in water, highlights where the duck’s shoulder is, to help you get the feathers right. I also see it as helping balance that duck in the water, by showing how the mass is distributed.

He shows you how to make a frame to draw birds in flight, how to get heads and bodies in perspective, and how to use negative space to draw those curvy necks on herons.

Laws encourages everyone to sketch nature in the field. “The most important part of field sketching,” he writes, “is not the drawing itself, but the focus that it brings to your observations and the strengthened memories that emerge from drawing what you see.” And he offers more tips on his website and blog.

And, perhaps best of all, he runs the Bay Area Nature Journal Club, “a diverse community of artists and naturalists, of all levels, who meet together to connect to nature through art.” It’s a free program with monthly workshops on sketching nature, wildflowers, and birds. Makes me wish I lived closer to the Bay Area—maybe I’ll join them some time when they do a trip to the East Bay.

Wren in Flight ©2012 John Muir Laws.
Can’t you just hear the whirr of this wren’s wings? ©2012 John Muir Laws. Used by permission

“If you just see a blur of wings, draw the blur.”

I love it!

Why don’t I put birds into my paintings? That’s a topic for another post.

Do you like to sketch nature?