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  • Writer's pictureConor O' Connell

How I draw birds for painting

I haven't written a blog post for quite a while, due to both busyness and laziness equally! When I'm out sketching it just seems a lot of trouble to be trailing a camera and tripod around, and when I get the notion to make a step-by-step blog entry of a painting, before I know it I have the painting three quarters finished, having only taken one or two photos at the start! Perhaps if a decent crowd began to look at the blog it would give me that kick that I probably need, so if you're interested, please take the time to sign up.

This is a blog entry that I've been meaning to write for some time. The title says it all really. A phrase I hear all the time when discussing my art with people, even my own family, is 'I wouldn't know where to start'! 'Where do you even begin'? Now, I'm not blowing my own trumpet here- I can definitely understand it, as I used to ask those exact same questions when looking at the work of an artist I admired. In fact I probably still do. As I've demonstrated landscape before, this post will concern my bird paintings only, and will look at how I sketch out any given bird painting prior to putting paint to paper.

This isn't really a tutorial by the way- it's more concerned with sharing how I personally start off a painting, but hopefully people will pick up plenty of tips.

Obviously when starting off a painting I need two things- a blank sheet of paper/canvas, and a pencil, the lighter the better (usually 2H). A lighter pencil makes lines less visible and easier to erase/paint over. Please be aware that the drawings here are drawn with a dark pencil for the camera, they'd normally be a lot lighter.

I'll usually have a reference in the shape of sketches and/or photographs, but I rarely paint a carbon copy of these, they're only references. It's no fun for me to paint a copy of a photo. No, I have learned quite quickly to be able to freely draw my bird subjects in any position I want, due in part to observation and study, but mostly (80%) to a very simple understanding of how a bird works. I have devised a three part process for all this, and it really is basic, simple stuff. So let's get going.

Three things which I remember when sketching out birds are: The Two Circles, The Four Points, and the 3D Effect.

To make some sense of that, here's a basic diagram. And when this diagram is properly understood, drawing birds becomes as easy as drawing two circles and a few lines. Actually, it's just that! Here's the first part of the diagram:

It's a roast chicken. I know it doesn't look very much like a bird now, but put that chicken back together...

All I have used here is two steps- the 'two circles' (head and body), and the 'four points'. The two circles needs little explaining, it's basically just that. A slightly ovular circle for the body, and a smaller circle for the head. The four points, on the other hand, need just a little more fleshing out. It's basically just a simple way of explaining where each part goes and how they move- the neck, wing, legs and tail. These points can be seen as the dots on the diagram below, which may be simpler to understand.

The neck always attaches to the body at the top, as shown, not in the middle as you may think. The neck obviously attaches to the head. The neck is virtually always in some sort of 's' curve. I think of it simply as a wire attaching the head to the body. It can be extended or shortened, but it always has a slight 's' curve to it, like a snake. Obviously necks can be shorter or longer depending on the species.

The legs have two bones, just like us. The thigh and the shin, to avoid getting scientific. Most of us are familiar with the thigh, the 'drumstick'. In life, however, the bird's shinbone attaches onto the end of the drumstick, as shown in the second last diagram. The thigh attaches, and pivots, in the dead centre of the body. Obviously there's no need to draw the thigh as it won't be seen but it helps to understand. Both leg bones together form a kind of sideways 'v' shape. The shin, or simply 'leg' (as that's all of the leg we see) is more often than not at a slight angle forward, as the diagram shows, and always at the opposite angle to the thigh.

Maybe I've gone and over-complicated that: the main point to remember when drawing birds is the point where the leg/foot 'connects' to the body as we see it, as shown in the above diagram. Make this point slightly off-centre towards the tail.

The tail is simple. Like the neck, the tail attaches fairly near the top of the body and not in the middle. The tail simply pivots up or down on the point shown.

The wings are simple once understood. All we generally see on a standing/sitting bird are the wing feathers sticking out, but it helps to understand how they work. Again, there are two bones, basically the 'upper arm' and 'fore arm'. A bird's skeleton is remarkably similar to our own. Simply think of the wings as one of your arms put into a position as if you're about to elbow someone. Angle your wrist down, then imagine your fingers are incredibly long and feathered. That's it really. This diagram helps to explain it:

Now I never had all of that explained to me that simply; I had to learn by observation, mostly through taxidermy. This was very effective for simplifying it actually, as it entailed making an oval body from foam, marking the four points on that foam body, then attaching the legs, neck, wings and tail to it using wires.

Anyway, once I got the grasp of all of the above, it became simple to draw and position birds on paper whatever way I wanted. Here's how:

The 'two circles' for the body and head are drawn. I keep an eye on photographs just to make sure the head is the right size, and in the right place. Often the neck isn't really seen, but it helps to understand where it is under those feathers. After all, it probably hasn't disappeared.

Now it's simply just a matter of joining these circles up.

With my knowledge of where the wings, legs, tail go, the points, I lightly put these in. Remember the legs are always at a slight angle forward. Checking my references if I have any, I define the head a little more and put in the beak in the right position.

(Looking at this now, the leg point should actually be slightly further back, but anyhow).

It's important to check the position of the eye relative to the beak and the head. When this is determined, mark it in.

Now that the general shape has been drawn in, I use a very effective method which I call the '3D Effect'. It's basically lightly drawing a series of lines that follow the curves of the body, in fact a bit like a wire frame onto which I'll put feathers etc later. I find this hugely aids me later on when I'm painting or drawing in the plumage- it's easy to work hard on a painting only to step back and see that it looks 2D and flat. These 'guide lines' help me to avoid falling into this trap- I'm able to see the '3D-ness' (if that's a word) of the bird from the get-go.

See the difference? And that's how I draw birds on the page for painting later. Of course if I was just drawing birds with pencil, charcoal etc, I would do the exact same, then come in and begin to put the detail in. I won't be showing that stage here. 'Detail' is a scary word to some. However for me, 90% of mistakes when drawing or painting happen in these initial 'roughing out' stages, when drawing in the bare bones, and not later on when painting feather detail, etc. It's the same for most people, I'd imagine. If I make a mistake when painting the feathers, etc, it still looks like a bird , because it was properly drawn out in the first place. The painting, which seems the most difficult part for non-artists, is basically only 'colouring in'.

Have a look at some more below. I stress again that my pencil lines are dark for the camera, but in reality these would be drawn a lot lighter.

Pay attention to the initial two circles, drawn in red on the right hand images.. If I told anyone that I start every one of my bird paintings with two simple circles, they wouldn't believe me, yet here it is:

Thanks for looking, hopefully a few people got something out of this. Sign up to this blog for more. Also feel free to check out the wide range of wildlife and landscape art on my website. Conor O'Connell

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