How To Draw a Bird

How To Draw a Bird

A new guide to bird drawing inspires a deeper connection with nature.

By Julie Leibach/Illustrations by John Muir Laws
Published: November-December 2012

What comes next depends on what you want to focus on--individual feathers or markings, perhaps an eye, maybe the patterns of light and dark from plumage and shadows. Understanding birds' general anatomy, discussed in Laws's book, will help you make sense of your observations. But the key to field sketching is to draw what you see, and not what you think should be there. For example, even if you know that birds have three forward-facing toes but only one is visible, "you can just draw one toe," says Amanda Krauss, an artist and fellow student in my class who has had trouble rendering bird feet. "It was like a lightbulb went off for me." 


Nature sketching guides abound, but where birds are concerned, Laws thinks his fills a void. "Some books will have illustrations that are really inspiring," he says, but they don't explain how the drawings are made. "I wanted to really deconstruct what is happening when I make my lines, where I'm looking, where I suggest that people focus."

He's breaking new ground, says Hannah Hinchman, a nature journalist and artist who once taught Laws in a workshop and reviewed an early draft of his book. "There's nothing static," she says. "He just refuses to see these mobile, fluid birds as objects. He sees them as alive, and that's the way they come across on the page."

Drawing outside is crucial to creating a realistic bird in two dimensions. The easiest species may even be one that's most accessible, like your backyard cardinal or house finch. As you observe, jot down notes in addition to sketching, and ponder out loud, asking yourself questions such as, "What does this bird remind me of?" or "I wonder why it has markings like that?" (At Bolinas, one classmate suggested that a flock of swimming cormorants resembled Phoenician ships.) While the very act of drawing helps solidify a memory, verbalizing what you're seeing ingrains it that much more. Should the bird fly off, you'll still have a few details in mind to flesh out your drawing.

Sketching outdoors will also help you achieve what Laws considers one of the most important goals in drawing birds: forging a more meaningful connection with nature. In other words, don't aim for the perfect picture; you'll only get frustrated if it doesn't turn out right. Instead, draw to observe more deeply and to remember those precious moments removed from the mechanized world. The more focused you are on experiencing what you're seeing, the less you'll care about your masterpiece, and "that frees you up to make lots of drawings," says Laws. As a pleasant by-product, "the more you draw, the better it gets." 

I'm still learning the ropes. My snowy egret is hardly a mirror image, but now I know that I can ignore my inner art critic--a liberating concept. Even so, establishing a drawing habit is hard; I've practiced a few times since my class. On one gorgeous, mild day in May I visit a lake near my Brooklyn apartment. Spying several mute swans, I settle down with my sketchpad near a tree. I notice how one bird's neck fluidly recoils like a snake, and I admire the species' dramatic, inky eyeliner. A man and a boy study the way one swims--something I see, too, marveling at its feet like built-in paddles. I'm reminded of what Laws told me: "If you can get yourself to slow down and appreciate that bird, for whatever it has new to teach you, the wonders that you're going to see in even the most common things are infinite." How could I resist?

MORE: Learn how to pack a grab-and-go field sketching kit here.

This story originally appeared in the November-December 2012 issue as "Sketch Artist."

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Julie Leibach

Julie Leibach is managing editor of and a former Audubon senior editor. Follow her on Twitter: @JulieLeibach

Type: Author | From: Audubon Magazine


This fellow is a true genius.

This fellow is a true genius. I have heard him lecture several times and I have his books on The Sierras, the Sierra Birds (which is included in the Sierra Guide, and How to Draw Birds. He's just wonderful.

My goal for 2014 is to draw a

My goal for 2014 is to draw a bird a day! Laws book has really helped with proportion. Can now draw birds in action positions. Thanks for the great resource.

Hi Julie, Great article. I

Hi Julie,

Great article. I wanted to give you a heads up that the link to the grab-and-go sketch kit is broken. Feel free to delete this comment once it's fixed. Thanks!

Found thi s discussion on how

Found thi s discussion on how to drawa bird interesting!Sat, Jan 26


Hello, James and Matthew,

Thank you for taking the time to write. Taking Jack's (John) class certainly helped me see birds in a new--and better--way. I'm very grateful for the experience. James, I'm sure you'll love the book.


Laws Guide to Drawing Birds

Just wanted to say I enjoyed the article and information. I attended an Ornithology class a few months ago and realized I could improve my sketching skills. I found the book on Amazon and look forward to receiving it on Saturday. I know what I'm doing this weekend:)

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