5 Steps to Better Bird Drawing

yellow warbler (dendroica petechia)

If you want to take your birding experience to another level (as if simply identifying fall warblers or 4-year gulls at a city dump weren’t challenging enough), try drawing them. Why not just take a photo and move on, you ask? Digiscoping is the fabulous, hot new thing, and I heartily and enviously applaud everyone who’s taken this up, hoping they will teach me how sometime soon. But there are a few good reasons to go low-tech here, and I covered some of them in an earlier post. One reason I put down the camera and picked up the sketchbook was simply practical: I was chasing birds in tropical, wet, dense, dark habitats with bad light and uncooperative subjects. I had a Nikon FM2 manual with a 500mm mirror lens mounted on a monopod, which doubled as a walking stick on muddy trails. With a lot of practice, I managed to get some fairly bad pictures. And use up a LOT of film. Then in Palenque, Chiapas, I had the good luck to run into a real bird artist, Sophie Webb, who was then illustrating Steve Howell’s Birds of Mexico. She showed me her sketchbook and that was that. I had to learn how to draw birds on the hoof. Here’s how you can do it, too.

fruit pigeon
1) Establish Familiarity. Start with the birds you know, even if it’s a pigeon in the park. Whatever’s on your feeder, watch it carefully, predict how it’s going to move, when it’s going to fly, how the head fits on the body. Does it have a small head and a fat body? Does it have a round, fluffy little body with a relatively large head? Pick out one bird and get used to it.

Northern Cardinal
2) Learn Some Basic Anatomy. Almost every field guide out there has a schematic drawing of a generic bird, with all the parts labeled. Find out how a wing is constructed, where the hips should be, what the legs are doing when the bird is perched, and when it’s standing. Do a kitchen dissection: buy a fresh, whole chicken at your local supermarket and cut it up, noting where the joints are, how the wings fold, how the whole thing is built. It’s the basic blueprint for almost every bird and quite a few therapod dinosaurs. Then cook and enjoy.

American Goldfinch

3) Practice Short-term Memory Storage and Retrieval. You want to start by “freeze-framing” a mental image of your bird. Don’t worry about anatomy, accuracy, species, or making a pretty drawing. Just look, “snap” a picture in your mind’s eye, squeeze your eyes shut, and STOP LOOKING AT THE BIRD. Instead, look straight down at your paper and stare at the blank page, conjuring up the quick little snapshot out of your retinal area, until you see it floating on the paper. It will only be there a moment. Move your pencil through and around it, and get it down before it’s gone.

Red capped Manikin

4) Draw An Egg. I’m not kidding. Someone showed me this a long time ago, as a joke, but secretly I kept that advice close to my heart. If you don’t know where to start, draw an egg. That’s where birds come from, right? Most of them are roughly shaped like one, too. An egg with a round head and a couple of legs sticking out at the bottom. If you’re frozen in fear of drawing, get the hand loosened up with some nice, easy ovals. Draw an egg.

Snowy Egret gesture drawings

5) Work Fast. Your bird isn’t going to wait around for you, probably. Unless it’s in a cage and even then you can’t count on it. To capture the lively quality of a bird all you really want is a loose bit of gesture. Don’t get bogged down in details.

That should get you started, now go draw!

Update (June 2011)- many new bird drawings from this spring’s migration in New England. And if you fancy warblers, please click here.

59 thoughts on “5 Steps to Better Bird Drawing

  1. Sara Simoes says:

    I hope I can start praticing bird drawing in the next couple of monthes and I will keep your suggestions in mind. Thank you for sharing your knowledge!
    Sara Simoes (Portugal)

  2. Rick Feathers says:

    Your post was very insightful. I enjoyed step 2 about studying the bird’s anatomy. I am a realistic artist who enjoys drawing ducks but I always just looked at photographs. Again, very insightful. Thanks

  3. Helen says:

    I, I’ve linked to this post and included one of the drawings for the blog entry, edited to add a copyright symbol. Would you let me know if this is okay? I can’t find your contact information.

    I’m sure my readers will enjoy your site – thanks for sharing your tips!




  4. wrjones says:

    What a wonderful post. Now I have butterflies in my stomach wanting to get out to draw birds.

    You should consider teaching a workshop. You could have a day of drawing model (mounted birds), a day of instruction as above, and perhaps a couple of days in the field drawing from life.

  5. zeladoniac says:

    I’ve done a little teaching, nature drawing and journaling. I recently did a short session on bird drawing as part of a broader course, where we used slides to draw from, and I realized to do it right it ought to be a full day lesson or longer devoted just to birds. I like the ideas you mentioned- mounted birds are a good way to go, and so are captive subjects. Someone mentioned a cageful of budgies?

  6. wrjones says:

    I’ve wondered if it might make a good teaching tool to video a location that has a lot of bird activity. You could then show the video on a large screen and multiple students could draw as if from life. The changing bird positions and lighting would be a challenge but you have the option of replaying/pausing to make a point.

  7. zeladoniac says:

    That’s a great idea. I could film out my studio window aimed at the feeder- there’s always lots of activity out there. I’ve taken people out to the zoo to draw captive birds (cranes, swans, ducks) in large open enclosures. Big, slow-moving birds are good starting points. Sleeping birds are the best.

    Now I’ll have to put together a course and find a place to teach it!

  8. cantueso says:

    Some people here (in Spain) made a little book about the most common birds and drew and hand-wrote in their explanations. Maybe I should try and scan some typical page and send it to you for you to see. They drew the bird and where it lives (the landscape or the barn or the pond) and how it nests, all.

  9. Jean L says:

    This is a wonderful drawing tutorial. I’m just starting out with art, this will be a great help. With tutorials like yours available, learning to draw should be great fun. Thanks!

  10. John Martin says:

    I am a 57 year old Widlife photographer, I have been didiscoping for about three years and I am considered a passable watercolourist of local wildlife.
    My computer is rarely used for anything other than image manipulation and I have only recently connected to the internet.
    Now I have found your site

    Fantastic, inspiration content.

    Thanks. John (United Kingdom)

  11. Carol says:

    i can draw all his.i xan also draw anime and other stuff..if u see my drawing I KNOW u might think its drawn by a pro but its not I DREW it and im 11 (almost 12)

  12. zeladoniac says:

    John- the drawings were done quickly, probably a couple of minutes each. I started drawing them while the bird was still there and completed them from the image I was holding in my mind’s eye over the next minute or so. Also you can fill in details after you get the basic bird down. Get that pose and gesture on the paper, then if the bird’s still around, look carefully and see what details you’ve missed, and if any proportions might need correcting. Good luck with your drawing!

  13. laura starrett says:

    I always admire drawings and paintings of birds, and wonder how people do it! This post is a great guide: makes me think I might be able to do it too!! I live in a great place for birdwatching, at the southern tip of New Jersey, where migrating birds stop to rest before continuing their journey.

  14. bigniche says:

    These lessons are so helpful – thanks for sharing them. Would you be willing to allow me to list your blog on my own art blog? I teach drawing and other art classes, and I think my students would love your works and your lessons. Thanks much!

  15. betty says:

    Hi thanks for this post I was really needed a picture of a bird! Im a terrible drawer I really learnt alot Im now studing art in college and it all started with this. Thanks a

  16. Sue says:

    Thank you so so so so much for the drawing lesson!!!
    Now I can put together my two best loves, drawing and birds.

  17. Iddi says:

    I actually almost cried, your drawings capture the birds’ movements perfectly! I literally stopped breathing as I looked at the pictures. 😀 Amazing.

  18. Cathy Hall says:

    I was wondering if you would be so kind to contact me concerning one of your beautiful bird drawings. Thank you.

  19. Crazy Girl says:


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