Drawing Birds From Life?

Recently I spent the day with my sister at Zealandia. I’ve painted birds and drawn them in coloured pencils from photographs, but drawing birds from life?!

I’ve wanted to draw birds from life for a few months now. Working from photos is stimulating and rewarding because I never do exact copies, there is still that sense of the outcome remaining a mystery till the end, but in my experience there is nothing as vital as drawing from life.  But birds? Yikes, they’re always moving, in fact they’re always flying away!

We decided to draw birds at Zealandia. How beautiful it is, with its winding tracks through the bush and the shifting hues of the lake. We stopped to draw the shags perched on a dead branch by the shore. They didn’t fly away but they moved; they preened, twisting their necks at impossible angles, flexed their splendid wings (all those feathers!!) and dived in and out of the water.

None of them stayed still for longer than a few seconds. My sense is you’ve got to be quick drawing birds from life; you have to draw at lightning speed!

I’ve drawn people from life in all kinds of circumstances so I do have a strategy – to begin with, I look more at the object than the paper and let the pencil move with the movement of the subject. No need to fret about the outcome… this is a moment by moment intimate engagement with bird life; not something I’m trying to achieve. The more I do this, the more familiar I become with the shape of shag and I begin to build a visual memory. In time, I get a visual impression that remains in my mind as a picture for long enough to draw it. Here are my first attempts at drawing birds from life – I know I have a way to go!

We saw kaka, tui, a tiny grey robin, wood pigeons, two, big tuatara with dragon tails and a brown teal tucked up in a grassy nook. Mostly they were either flying in the trees or eating at the feeding stations, surrounded by people, so we didn’t draw anymore birds. We did draw some bush as we waited for the boat to take us over the lake, for a close up view of the shags.

The boat sits low in the water, so you’re almost at their eye level. One swam straight towards us, dived, and its little sleek head appeared within half a metre of the boat. It gazed at me momentarily with its jade eyes in that direct way of wild things, and then dived again, a dark shadow merging with the shadows of the water.

I will go again, I feel as though I’ve dipped my toe in “drawing birds from life” and I’m utterly enthralled about the possibilities. I live by lakes frequented by water birds, so in the meantime I can draw Canadian geese, paradise ducks, pukekos, the occasional grey heron and a white spoonbill with its bizarre beak and up town hair – do. My New Year resolution!


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