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Sketching Birds from Life : Video Demonstration

October 20, 2015

This summer I had the opportunity to make a series of sketching videos with ArtistsNetwork.TV – the video arm of my book publisher North Light Books. Art Net has a giant library of 4000+ videos showing artists-at-work in all media and styles. You can sign up for a monthly ‘all you can watch’ subscription – or, pick up just my videos individually on DVD or by Digital Download.

Here’s the trailer for the first episode on sketching birds from life.

We made all four videos in the Cincinnati area, each on a different field sketching topic – travel sketching, drawing panoramas, and sketching life on the street.


My editor at ArtNet managed to arrange a visit to Raptor Inc – a bird rescue facility near Cincinnati – where we spent the day drawing three fascinating animals: a Great Horned Owl, a Turkey Vulture, and a Falcon.

I took on each bird with a different approach, so I could demonstrate three ways I like to draw. Basic pen and ink drawing, then color washes over a water soluble drawing, and finally a sketch in watercolor – drawing directly with the brush.

I have had a previous opportunity to sketch birds from life. But it had been a while since then. It’s very different from sketching museum mounts. Birds move in their own strange ways, that are not immediately easy to draw when we’re used to drawing people.

Every time I do a workshop or a demonstration, I like to get out and do some practice work. So here’s a chance to show you the behind-the-scenes stuff I did to get warmed up. These drawings that follow are not done live in the video – they were for my own practice, and to have examples to show my thinking when I arrive on location.


The basic approach to sketching a bird is the same as any other subject. If you start with a very loose approximation of the silhouette (in pencil), it’s much easier to add details over that guideline. If you were to try and go right to the final drawing, starting with the beak and working downward, very often you’re going to develop problems with proportion. Small errors accumulate, and you end up with the head too big, or the feather patterns misplaced. By making big round shapes that describe masses – the head, the body, and the wings – I can adjust these simple pencil lines and know that they are right – (erasing if necessary) – so the permanent details that follow in ink are going to work out.


There is an indoor tropical greenhouse at the Montreal Biodome. They have parrots flying freely among the trees. This seemed like the best chance for me to observe birds in motion. They fly from perch to perch in a bit of a loop around the area. With a little patience, you can follow them around and collect sketches.

I wanted to practice with multi-tasking – working on more than one sketch at a time. When drawing animals (or people), you’ll find they tend to repeat behaviors. Taking a certain pose for a few moments then moving – but, after a while returning to the same, or similar postures.


Because I’d done some warm up drawings, I was able to relax and have fun with these poses. Going straight into ink. You’ll find the pencil stage helpful for a while – and I do it whenever I’m feeling rusty. You’ll know when you don’t need it anymore. If it starts to feel like the pencil is a chore that’s only slowing you down – then it’s time to try going straight to pen!


You might have noticed the small notes around the sketches. That’s me jotting down the colors in the feathers. It was too crowded in the greenhouse for me to paint on the spot – so I was making notes, and going out to the cafe to paint. Then back inside to sketch some more. I do this sort of thing in any place that doesn’t permit paints – like a museum or courtroom – or when I’m pressed for time.


The thing that I find the most fun about animals – they have such variety of shape and color. People, by and large, are all the same :) All our individual features and skin colors are within a fairly narrow range. Not like the amount of variation you’ll see between animals. The key to each bird is learning its silhouette with your practice drawings.



This is all the stuff that was fresh in my mind when we arrived at Raptor Inc. Maybe you’ll enjoy seeing me do it under the eye of the camera. The next best thing to coming to an Urban Sketchers conference!

It’s interesting to see the drawings come together from beginning to end. And a fun challenge for me. I had to do it right the first time and still keep up an interesting conversation. I enjoy doing these ‘performance drawings’, and hope I’ll get the chance to do more. So – thanks in advance to anyone who checks out the videos.

If you end up with any questions – these are not interactive like my Craftsy classes – so feel free to email me with questions.


9 Comments leave one →
  1. October 20, 2015 4:46 PM

    That was fascinating, Marc. Thanks for taking the time to share your knowledge and insights.

  2. October 20, 2015 7:16 PM

    Brilliant! I love tropical houses, bird rescue centres etc, but have rarely had the opportunity to sketch . Maybe I should try harder!

  3. October 20, 2015 7:36 PM

    Very helpful pointers – thanks for your generosity. Beautiful sketches. Time for me to visit the animal rescue zoo in my town.

  4. M E Cheshier permalink
    October 20, 2015 7:46 PM

    Wow, these are fabulous sketches and very helpful. Thanks!

  5. M E Cheshier permalink
    October 20, 2015 7:47 PM

    Reblogged this on Travels with Mary and commented:
    Fabulous sketches and very helpful!

  6. lmnavroth permalink
    October 23, 2015 12:22 PM

    I ordered the download of this–it’s awesome and I got some great tips from it. I’ve done a lot of bird paintings, mostly from photos I take. But this opens up a whole new avenue for sketching. Question on materials: what ink are you using in your fountain and brush pens? I’ve tried like 5 different black inks, and none of them are completely waterproof (even a couple that claimed they were). While this is nice for some tonal effects, it doesn’t work for watercolor washes over the ink lines.

    I’ll be downloading more of your videos soon–they very nicely done!

    • October 23, 2015 3:08 PM

      Hey Imna – thanks! Glad you got some good tips :)
      Yes, so, the Ink I use for waterproof drawing is “Platinum Carbon”. It’s a micro-pigment ink which is very reliably waterproof.
      Also – I have all my drawing supplies listed on these two pages – you might find these helpful: Drawing: and Painting:

      • lmnavroth permalink
        October 23, 2015 4:44 PM

        Thank you! I have heard about that ink but wasn’t sure it was appropriate to use in the fountain and brush pens, due to the many warnings I’ve read that it can clog the pens up (especially the fountain pen). I’ll buy another Kuretake brush pen and load that with the waterproof ink!

        • October 23, 2015 6:09 PM

          I haven’t had any problems with clogged pens – might be the ones I use are not finicky. Also i do end up cleaning them every so often – just to change colors.

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