Drawing birds with Jack Laws

By Ilana DeBare

John Muir “Jack” Laws, a Golden Gate Bird Alliance board member and author of several field guides, has a beautiful new book out this month, The Laws Guide to Drawing Birds. We sat down recently to speak with Jack about drawing birds — and why it is an activity not simply for “gifted artists” but for anyone who wants to heighten their appreciation of birds and nature.


Q: This has nothing to do with the book, but where did you get your name? As a naturalist, did you decide to take the name of John Muir? 

A:  That’s really what my mom and dad named me. The middle name Muir came from my great-grandmother on my dad’s side. And John, with the nickname Jack, came from my grandfather on my mom’s side.  But they were very aware of the way those two things came together. My mom was a Sierra Club lawyer and the two of them had spent a lot of time romancing in the Sierra Nevada.

The whole time I was growing up, I thought I must be related to John Muir. I grew up reading his stories (of) climbing trees in windstorms and sliding down glaciers and all these other adventures. I definitely felt a connection.

Q: Most people feel, “I can’t draw.” Not just “I can’t draw birds,” but “I can’t draw anything.” Is that true? 

A: It is an incredibly powerful, pervasive myth. But it’s entirely false. The truth of the matter is that drawing is a skill, like learning how to make a bed. The more you do it, the better you get at it.

As adults, we don’t want to let ourselves do anything we’re not already good at. So we don’t give it a try. We don’t want to let ourselves stand briefly in that vulnerable place where we’re not already an expert. And so we miss out on a lot of really great opportunities.

Canada Warbler – sketch by Jack Laws

Q: But there are also differences in the level of potential. Wouldn’t you see a difference if you put Van Gogh and me in front of sketchpads?

 A: You listen to Mozart’s early stuff, and it’s not good. Then you look at what he does down the line, and wow! He’s put in his time.

If you start drawing on a regular basis for one year, at the end of that year, your friends will be turning to you and saying, “Oh my gosh, you’re so lucky to have that gift. I wish I could do that.”

If we say it’s a gift, that’s a way of getting off the hook because then we don’t have to try.

It used to be that all scientists were artists, because they had to draw pictures. And now they don’t.

Q: Suppose someone is already a birder. What will drawing birds add to his or her experience?

A: The impact of starting to draw birds as part of your process of being a birder is incredibly powerful. It will train you to observe in ways you have never observed before. You will look with more intensity, and notice subtlety and beauty in things that have been in front of your face for years.

Bohemian Waxwing – sketch by Jack Laws

You may have seen a female Pintail before, but until you have drawn her, you haven’t had the opportunity to really look long enough to fall in love.

We (often) stop observing when we can identify something. We think the purpose of looking at a bird is to figure out, “Who’s that?” Some people do take it a little further and notice some key behaviors, or what plumage it’s in, what part of the moult cycle.

But don’t stop there. Even with a bird you’ve seen a million times before – that House Finch in your yard – you can look in a way that allows you to see something new that you’ve never seen before. This happens to me all the time when I’m drawing.

In addition to helping you observe more, drawing will help you remember. The process of drawing forces your brain to do gymnastics – to take this information and bop it back and forth in complex pathways, and as a result, you’ll remember what you were looking at. It doesn’t matter if the drawing you get is a pretty picture or not. You’ll remember what you saw and the experience of sitting there drawing it.

Many people experience this when traveling, and bring a little notebook with them. They sit down on a hillside and do a sketch of a cathedral. The rest of the experiences around that moment can fade away, but the moments you’re sitting there with the sketchbook on your lap will be vivid in your memory forever.

Q: When did you start drawing birds? Were you a birder before you started drawing them, or did you draw other things first and then come to birds?

A: As a kid, I liked drawing. I got very interested in nature and started to want to record my observations. And being severely dyslexic, it was difficult for me to write down everything that I saw. And so making little diagrams and sketches was a very useful way of doing that. I found that I would remember things much better if I drew a little picture of it.

I’d bird my way home from school, and I’d be drawing as I did. My purpose was to learn the birds better, not necessarily to make a really good drawing. And that allowed me to make lots of drawings without being judgmental of myself. And that helps a lot. The more we can get that art critic off our back, the more we’re going to open ourselves up to using drawing as a naturalist tool, to help us observe.

Q: What are some basic drawing tips that a beginner should know?

The posture and proportions say "wren." Sketch by Jack Laws.

A: Think about the experience we’ve all had in drawing a person. You draw a perfect nose and a perfect eye and mouth, and you’re working your way down, and you finish by drawing the shoelace. And then you look back and it just doesn’t look right and you realize, “Oh my gosh, I made the head way too big!”

You realize at the end that there is some major proportional thing that is is wrong. The reason that happens is the part of your brain that takes in the big picture is actually a different part of your brain than is focusing on the details, and your brain can’t do them both at the same time.

If you start with the details, the big picture is going to come back and haunt you later. But if you start with the big picture —  the basic shape and proportions — then you can fill in the details on top of that.

If the basic shape is there, your drawing will feel like that bird. Look at the inside front cover of the old Peterson field guides and there are silhouettes. You can identify every one of those birds by its silhouette. That’s how important the shape is.

But we get so caught up in “this wing bar is here” and “this feather is overlapping over here,” we lose track of that shape. And if we lose that shape, no matter how many chickadee details we put in there, it’s not going to feel like a chickadee.

This bird feels like a Hooded Warbler, even without a lot of details. Sketch by Jack Laws.

Q: What’s your advice about working from photographs versus working from life? And if you’re working from life, what do you do when birds move, which they constantly do?

A: I recommend that people work from any materials they can get their hands on – from a dead bird that has hit a window, or from study skins [dead birds that a scientist has stuffed]. Often with taxidermied animals, the proportions are really distorted. There’s one local museum that has wonderful preserved birds you can sketch from, the Oakland Museum of California, which will soon be reopening its natural history hall.

Drawing from life is our opportunity to get out there and have direct personal encounters with wild, living nature.  Birds are going to be moving around, and that can be frustrating – if you are trying to do a bird portrait. Because the bird isn’t going to say, “Okay, this is now going to be a five minute pose.”

If we have bird portraiture in our head, drawing in the field can be very, very difficult. So we need to switch over to thinking about taking field notes: “I’m going to get down a bunch of sketches of bits and parts of things, and I may not get a complete head-to-toe rendering of this, but I can get parts of that information…. If it’s too difficult to draw this gull, maybe I can make a careful diagram of the shape of its bill.”

Rock Wren sketches by Jack Laws

I start to make a drawing of a bird and when the bird moves, I will start a new drawing of that (new) position. When the bird moves again, I start another drawing. Now I have three starts of drawings – if it comes back to a pose I started, I’ll jump back to that drawing and continue working on it.  And the drawing I get the furthest along on is the most characteristic posture of that bird.

Collecting little bits and pieces… getting multiple drawings going at the same time… I also encourage people to use both writing and drawing together. Some moments might be easier to capture with a few written words. Using both writing and drawing, you can record a tremendous amount of information about what you see. Also, if you have writing on your page it feels less like a precious art project.

Q: In the book you talk about process rather than product.

A: The goal of field sketching is to have a closer encounter with nature. It is not to make a pretty picture. If you make your goal creation of a pretty picture, you’ll get so wrapped up in making that pretty picture that you are going to spend more time erasing and feeling frustrated than anything else.

But if you make your goal to observe and notice and learn from nature, and see if you can discover something new, every drawing experience is going to be successful. That’s going to bring you back drawing again the next day.  We like to do what we’re successful at. So redefine success – it’s not the pretty picture. It’s having observed more deeply and gone more deeply into the beautiful world.

And an interesting side effect of that is because you’re making more drawings, you’re going to get better. And the pretty pictures will start to come.

Draw what you actually see, not what you think you’re supposed to see. Those drawings that are in the bird book – the artist isn’t walking in the field, seeing a Lincoln Sparrow, and putting that Lincoln Sparrow into the field guide. They’re walking out there in the field, they see the bird, they make tons of sketches in the field, they come back to their studio, they put all their sketches around their easel, they get a dead bird from the science museum, they get out all the photographs they can find, they put all this stuff together, and they make that picture which they then put into the field guide.

Q: Do you have a favorite bird to draw?

A: I am fickle in my love of birds and I often find that whatever it is I’m looking at is wonderful.

Right now,  I’m finding greater delight in a number of the subtler birds. We can all draw a Red-winged Blackbird and everyone will say, “Ah, that’s a Red-winged Blackbird.” We could do that with finger paint and someone would ID it. But how about a Warbling Vireo? How about a female Bunting? How about a Western Wood Peewee? Those subtle birds, for me, are really exciting right now. They are a real challenge to my ability to focus and observe.

There are others that are so striking that whenever I encounter them, I fall apart in the field. Magpies are one of those. I love everything that Magpies do.

I’m delighted every time I encounter a Belted Kingfisher – they’re outrageous, all angles and contrast and attitude, and so much fun. And they will pose for you. They’ll sit on that wire.


You can order a copy of The Laws Guide to Drawing Birds (Heyday Press) from Jack Laws’ web site,  or http://www.johnmuirlaws.com/store/drawing-birds-book. We also have copies for sale in the Golden Gate Bird Alliance office at 2530 San Pablo Avenue in Berkeley.

Jack Laws sketching in the field