Eye and Hand
Practical Art for Paddlers
Caught on the Fly — Sketching Animals and Birds
By Tamia Nelson
September 7, 2010
I heard the cries loud and clear above the roar of rushing water. I'd made my way to an island in The River, hoping to photograph tadpoles in a nursery pool. But they certainly weren't the ones making the racket. The caterwauling seemed to be coming from every point on the compass. So I climbed to the top of a rocky prominence to get a better look. And what did I see? At first, not a lot. The sun was in my eyes, and the water was a dazzling carpet of light. Then I saw an animal. An otter was bounding sinuously along the far shore. Suddenly it plunged into the swift current and began to swim upriver. That's when I discovered where the noise was coming from. Two frightened otter pups were stranded on a boulder in midstream. Eager to capture the unfolding drama, I began shooting photos, though I had little hope that I'd get anything more than glare for my efforts.
Soon Mom reached her wayward kids. After checking them over to be sure they were unscathed — they were — she began herding them across the fast‑flowing water to the safety of shore. Once on dry land again, she administered a little tough love, head‑butting one errant pup into a reluctant amble before grabbing his (her?) more recalcitrant companion by the scruff of the neck and dragging him bodily up the slope, where two less adventurous siblings waited patiently. A flurry of greetings followed, but before long the family were bounding along a little feeder brook, only to disappear into the shadows of the deep woods.
The whole episode lasted just two or three minutes, and I managed to get off quite a few shots with my camera. But as I'd suspected, the photos didn't turn out well. I was reminded once again that…
The Eye is Often Quicker than the Shutter
What do I mean? Just this: If I'd had a sketchpad in my hand instead of a camera, I'd probably have come away with a better record of the goings‑on in The River that day. Still, I managed to salvage some of my shots in my "digital darkroom," and even if they'll never make it into a juried gallery, I can use them as reference material for after‑the‑fact sketches. That said, there's really no substitute for capturing the moment as it happens. The simple act of putting pencil to paper sharpens my powers of observation as nothing else can. But this time around I missed my chance, and that was that. To make matters worse, it may well be my last glimpse of the otter family. Despite repeated return visits over the past several months, I've seen no further sign of any otters on this stretch of The River.
And the moral of my story? While the camera is a wonderful tool, it's not always the best tool for every job. That's especially true when your subject is moving fast and conditions are less than ideal: too much or too little light, pouring rain or swirling mist, blowing sand or driving sleet… The Mark I eyeball isn't so easily defeated. If you can see a critter, you can sketch it. It's not quite that simple, of course. You have to practice the art of observation. But practice does make perfect, and your field journal is a good place to start.
I won't try to fool you. Drawing animals and birds in the wild and on the fly is never easy. In all my "Eye and Hand" columns up till now, I've pretty much limited myself to subjects that can't run away. To be sure, trees and flowers move. They sway in the breeze. And water flows in response to gravity and wind. But these motions are more or less predictable. Not so with birds and animals. They dart about, moving from sunlight to shadow in an instant. Now you see 'em. Now you don't. So you'd better make the most of your chances. A hungry red squirrel strips a pine cone with astonishing speed, and chickadees flit from branch to branch in a never‑ending, rapid‑fire quest for food. Take your eyes off them for just a minute, and when you look again, they're gone. But take heart. You, too, can learn how to…
Sketch Without Looking
Without looking at the paper, that is. Keep your eyes on your subject, instead. Hold your pencil loosely in your fingers — you're sketching, after all, not engraving — and scribble away, recording what you're seeing, in real time, as you see it. Here's an example, sketched while I was looking out my office window:
It took all of three minutes, and I doubt that I glanced at the paper more than half a dozen times in total. I was too busy following the antics of a quizzical jay and a gluttonous squirrel, doing my best to capture their every pose. Of course, your initial efforts aren't likely to yield such recognizable forms. It's best to practice the art of "blind" sketching on inanimate objects first. But I'm betting you'll be astonished at how little time it takes to forge the vital eye–hand connection. It's also surprisingly tiring, however. So take a break between sessions by drawing from photos or sketching family pets. (This is a good time to let sleeping dogs lie.) Perching birds often permit a more leisurely approach, too. But the fundamentals don't change. Whether your subject is snoozing by the fire or flitting through the hemlocks, the critical elements are still…
Shape and Proportion
What shape is the head? The body? The tail? And how long is the tail in relation to the body? How long and wide is the head in comparison to the trunk? These are the questions you should ask yourself whenever you sketch birds and animals — and unless you're drawing caricatures, you should strive for accuracy. Let's use one of my river otter photos as an example. Here's mama rushing off to the rescue:
What shapes do you see, and what are the otter's proportions? I'll impose a grid over her body to help out:
The red lines outline the basic body forms. The yellow grid makes it easier to determine relative proportions. And what have we learned? Well, the otter's trunk is more than twice as long as her head, while her tapered tail is perhaps three‑quarters the length of her trunk. Anything else? Yes. Her legs are fairly short, but her feet are (comparatively) long, with her front limbs very near the center of her body (head plus trunk). Head and neck, taken together, are almost as long as her tail. Note the pronounced arch in the back just ahead of the rear legs, too.
Now here's a quick sketch, embodying the elements and proportions we've just discussed:
The grid is just an aid. Draw it in if it helps, but don't become dependent on it. I used a soft lead pencil in my rough sketch. It helps to capture the softness of the otter's fur. Then, after outlining her body, I erased the grid and set about filling in the finer details. The photo did a very poor job of capturing her feet, eyes, and ears, so I had to rely on my own observations — on the "emulsion of memory," if you like. If I'd made the sketch right at the scene, of course, that emulsion would have recorded an even sharper image. But I didn't. Luckily, the image in my mind's eye is still pretty fresh. It supplies what the camera missed. To suggest the speed of her frantic rush, however, I left her right hind foot as a blurry outline. And I drew her fur with short, overlapping strokes, varying the density to add depth and dimension to her body.
Finally, I sketched in a bit of the immediate surroundings:
I'm pleased with the result, though it's still a studio exercise. Of course, whenever you work from a photo, you can add as much detail as you like. When you're sketching rapidly in the field, however, you don't have this luxury. You have to concentrate on form and proportion. Shading can come later. And you can always pencil in foreground and background details after your subject has disappeared from sight. Job One is to sketch the essentials of the scene, as accurately as you can. The rest can wait.
Quick and dirty? Yes. But don't condemn this…
Instead, make a virtue of the need to work quickly. Less really is more here. The goal is simple: Capture the moment. That's what field sketching is all about. Speed of execution is paramount, and it comes only with practice. But it pays big dividends, particularly when you have a schedule to keep, a storm to outrun, or a camp to set up or take down.
Let's return to the family of otters for a minute. Here's another studio sketch, showing the young pups on the midstream rock and capturing the moment when their mother joined them:
Mom is on the left. She looks smaller because she's on the far side of the rock. I added shaded "lowlights" to give depth to the scene and suggest the eddy below the boulder, but that's just about the only embellishment. There's nothing that says you can't annotate your field sketches, however. You may want to include notes about colors and body markings of wildlife, or describe what the animal was doing and what caught your attention, or add information about size. When I came upon the scene of a skirmish in the winter woods, the sketch in my journal was copiously annotated (the colored arrows are after‑the‑fact additions, but the other notes were made right in the field):
That's the point of keeping a sketchbook or field journal. It sharpens your eye and quickens your hand, while at the same time fixing images in — I'm afraid I can't improve on this — the emulsion of your memory. And isn't this the reason we spend time in the woods and waters?
Speaking of unforgettable images… I once watched a white‑breasted nuthatch harvesting rabbit fur for her nest. A simple thing, to be sure, but not something you see every day. At least it's not something I see every day. Moreover, it's about as good an illustration as I can find of the rewards that come from…
Sketching Birds on the Fly
Best of all, it's an art you can practice at home. If you have a feeder, or if you have trees or flowers outside your window, you probably number a wide variety of birds among your regular callers. Take advantage of this to sharpen your skills with pencil and paper. My nuthatch was just such a visitor. I was working at my desk when I heard the distinctive ANK ANK ANK of the white‑breasted nuthatch. I glanced outside and saw her on the ground. Not far from her was a wisp of fur left behind by a cottontail, another regular visitor, though one who usually works the night shift. The nuthatch noticed the fur, too, and she lost no time in gathering it up and flying off to a nearby maple to deposit her bounty for safekeeping. I've no doubt it saw use as part of the soft lining of a tree‑cavity nest later in the year.
Me? I didn't waste time, either. The light was poor and I didn't know how long the nuthatch would hang around. So I grabbed my drawing pad instead of my camera. And then I dashed off a quick sketch, keeping my eye on my subject rather than the paper — the technique I've labeled "blind sketching." Here's the result:
The notes were made at the time, and while the grammar and syntax may leave something to be desired, they serve their purpose admirably. It's been six months since I saw the nuthatch, but I can relive the moment with just one look at the sketch. And the drawing took me less than a minute to complete.
You can do it, too. There's no magic involved. Pay attention to shape and proportion. Everything else follows from that. Eye and hand were meant to work together, after all.
Make no mistake: Capturing wild creatures on the move, with no tools but a pencil and a sheet of paper, isn't easy. It takes practice. But the effort will be amply rewarded. You'll see more, for one thing, and you'll bag trophies that you'd be sure to miss with your camera. However speedy your shutter, sometimes the eye really is faster than the hand that clicks the release. You'll notice a subtle change in the way you interpret what you see, as well. To the photographer, chickadees and chipmunks are seldom more than subjects. To the scribbler, however, they soon become acquaintances. It's a small thing, I suppose, but if you like to think of your paddling excursions as voyages of discovery, small things are always important. Life doesn't hold still for anyone. It has to be caught on the fly.
So, what's next? Fall is coming to Canoe Country, ushered in on a blaze of bright colors. So there's no better time to experiment with adding color to your sketches. But don't think you'll have to rush out to buy a selection of paints. A set of colored pencils is all you'll need. That's coming next month, however. For now, just keep drawing what you see around you. And if you have any sketches you'd like to share, photograph them and send the photos along to me. I'd love to see your work.
Copyright © 2010 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights reserved.