‘Wherever I Am, I Am Always Birding’

This week, for the New York Times summer birding project, we invite birders of all experience levels to try their hand at drawing a bird. You can do this from life or from a photograph. Try to produce at least one sketch in the upcoming week using any medium you wish. Share it with us by emailing [email protected].

You don’t need to spend hours honing your illustration (unless you want to). As the master illustrator David Sibley, of the widely popular Sibley field guides, describes in the interview below, the most important aspect of drawing a bird may just be that it changes how you see.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Do you have any formal training in illustration?

No, I am self-taught.

I should say that I don’t consider myself really an artist as much as a scientific illustrator. I am trying to convey information, and it’s all about the details of the bird: the shape, the posture, the colors, the patterns. The outline is the most important part; if that’s right, everything else sort of falls into place, and it’s just like a coloring book.

How often, and where, do you go birding?

I’m lucky now to live in a place where I can just step outside and walk into the woods or around some fields and go birding right here. But I am always aware of birds. I am listening and watching through a window or along the road — wherever I am, I am always birding.

Do you think technology will ever replace illustration in the birding world?

I’ve wondered about that. I don’t think so. An illustration provides so much more than a photograph. In an illustration, I can create a typical bird, an average bird of a species in the exact pose that I want, and create an image of a similar species in exactly the same pose so that all the differences are apparent. And I control the lighting and the color. You just can’t get that with photographs; photographs are always a record of one individual bird at one instant in time.

One of my concerns is that the craft of illustration might disappear, that the motivation for someone to put in the time to learn a subject like this, to be able to produce the illustrations — there might not be the same kind of incentive to do that. There’s a real, deep, personal satisfaction and reward for taking the time to really watch a bird and study it and figure out how to draw it.

How has spending so much time illustrating birds and ruminating on them shaped your understanding of the natural world and of birds?

It has really shaped the way I think about everything. Drawing is a way of slowing down to take the time to look at something, and drawing also gives you a record of what you thought you saw. It’s not like a photograph; it’s your interpretation of what you saw.

Getting better at drawing is partly about developing technical skill, but it’s more about getting to know the subject. Your drawing becomes a record of your understanding of that bird in that moment. Drawing in that way encourages you to be a more thoughtful observer.

How to Draw a Bird the David Sibley Way

Camille BakerSketching in New York City

For The Times’s summer birding project, I spoke to the field guide illustrator about how to sketch a bird. Here’s how he draws a black-capped chickadee

Draw a rough circle in the top right quadrant of a square sheet of paper; this will become the bird’s head. Next to it, starting at 7 o’clock, add an oval twice the size for the body.

On the right side of the circle, draw a small triangle for the beak. To the oval, add two long, thin shapes for the wing and tail.

Smooth around the shapes to outline the bird. For an eye, add a circle just above the beak. Section off a portion of the head for the black cap and a triangular patch for the throat. Add lines for feathers on the wing and tail.

Draw a leg emerging from the abdomen at about a 30-degree angle. Add toes and a claw, then two vertical lines for a perch between them. Shade the perch.

Erase any unnecessary guidelines from the shapes you drew in previous steps.

Use black to color in the eye, cap, beak and throat. Use gray to color in the wing, tail and legs and to shade the abdomen.

Why draw birds? Sibley says drawing can make you a more thoughtful observer, and that there’s a “deep, personal satisfaction” in illustration.

This summer, we’re inviting readers, both new and experienced birders, to participate in our science project with the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Sign up to go birding with us.

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