January Birds

Subzero temperatures mean I’m inside, but birds are out in force at our feeders. They start at dawn and come and go or stay all day, eating as much as they can to fuel their survival against the cold. With this abundance of subjects, I have been focused on capturing bird shapes and postures with small, quick ink sketches. The beauty of this exercise is that you don’t invest in any one bird, you are simply training your eyes and hands to work together.

My second focus for the week has been owls, which I have not drawn much before. Barred owls have been calling in the stream-side woods next to our house for weeks. And we caught sight of a great horned owl nabbing a meal (likely a squirrel) near our feeders at dusk. Owls mate in January and February, so I expect to hear more activity in the coming weeks.

click to view larger

Tips and Techniques: I drew the owls from videos, which I tend to like because they convey a bird’s personality and movement better than still photos, yet you can pause and replay if needed. Try drawing directly in ink and not worrying whether you get everything right. Keep your eyes on the bird more than your paper and keep your pen moving. The painted owl is a small study I wanted to try to help me decide whether to do a larger painting. The proportions aren’t quite right, but the negative painting technique worked more or less as I had hoped.

27 Comments on “January Birds

  1. I saw a Great Horned Owl just 2 days ago – got a fantastic photo too – I did not know they mate in Jan and Feb! I’m hoping he makes my yard his home territory 🙂 Thanks, Jean!!

  2. your sure hand and good eye are such a treat.. in Calif its quiet, except for many loud beautiful black ravens.. lots of tux outfits…

    • Hi Melissa- It’s all ultramarine and burnt sienna (just a touch of yellow ochre). Testing out QoR watercolors from Golden, so perhaps that’s part of it. I love the range of shades you get with those two!

      • Wow, that’s hard to believe. Have you ever compared burnt sienna with transparent red oxide? That’s what I’ve been using, & I’m wondering if I should switch….
        (Thanks for taking the time to answer these.)

      • Yes- I recently tried red oxide and got a nice range of purples with ultramarine. I think burnt sienna tends to go more brown and smokey gray and all the way to black. If you buy burnt sienna, I recommend getting Windsor and Newton over DS or M.Graham. Those brands tend to be less transparent and chalky.

  3. Beautiful spread — I am especially loving your ‘Tips and techniques’ in the blogs –Thank you for sharing that 🙂

    • I’m always amazed that people find them at all. They are such masters of hiding. I have only seen them a few times in the wild– sometimes in flight, sometimes perched.

  4. Great tip about working from video to get the feel of a subject: I will definitely have to try this. You’ve made such beautiful sketches… 😁

    • I think you’ll like it Rebecca. The life of the bird will come into your sketch more and you won’t have to worry as much about using copyrighted images. There are lots of nest cams now so you’ll find a variety of subjects.

      • Definitely the next best thing to sketching from life, then. Just got to find the time now… 😁

  5. I like your suggestions, keeping the pen moving, watching the subject, and using video to keep the bird’s personality – brilliant, makes good sense. Our cast of characters is not very different, oddly, even though we’re on the other side of the country: juncos galore (a different species but very similar), chickadees (two kinds, a treat!), nuthatches, the hairy and downy, along with the occasional privilege of seeing the pileated, The song sparrow comes to, and the towhee – both are a little different than eastern versions but you’d know them in a split second. Our jay is not as flashy, nor as brash, at least not here, though Stellar’s jays have the same reputation as Blue jays. I hope we hear an owl….that would be great. Keep warm!

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