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Book Review: The Laws Guide to Drawing Birds, written and illustrated by John Muir Laws

cover of The Laws Guide to Drawing Birds, by John Muir Laws

The latest book from California naturalist, artist, and educator John Muir Laws is a delight, with a potential audience far beyond what its title suggests.  The Laws Guide to Drawing Birds is not just about drawing birds or bird anatomy, though it addresses those topics thoroughly and adeptly.  It is, rather, a book about seeing nature more truly and getting over fear.

Sound implausible?  I have recently been experimenting with using art as a way to connect more deeply with nature, both personally (spending more of my free time observing, drawing, and painting) and professionally (integrating art projects into classroom programs and field trips).  One of the things I have observed in myself and in students is that those of us who don’t often draw have a lot of anxiety when it comes to putting pencil or brush to paper.

Perhaps this is because “drawing is often misunderstood,” as renowned field guide artist David Sibley writes in his foreword to Laws’s book.  “Non-artists tend to focus on the end result, and think that the primary purpose of drawing is to produce pretty pictures. … As this book points out, that’s a stress-inducing way to think about the practice of drawing.”

Indeed, I have found it to be a wonderful antidote to drawing anxiety, perhaps because Laws heads my fears off from the outset: on pg. 2, he says, “Give yourself permission to draw.  You can do this.  Right now, make a resolution to throw yourself into drawing birds for the next year.  Let it become a joyful obsession.”  From there, the book is broken up into six major sections: Bird Drawing Basics, Mastering Bird Anatomy, Details and Tips for Common Birds, Birds in Flight, Field Sketching, and Materials and Techniques.

Over the first four sections, Laws offers some of the best step-by-step technical guidance on nature drawing that I’ve come across, including exercises that move from loose captures of shape and proportion into precise details of anatomy.  Pages devoted to the nuances of bird feet and legs, for example, show how the scales, feathering, and toes vary across species.  Drawings of skeletons help convey what’s going on beneath the surface when a bird takes a step or folds a wing.  Detailed examinations of feathers—how they grow, where they connect to the body, how they slide over each other when the bird moves—reveal Laws’s deeply nuanced understanding of why birds look the way they do.

The anatomical studies make the book valuable to any naturalist or birder, regardless of whether you have an interest in illustrating birds yourself.  But I challenge you to page through this book and not want to try drawing birds.

For me, at least, this is a major turning point.  Birds have always intimidated me as subjects because they’re so lively.  They don’t sit still or considerately strike a pose for the would-be artist.  They are far too occupied with the business of being birds: whether finding food or  fleeing potential predators, birds are almost always on the move.  Laws addresses this in the section devoted to sketching in the field.  I’m looking forward to trying out his suggestions about making many quick, loose drawings showing the different poses struck by a single bird.  For now, though, while I’m still learning about how pastels and watercolors behave on the page, I’m gaining a lot just from copying Law’s drawings or working from a photograph.  Here, for example, was my first attempt:

cardinal in pastels, after John Muir Laws

My very first effort at drawing anything with pastels was a straight-up, step-by-step copy of one of John Muir Laws’s exercises. It doesn’t have quite the polish of his northern cardinal, shown on the cover of his book, but it makes me happy.

In the final section of the book, Materials and Techniques, Laws covers a lot of territory that is de rigueur for how-to art books: seeing shapes, working with shadows and light, thinking in terms of negative space.  But even here I find tidbits of revelation.

As someone new to watercolor painting, for instance, I’ve read a lot about how watercolor purists say you can mix any color with just red, yellow, and blue.  In contrast, Laws’s attitude is refreshing.  “Some artists prefer to limit their palette to a few primary colors,” he writes, “and then mix the rest of their colors.  This is excellent training in mixing colors.  I prefer to take advantage of the array of colors created by grinding chemicals or earth materials into paint.”  Similarly, his brief overview of watercolor technique was more helpful to me as a beginner than some entire books that I’ve flipped through.

If you want to try your hand at illustrating birds, then, this book is definitely a help and an inspiration.

You can buy The Laws Guide to Drawing Birds direct from the artist for $24.95.  It’s worth every penny.  Laws says he’ll even autograph it for you, if you ask in the comments when you place your order.  You might also appreciate Audubon Magazine’s suggestions of what to pack in a field sketching kit.

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One Comment Post a comment
  1. Very interesting… I love how you talk about the connections of art and nature. Sounds like a great book! So wonderful, and your drawing is just lovely!!

    December 8, 2012

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