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Drawing Birds

Drawing Birds

by Raymond Sheppard


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Throughout history, people have been obsessed with bird imagery, from carvings on the temple walls of ancient Egypt to modern-day murals, posters, and even tattoos. This helpful instructional volume by a renowned artist and teacher offers a wealth of well-illustrated advice on depicting all manner of birds. British illustrator Raymond Sheppard was celebrated for his nature and animal studies, and this book combines two of his most valuable guides, How to Draw Birds (1940) and More Birds to Draw (1956).
Suitable for beginners as well as advanced artists, this single-volume edition of Sheppard's two great guides provides in-depth studies of the shapes and visual construction of a variety of birds, from domestic fowl to birds on the wing. Topics include anatomy; the representation of wings, feathers, and flight; and details for drawing beaks, feet, and plumage. Common birds such as thrushes, redwings, blackbirds, and starlings appear here, along with many other species, in addition to ducks in and out of the water and birds of prey such as the barn owl, buzzard, and golden eagle. Written with clarity and infectious enthusiasm, Drawing Birds offers an abundance of pointers that will benefit amateur and professional artists alike.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780486820323
Publisher: Dover Publications
Publication date: 02/15/2018
Series: Dover Art Instruction
Pages: 128
Sales rank: 757,733
Product dimensions: 8.20(w) x 10.80(h) x 0.50(d)

About the Author

British illustrator Raymond Sheppard (1913–1958) was celebrated for his drawings of nature and animals for books and magazines. He published three art instructional books with Studio Publications and is perhaps best remembered for a 1952 edition of The Old Man and the Sea, which he co-illustrated with Charles Tunnicliffe.

Read an Excerpt




Quite recently I was asked by someone, why I liked drawing birds so much. Well, I had never really considered why — I just drew them, but when you really come to think of it, you know, there are a lot of amazing and interesting things about birds that most people don't realise.

Just think of all the varieties of plumage, in what lovely patterns this is arranged, on some birds so indescribably delicate. But did you know that all this pattern, so lovely in itself, is there to serve the bird a very useful purpose? It is really a sort of camouflage, about which we have heard such a lot recently, a "protective coloration" which merges itself into the bird's natural background of rushes, grass or stones, and as long as the bird is motionless it is invisible to its enemies. I expect our camouflage experts have learnt a lot from the study of these protective patterns and colours of birds. This colour, too, is never quite the same. I was watching some lapwings the other day by a lakeside, and sometimes their dark backs appeared quite grey, and then perhaps the light would catch one, and it seemed to glisten like shot silk with purples and greens.

Those big aeroplanes which fly overhead look rather like great birds, don't they? You see, the men who design them have been studying the shape and flow of lines of a bird, which they call its streamline, and they have tried to adapt these shapes to the designs because they know that birds are the most perfectly streamlined creatures in the world. But I am afraid man has got a long way to go before he produces a flying machine as efficient as some of the birds. Look at the sea-gull, how easily he floats on effortless wings. Throw a piece of bread in the air and he swoops with the precision of a Spitfire. Of course man will never be able to invent a covering for his aeroplanes which is as efficient as the birds — I mean feathers. Nothing else we know of combines such lightness and flexibility with such strength. It is these wonderful things, — feathers — which make it possible for such a heavy bird as the swan to fly many thousands of miles on migrating. You would never dream this possible to see him waddling along the ground like something out of a Silly Symphony.

Aren't there a lot of exciting things to know about birds? You know, the more you watch and observe them as they go about their ordinary — I should say extraordinary — lives, the more amazing and wonderful things you will find out about them. I don't know of any other living creatures who are so much the masters of every element. Why, some ducks, besides being very strong flyers, not only swim on the water but under it as well and dive and walk! Of course to be able to do this they have developed perfectly and beautifully shaped bodies. It must take a very quick little brain to control the energy required for such rapid and varied action. This bright bird-brain looks at you from every avian eye. No wonder that all through the ages mankind has been absorbed and fascinated by the study of bird-life.

On the temple walls of ancient Egypt you may see carvings and low reliefs of the birds men venerated and worshipped for three thousand years. Ages ago in China, artists had captured for ever on silk, graceful attitude and delicate pattern. Monuments to the eternal appeal of birds are these lovely relics, caught in still attitude upon the ageless stone and silk.

I think that the real reason I like so much drawing birds is not entirely because I am so interested in their lives and actions, but more so because of the innumerable patterns I can make out of their so varied and graceful movements, the limitless groupings, arrangements and placings of curves and lines and shapes that arise from their ever-varying postures. It is so exciting trying to get just the right lines, to suggest an attitude or rhythm momentarily observed, be it fluent line of swan or heron, or rugged squareness of the eagle. Art and beauty are so inseparably woven together, and birds are undoubtedly the most perfectly formed of living creatures.

Wouldn't you like to be able to draw them yourself? There is nothing to stop you, because the whole secret of drawing is learning to "see properly," and we all have two eyes, so that once you have learnt to observe and use your eyes properly you too can get started on this fascinating study of drawing from the living bird. The trouble with most beginners is that they see too much. By too much I mean they become absorbed in details of plumage and delicate pattern before they have learnt to see those big simple shapes upon the surface of which these accessories are placed. Consequently they produce a flat feathered map of a bird.

I have devoted a part of this little book to explaining the basic form and construction of a bird, the few simple masses in which the feathers are arranged. And once you have got interested in these things and learnt what few important facts to look for, it will surprise you what fun you will get out of drawing from living, moving birds.


Most people I have talked to about drawing birds have said that "it must be very difficult because birds move so quickly and never keep still." These people, of course, are thinking about the way they have been taught to draw such subjects as still-life groups or a posed model, where they are told to close one eye, hold a pencil at arm's length, and measure up relative proportions that they are unable to judge with their own unaided eyes. This method is bad in any sort of drawing (it makes you see things as 'flat' not round objects, and leads to an expressionless sort of copying) and in our sort of drawing i.e., moving, living birds, it is of course a quite impossible method. Well, you say, just how am I to tackle the subject?

You will remember in the introduction I said that drawing is really learning to "see properly." "But," I hear you protest, "I can see probably quite as well as you can, but I still cannot draw!" Perhaps I should have said that "seeing properly" is really knowing what to look for. The reason your drawing is not good is probably because when you look at a bird your eye is full of a lot of really unimportant details of plumage and small shapes. Now it takes quite a lot of study to be able to "see properly" and quickly too, the important shapes and main lines or rhythms of a pose. So I have told you a little about anatomy, that is, the construction of birds. After all, if you know how a wing works, for instance, your birds are far more likely to look as if they could fly than if you know nothing about such matters. If you know that feathers are arranged in big masses which can be easily seen, that differently shaped beaks are differently shaped for a reason, your drawings will look more convincing, more real. There are a lot more intensely interesting facts about birds which you will probably find out for yourself when you are watching them. They all help your understanding of the shape of the bird, in deciding what to put in and what to leave out in your drawing, and when you have learnt to do this you are well on the way towards "seeing properly" and therefore drawing properly. I say "well on the way to," because of course there is a lot more in drawing such beautiful creatures as birds than noticing a few dry scientific facts about their construction. But you will understand by now that with these facts in your head you are far better equipped to draw birds in all their charm and grace of movement, in all their subtlety of line, than if you were without such knowledge. I do not suggest, however, that you set yourself the 'task' of learning anatomy like you would a lesson at school, for drawing is not a subject that can be taught like a school-room lesson — it is a subject to enjoy, and you will soon discover what an exciting adventure it will become. So refer to the anatomical part of this book, just when you feel the need to — look for the things I have pointed out on the birds themselves. Look and observe — look and observe and draw — and draw — and draw again. That is the way, the interesting way too, to learn.


You know, it isn't really a disadvantage at all that your models (the birds) are always moving and changing their 'poses.' You should take advantage of these changes and instead of trying to do a set drawing of just one pose that may be really quite ordinary and dull — like those awfully boring and tedious sort of "feathered maps" of birds, generally standing stiffly sideways, and looking as flat as pancakes in Natural History books — take a large sheet of paper pinned to a board and make a lot of drawings. Each time the bird moves start a fresh drawing. You will find that the bird will often take up a former attitude again and you can resume drawing on any of your studies at once. You will learn far more about birds in this way, and produce drawings that are more interesting — that look alive. If I were you, I shouldn't use a lot of elaborate shading, at least not to start with. Try looking hard at the bird and noticing what are the main lines of a pose and put them down in free, long strokes. It will surprise you how a few lines can suggest such a lot. I have tried to show you in some of my own studies how a few lines are sometimes all that is necessary to hit off a pose.

Did you realise that every time you look at the bird and then look at your sheet of paper and make a line you are using your memory? To start with you will only remember a little for a very short time, but as you get to know more and have more practice you will find yourself able to remember a lot more for a great deal longer. It is this ability to memorise which will enable you to draw birds in action, especially in flight, when 'sight' drawing is out of the question. So practise memory drawing a lot: it will help you to remember important things.

Sometimes, of course, you will come across birds at rest or asleep — perhaps basking in the sun. Cormorants and shags often stand motionless with wings half-outstretched, as though it were so much washing hung out to dry!

Details such as beaks and feet, and particularly eyes — should be seized upon for study. An outstretched wing of a basking bird presents an opportunity for solving the problem of its foreshortening.

For rapid sketching it doesn't matter what you draw with — whether it be pen, pencil or chalk — it is the "rightness" of what is put down that matters. The drawings reproduced in this book were done, for the most part, with a carbon pencil on cartridge paper — but any paper will do. It is only by experimenting with different mediums that you will find the one which suits your own personal taste.

Now I am going to talk to you about what is really the most important thing in any drawing. It is what artists call "Feeling." By "feeling" I mean that quality in your drawing which shows that you have yourself had an exciting experience, that you have felt wonder at the flowing rhythm, the springing life that is the bird. In short, you show evidence of using your imagination.

When you draw an eagle, try, in imagination, to be an eagle — you are the claws that grasp so firmly — the hooked, cruel beak, and the unquenchable fire that is the sheathed and stabbing glance of the King of Birds. If you can do this, almost unconsciously this will show in your drawing and make of it a work of art, a thing of beauty. This "feeling" is really the emotion you feel — that peculiar, unexplainable tightening inside that makes you want to laugh sometimes, sometimes to sing and dance for joy, and sometimes just be a little sad. This is the most important thing of all to cherish, so do not pore over this or any book over long — Rush out into the sunshine — Art does not grow in dusty rooms and is not to be found by searching through books by learned men. No, it is under the great arch of heaven in the pure and sparkling air, through which on wondrous pinions fly the birds we draw, and you in your imagination can fly with them into what unknown and pleasant regions of the mind, to that perfection of Beauty towards which all art aspires.


To start with I am going to talk about the general shape of a bird, and how the various parts of its body work.

You all know that a bird comes from an egg, and consequently a baby bird is shaped rather like an egg too. Indeed the bird's body retains this egg-like form even in the adult bird. Of course there are variations in shape adapted to the different species' mode of living. For instance, in the gulls and herons it is elongated, whilst in others, the small perching birds particularly, it is rounder.

A bird's body is built like our own on a bony framework. Although most of the bones correspond to ours they have become welded together into one solid framework. It has far more bones in the neck than we have, which gives the bird a far more flexible neck than animals or man.

The skull is nearly all eye-socket, and you will notice that pigeons, ducks, sparrows, etc. have the eyes placed on each side of the skull so that they can see all round them, whereas those birds that prey upon them have their eyes set more nearly in front.

In the drawing of the bird's bones, the black parts, i.e., the neck, legs, and bones of wing, are the only movable parts. The body is, as I have said, built on a solid bony framework. This I have shaded in grey.


The wing of a bird is just like the arm of a man as regards its bony structure, the main difference occurring at the 'hand,' which in birds has become one large and elongated finger. Over these bones the wing-muscles and feathers are placed in such a way as to form what is known as the camber of a bird's wing. You will realise this when looking along a bird's open wing, as in the little sketch of a heron flying, it will be seen to curve upwards, umbrella fashion. If you push an open umbrella up and down quickly you will find it much easier to push it up than down because the camber of the umbrella seems to grip the air on the downward pull. This is roughly the principle that enables a bird to fly.

On page 9 is a view of a bird's wing as seen from above. The feathers are grouped in clearly defined masses. Into the long finger or "hand" of the bird are fitted the first flight feathers or primaries, usually 10 in number. From the forearm grow the secondary flight feathers, usually about 12 or 14 in number. The other groups serve to streamline the wing, build up its camber and give support to the flight feathers. The underside of the wing is supported in the same manner. At the junction of the wing and shoulder are a clearly marked group of feathers called the scapular. These feathers in most birds are quite large and besides streamlining the lines of the wing to the body they also cover the junction of wing and body when the wing is folded in the resting bird, preventing moisture from trickling down inside. The diagram shows you how these groups arrange themselves when the wing is folded.

This arrangement of feathers is the same in all birds, although the relative proportions of the various groups may differ. You will see from my diagrams that the feathers overlap each other and all point one way. They act like the tiles of a roof for draining water off. You will see in the drawing of a feather that the quill or central rib is not in the middle. This is because this particular feather is a flight feather and it is only the flight feathers which have the quill in this position. In the overlapping of the feathers, the broad edge is underneath so that a wing looked at from above shows only the narrow or 'leading' edge of the feather and from beneath only the broad or trailing edge. This is a very important thing to remember when drawing birds in flight, because when the wings are pressed down, the "trailing" broad edge of the feather is pushed tightly against the next feather. On the upstroke however the broad ends trail downwards, making gaps between each feather through which the air can pass: it is by the power of resistance to the air of the downward stroke that a bird can haul itself up into the sky. The drawings of a heron and a gull flying show this principle at work.


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Table of Contents

How to Draw Birds,
A Method of Approach,
A Talk about Anatomy and Construction,
Wings, Feathers and Flight,
Ducks in the Water,
Well-known Birds seen from the Breakfast Table,
Birds of Wood and Hedgerow,
Oyster-Catcher and Curlew,
Domestic Fowl,
Three Birds of Prey — Barn Owl, Buzzard and Golden Eagle,
Common Buzzard,
On the Wing — Gull, Duck, Swallow and Kestrel,
More Birds to Draw,
Laughing Jackass,
Simple Shapes and Structure,
Making a Start,
Blue Tits and Great Tits,
Queen Alexandra's Parakeets,
Flightless Birds,
The Cassowary,
The Dodo,
Drawing with a Brush,
Kalij Pheasant,
Guinea Fowl,
Some Nests,
Greenfinch and Weaver Birds,
Baby Birds,
Domestic Ducklings and Chickens,
The Study of Detail,
Doves and Pigeons,
Great Bird of Paradise,
Australian Lyre Bird,
How Birds Fly,
Drawing at a Rookery,
Kestrels and Condors,
Background Studies,
Java Sparrows,
Great Spotted Woodpecker,
Pictures from Your Studies,

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