How to Draw your Dragon

This blog has been a bit of struggle for me. My intention has always been to focus on the artwork, but my natural wordiness has always seemed to get in the way. So, from now on, I’m going to let the art do the talking, for the most part, and take you through some of the steps I’ve gone through in creating my work.

As illustration has become a even larger part of my business, I’ve really taken to digital painting. Having the ability to zoom in and take images apart really appeals to someone as detail-oriented as I am. It’s really given me the chance to push my skills beyond what I could do with just a pencil. Having the ability to erase your mistakes or start over has been a big help too.

Dragonflies are an especially fun subject. They seem almost mechanical, delicate, fluttering jewels on one hand and strange, alien cyborgs on the other. Still, they’re a great subject to get your feet wet with in the world of digital painting, a great mix of eye-crossing detail and forgivingly smooth body surfaces.

 Here are a few examples:

Canada Darner Dragonfly

Twelve-spotted Skimmer by Heather Hinam

Their symmetrical shape also makes life a little bit easier. I only had to draw one pair of the wings, which considering how long the veining took, is a really good thing.

White-faced Meadowhawk

This white-faced meadowhawk posed a bit more of a challenge, though. Unlike darners and skimmers, meadowhawks tend to sit with their wings held down, around their bodies. I wanted to capture that and keep it from looking like an insect with a pin stuck through it. So, it took a bit of careful planning.White faced meadowhawk sketch Despite my new love of digital painting, everything I do still starts with a pencil and paper.  In the case of the meadowhawk, though, I left the wings off and worked them completely separately to keep all the lines from getting muddled. Meadowhawk in Progress

Once the drawing was scanned, the process was fairly simple. The lines were traced in Illustrator, then the image was painted in Photoshop.

Meadowhawk in Progress 3

Probably the handiest aspect of working an illustration like this in Photoshop, rather than trying to do it on paper, is the ability to layer your image. The meadowhawk was composed of five layers (back wings, back legs, branch, body/front legs and front wings) that I could turn on and off, allowing me to work on parts of the insect without getting distracted by the rest of it.

Put it all together an it becomes a seamless illustration. Once you get the hang of the depth of your planned image and figure out how many layers you’re going to need, just about anything is possible. Having spent a few weeks getting to know these amazing natural jewels in detail has left me in awe of the complexity and elegance that is the result of over 300 million years of evolution. Next time you see a dragonfly, take a moment to have a closer look. You will be amazed.

Familiar Bluet Damselfly


A New Medium for a New Year

I’m afraid this blog got a bit lost in the shuffle over the last year and I’m sorry about that. However, its stagnation has been because I was wrapped up in a year full of illustration. Last January, I landed a contract for what would be the third set of interpretive signage I’ve ever done. It was also the most involved project I’ve taken on in a long time. The panels were for a new trail carved along the shoreline of Lake Manitoba at the town of Steep Rock, a 2.5 hour drive north of Winnipeg, Manitoba Canada.  The trail winds over limestone cliffs, along the edge of the abandoned cement quarry and through aspen mixedwood forest, offering all sort of opportunities for interpretation.

So, beyond all of the research and writing that had to be done, I had a whole host of illustrations to create. It was an exciting and a little bit daunting task. Until recently, all my work had been done using pencils, both coloured and plain. However, after importing colour pencil sketches into a previous sign project with varying results, I decided to learn how to paint digitally. The Steep Rock project gave me a lot of opportunities to learn this new skill.

Placoderm-outlineMy first real attempt at digital painting was this placoderm. Placoderms are extinct, armoured fishes that were at their most diverse around the Devonian period (about 350 million years ago).  In Manitoba at that time, much of the province was submerged under a warm, tropical sea and placoderms were the top predator. As a result, fossils of their armour have been found all over the province, especially in the region between Lake Manitoba and Lake Winnipeg. In fact, two species were discovered in the Steep Rock area: Squamatognathus steeprockensis and Eastmanosteus lundarensis (pictured above; named after the town of Lundar).

While quite variable in size and shape, some placoderms, like the Steep Rock ones, were enormous, reaching up to 3 m in length. Only the head and thorax fossilized, so paleontologists and illustrators have had to make educated guesses about the rest of the body.

The first step of the process for this fish was to draw an outline on paper. I then scanned it in and traced over it in Illustrator, resulting in the above image. This was my guide.

Placoderm Eye Close upAs with most other animal drawings I do, I started with the eye. Being able to block each section individually really came in handy for keeping the pupil nice and crisp. Painting in Photoshop is a lot like regular painting or coloured pencil. It’s all about layering, building up colour to create depth and shape.

After getting the eye to where I wanted it, I simply worked out from there, colouring each panel of armour one at a time. Because I did it by blocking each piece and working it individually, ‘sewing’ them together and blending out the white space was a bit of a challenge, one I’ve gotten better at since then.


Placoderm illustration in progressThe  chosen colours are simply a guess, especially for things like the ‘teeth’. Placoderms didn’t have teeth. Their jaws consisted of sharpened bony plates, called gnathals, that acted more like shears. I was lucky to have the opportunity to consult with two paleontologists on this project, Dr. Graham Young, Curator of Paleontology at the Manitoba Museum, where the Eastmanosteus fossils are housed and Dr. Gavin Hanke, the man who described the species in the first place. A fantastic artist in his own right, Gavin was extremely helpful in sorting out the anatomical details.

Placoderm illustration in progressAfter the slow plodding that was the armour plates, the rest of the body was almost a breeze.  A reminder that this whole thing started on paper is in the tail swish. It was the result of not having enough room on the page for the whole fish.

Eastmanosteus lundarensis by Heather Hinam

And here’s the final result. You might notice that the fins are a little different than in the previous picture. This is one aspect of digital painting I really like over coloured pencil: the ability to erase. Comes in handy when your paleontologist friend tells you that the fins need to be more shark-like. I’ve done several digital paintings since this one and have learned many new skills that would likely improve this image. However, as the first one out of the gate, I think I was off to a decent start.

Just Ducky

Hooded Merganser by Heather HInam

Ducks are one of the first birds I figured out how to draw. Not surprisingly, they were also the first group of birds I learned to identify. Waterfowl (ducks especially) are a great ‘starter group’ for novice birders and bird artists. The males of each species are usually brightly-coloured and easily distinguished from each other. Mallard drakes don’t look anything like wigeon drakes, which don’t look anything like merganser drakes. For a budding naturalist of about eleven or twelve, these were the ideal group of birds with which to perfect my identification techniques before moving up to more challenging groups like raptors or songbirds.

Barrow's Goldeneye by Heather Hinam

Male ducks are a great group of birds to cut your teeth on as a wildlife artist too. Their patterns tend to be bold and there are less details in the feathers than in the more drably-coloured females. The reason for that difference stems from their breeding habits. Unlike geese (where males and females are basically identical), ducks do not mate for life. Every year, males of each species have to get out on the water and strut their stuff in the hopes of enticing a female’s attention. In many species, that means the brighter the better. You see a lot of colour in ducks: green heads in mallards, rusty browns in canvasbacks and redheads, bright blues in teals and ruddy ducks.

I, however, seem to have a preference for the classic combination of black and white (probably because of my penchant for drawing solely in pencil) and am thus drawn to species like goldeneyes and the Hooded Merganser. Until I started working in colour, these species were the most easily translated onto the page.

Goldeneye Ducklins by Heather Hinam

The thing with drawing waterfowl, is it’s easy to fall into the trap of the ‘decoy pose’ and always rendering the bird from a side few, sitting on the water (like in the first picture). So, over the years, I’ve been trying to challenge myself into drawing different angles, (like the Barrow’s Goldeneye) and even more life-like scenes such as this collection of baby goldeneyes. While I usually use photos for guidance, the inspiration for my work can only come from time spent in nature itself. It’s only through really taking in the world around me that I can flesh out the stories behind the images that I try to put to paper and hopefully make them feel more real.

A Bit of a Hairy Situation

Red Squirrel by Heather Hinam

I definitely have a bias when it comes to choosing drawing subjects. I seem to prefer feathers over fur. I think it’s because feathers are more rigid, more defined. They have a very particular pattern that doesn’t change a whole heck of a lot from bird to bird. I freely admit that in many aspects of my life, I’m not much of an improviser, which is probably why I strive for realism in my drawing. Still, there are only about 10,000 living species out there with feathers on them out of a possible 1.4 million, so I need to branch out a little.

My next love is mammals, so it was the likely first step. Fur is a whole other ballgame than feathers. Fur is messy and there’s lots of it. However, if you take the time and get to know the mammal you’re drawing, you soon start to see just as many patterns in fur as there are in feathers. Just as feathers grow in specific tracks along the body of a bird, fur grows in specific directions on a mammal and it’s important to pay attention to that while you’re drawing.

Young Raccoons, pencil sketch by Heather Hinam

Hair is less rigid and tends to follow the patterns of the underlying muscle moreso than feathers; thus, having at least a cursory understanding of the animal’s anatomy really helps in getting the direction of each group of hairs right. I’m not saying you need to have taken a chordate zoology class to be able to accurately draw a mammal; but I think that my having taught such a class helps me.

Hair is actually a fascinating step in the evolution of mammals. The Synapsid ancestors of the mammals we know today actually looked a lot like a big lizard with scaly bodies and nothing even remotely resembling hair. Because it doesn’t fossilize easily, no one knows exactly when the first hairy synapsids appeared; but fossil plant burrs, that stick to fur to be distributed (like the burdock and stickseed plants we’re familiar with today) started showing up about 200 million years ago. Hair likely appeared earlier than that, however, probably as the odd whisker, here and there, sticking out to pick up vibrations and help the critter sense the environment around it.  Over time, evolution favoured ancestral mammals that had more hair (they stayed warmer, could function better), and eventually we got to the remarkable variety of hair we see today, from shaggy manes, to sleek coats in all sorts of colours and patterns.

Leopard - coloured pencil, by Heather Hinam

As an artist and a naturalist, it’s the patterns that get me excited. I really had a fun time exploring that when I worked on the leopard you see above. When I started adding colour a few years ago, it created a whole new layer of challenges to work through. Hair isn’t all one colour (but then, again, neither are feathers). Coloured pencils lend themselves well to depicting this; but I’m still trying to get a handle on working from light to dark, which is the opposite of what I’m used to from previous work with acrylic. I think I’ve got the basic hang of it, but there’s still so much more to explore.

Rhapsody in Blue

Blue Jay Pencil sketch by Heather Hinam

Blue Jays (Cyanocitta crystata) have always been one of my favourite birds to draw and one of the few species I can sketch with a fair amount of accuracy from memory (though this one was done using a photo as a reference). There’s just something about the shapes and patterns that have burned their way into my brain over the years. I think it’s because they’re one of the most colourful birds we had around the house when I was growing up.

City birds in Manitoba that are easily spotted by a child tend to be fairly subdued in their colouration; the subtle hues of sparrows and pigeons mixed with the solid blacks of crows and whites of gulls.  Not blue jays; they stood out in the trees of my youth, brilliant and loud against the green foliage. So, naturally I learned to draw them, to try and capture some of that charisma on the page.

The thing is, most of my work, until very recently, was done in pencil. Sure, there was some dabbling with acrylics during my teens, but never with any great measure of success. So, recreating that brilliant blue was impossible. Then, a few years ago, I discovered coloured pencils.

Blue Jay - coloured pencil by Heather Hinam

It’s taken a bit of practice; but with the right amount of layering and a lot of patience, I figured out how to capture the stunning blue of this common garden bird. I started with the lighter blues first, getting darker and darker with each, successive pass. It takes hours to do this, but it’s a relaxing way to spend an afternoon, layering blue after blue until it starts looking like the bird I know and love.

A lot of people actually don’t like these guys all that much. They’re noisy, aggressive, sometimes predatory and tend to scare away the more ‘desirable’ species from feeders and backyards. However, if you take the time to get to know them, jays are fascinating birds. Part of the family Corvidae, along with crows and ravens, jays are highly intelligent, possessed of a fairly remarkable memory that allows them to remember where they’ve hidden a stash of food for later consumption as well as develop complex social systems founded on strong family bonds.

I imagine this won’t be the last blue jay I’ll draw. Even with all of the other fascinating subjects out there, these boisterous, blue birds will always catch my eye.

Feeling a Little Owly

Northern Saw-whet Owl in Spruce tree sketch by Heather Hinam

Over the last 15 years, owls have become a big part of my life, so it’s only natural to expect them to find their way into my artwork. One species in particular has had a starring role for almost 10 years now, the Northern Saw-whet Owl (Aegolius acadicus). I spent five years chasing these tiny, elusive birds around in the dark as part of my doctoral research so their likeness has burned its way into the back of my brain. Like most members of a single species, they tend to all look the same to us at first glance. Male and female saw-whets have the same plumage pattern; their only real difference is body size, with females outweighing males by about 40 g and having larger wingspans. However, if you spend enough time with a group of animals, like I did with my saw-whets, you start to notice the subtle differences. One bird has wider-set eyes, a softer face, darker feathers or a certain attitude that sticks with you for years after your encounter.

Northern Saw-whet Owl Sketch by Heather Hinam

I imagine animals have just as hard a time telling individual humans apart. To them, we’re probably just a bunch of tall funny-looking, two-legged beasts that usually spell danger or at the very least, annoyance. I hope that over time and repeated encounters, some of them start to notice the differences, those humans who talk softly and offer respect versus those that yell or run or cause them stress. I have a feeling my saw-whets didn’t see me in a very good light. Unfortunately for them, my research involved handling and blood samples and radio-tagging, which I’m sure wasn’t exactly a pleasant experience. Still, I was always gentle, always respectful and I think some of them managed to sense that and calm down in my presence. Either way, they’ve left an indelible mark on my soul. Every time I pass a patch of older forest, I can’t help but wonder at the owls who make their home in its depths.

Juvenile Saw-whet Owl sketch by Heather HinamThe juvenile saw-whets are especially unforgettable. These little balls of fluff with huge, searching eyes are just about the cutest thing I’ve ever seen. Capturing them in pencil doesn’t really do justice to their soft, rolly-pollyness. I’ll have to try it in colour sometime. At that stage when they’re just about ready to leave the nest is when they are at their most trusting and when you get a chance to really pick out the different personalities. In the brood that these two came from there was the quiet, sleepy one, who was more than happy to snuggle into your jacket pocket, the two who looked like twins, even though that isn’t possible and the high-strung, eager one who was ready to fly away as far as his new wings could carry him and take on the world, but not before beating me up first. Some of those differences were likely due to the age difference among the nestmates; each successive egg hatches about two days after the one before it.  Still, I like to think that some of those personalities find their way into the adult bird.

Regardless, these, the smallest owls in Manitoba, will always hold a big place in my heart and I can’t wait to get the chance to see them again next year.

Variations on a Design

Downy Woodpecker Sketch

I have a lot of sketches lying around from my university years. It’s not surprising, really. I was in university for over a decade.  A lot of that time was spent in lecture halls taking notes; but I almost always had a sketch on the go. Usually, it was a bird of some sort. I’d have done most of the roughing in at home with whatever reference I was using. Then, during lulls in the lectures, I’ll shade in the feather patterns.

Most of my professors knew what I was up to. It’s hard to hide at the front of the class. They didn’t mind, for the most part, and some would even check in to see what I was working on before starting class.

Above is a Downy Woodpecker (Picoides pubescens), a bird we see quite commonly year-round here in Manitoba. It’s specific epithet, ‘pubescens’ means hairy, which is actually the common name of it’s closely-related and slightly larger cousin, the Hairy Woodpecker (Picoides villosus). Neither of them have ever looked particularly ‘hairy’ to me.

The challenge with this one was keeping the white parts white. I’m right-handed, but I hold my pencil a little strangely, clinging to it like a lifeline, so I end up dragging the base of my hand along the page as I get tired.

Black and White Warbler Sketch

This is another black and white bird common to Manitoba in the summer, the Black and White Warbler (Mniotilta varia). He’s an unusual little fellow, scurrying down tree-trunks more like a nuthatch than a warbler. It was fun to recreate him in his natural pose.

There’s just something about birds that I find so appealing. Yes, I made my university career studying them, but my love for all creatures feathered was around long before I ever set foot in a lecture hall. They’re just fun to draw. Despite the myriad shapes and colours and sizes, there are some things about their design that just doesn’t change. They all have beaks, feet, wings and tails that, despite their endless variation, all have the same elements. It’s that repetition in form that makes it possible to refine your skills without ever really getting bored.

Northern Waterthrush sketch

So, next time you look at a bird, take a moment to notice these patterns: how the feathers of the wing are arranged, the shape of the legs, the proportions of the body and you’ll see that no matter how the bird has adapted to their environment, it’s only improving on an already very efficient design.

Dusting off the Sketchbook

Inspiration for nature sketchingI’ve been drawing all my life, or at least for as long as I can remember.  I suppose it’s always been the easiest way for me to put the world around me into focus. Sure, a camera is quicker and while photography is another love of mine, there’s just something about drawing that really resonates with me.

When you draw something, you have to pay attention to the details, at least if your goal is to draw it realistically. Whether it’s a photograph in a book or a leaf on a tree or the whole tree for that matter, capturing that image on paper requires that you pay attention to it. You have to spend time with it, get to know its lines and curves and where the shadows blend together to evoke a sense of shape. If it’s an animal, you have to understand how it breathes, how it moves if you’re truly going to do it justice on the page.

I think it’s that intimacy with your subject that has always been what I love most about drawing. Over the last 30 or so years, it has taught me to notice the details that make the world around us so special. It’s a habit that has served me well over my life and has shaped the person I am today.

I’m a professional naturalist. I have made it my calling to help reconnect people with nature and I do this in a number of ways: through tourism experiences and workshops, but also through art, specifically illustration.  It’s really a very natural fit, if you’ll pardon the pun. It harkens back to the golden age of naturalists. I’ve always wanted to be wandering the countryside, like Darwin or Audubon, sketchbook in hand, recording new and interesting discoveries.  It’s pretty hard to make a living like that nowadays, however.

Still, after putting the sketchbook aside for a few years, I’ve picked it back up, using illustration and photographic art to share the stories of the natural world around me. So, I invite you to take this journey with me as I rediscover my craft and find new ways of capturing nature’s beauty with not much more than a bunch of pencils and sometimes a mouse. This blog will be a combination gallery, scratch pad, instruction manual and journal. Hopefully it inspires you to take a moment to notice the details in your world as well.