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.

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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.

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.

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