Wednesday, 20 November 2013

Field Sketching - A dying art?

I must confess, it has only been the last couple of years that I have kept a notebook whilst out birding. 
I guess the reason for not keeping a notebook in the past has been my long-standing blog, so have kept this as a sort of diary for my birding daytrips. It was in fact Mr L. Evans who alerted me to how it is a 'dying art' in the birding/twitching scene today.
Needless to say, whenever I go out birding these days, the notebook is just as important as my binoculars and feel somewhat naked without it. Those of you who keep a notebook already will already know the huge number of pros for keeping one, but I for one have certainly noticed that I have vastly improved the extent of my local patch birding by doing regular WeBS counts, vis-mig counts etc, so I have become a much more thorough birder.  
Field sketch style White-tailed Lapwing

The point of this post is to go a little deeper. I've noticed that there has been an increase in notebook keeping in recent years, especially with the birders associated with Next Generation Birders, but what about field sketches?
They say a picture is 1000 words, so when out on a twitch and having brief views of a bird, why would you waste time writing 1000 words (figuratively speaking) when you can whack out a quick field sketch showing the key features?
I will admit, the above White-tailed Lapwing wasn't actually done in the field, but was treated as such by doing quick sketches from photos and videos online to improve my fieldsketching skills in the early days of birding (I actually did that back when I was 15).

One of the most common answers to the question "do you ever fieldsketch?" is "No, I can't draw".

Being able to draw/paint well is not a very common ability, otherwise the likes of of Mr. Mullarney and Mr. Lewington would not considered extraordinary! My point being that I don't think that I have a natural ability at drawing and certainly not painting, but I have been attempting artwork on and off for several years now, and I now know my own techniques to get a bird looking at least mildly like what I intend it to...sort of!

The YOC used to operate a 'young birder of the year' competition that included the best notebook, the best fieldsketches etc. This was done to encourage the younger birders to learn their craft properly and improve their notebook taking and field sketch skills etc. It doesn't matter if you can't draw, if you practise, you WILL get better!

The point of a field sketch is a reference point to you, the owner of the notebook, so it doesn't matter if an outline of a coot looks more like a wigeon, if you put arrows to certain parts of the bird and label them with references.

1st w Caspian Gull

The above Caspian Gull for example looks to me, like a 1st winter Caspian Gull. Gulls are a perfect example of the benefits of field sketches and notebooks. Sketching causes you to look a great deal harder at a bird. It helps to look at every feather, every feature, everything about a bird and will ultimately help you to get your records accepted. If you draw what you see, you are a lot less likely to miss any critical details. For example, I attempted to write notes about the reference photo I used for the above gull and then tried to turn that into a field sketch. I ended up missing out certain features of the bird that I didn't even know I'd originally sketched, such at the light barring on the flanks and the partial white orbital ring.

One of my first paintings - Eiders

I presume that everyone reading this will have attended at least one twitch. The last bird you went to see, I bet that you didn't look at certain things like the emargination of he inner webs of the primaries, or the length of the nostrils of the bird? This may not be a perfect example as some of you may just be that thorough. I will therefore ask you to draw a Blue Tit from memory. I will bet you a decent amount of money that your drawing or even description would miss out at least one major detail. 
My point is, look at the blog post about the Devonian Dusky Thrush. The field sketches/paintings that emerged from that bird were incredible. There was so much detail in those paintings that would require an enormous amount of description.
One of my personal favourites - Sooty Shearwater

I know it certainly is in the pipelines to potentially resurrect the 'Young Birder of the Year' competition that may well include a notebook/fieldsketch section. 
Cameras cost thousands; a pencil and notebook can cost as little as £1...on your next twitch, patch visit etc, there's no need to break the bank! The art of field sketching isn't dead just yet!

By Zac Hinchcliffe
When Zac's not counting birds on patch, he's usually ringing birds on his regular Bangor site or is depressed that he does't have the money or time to twitch the latest big thing. Zac is 21 and currently studying a Research Masters at Bangor University and investigating Welsh Twite; adding a touch of science to his birding.

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