The Laws Guide to Drawing Birds, by John Muir Laws

Published on 17 February 2013 in Book reviews

Audubon, 2012; pbk, 117 pages; colour throughout; ISBN 978-1-59714-195-6

Subbuteo code M21581, £22.50

This book is American in origin and so for a Brit the subjects are almost all refreshingly Nearctic. It is full of good sketches by John Muir Laws from beginning to end, but my heart sank when, after only a few pages, I found the reader introduced to the two-circles technique for drawing birds; field sketching is eventually dealt with in detail on page 75. That early impression is, however, rather harsh; delving deeper into this book there is an astonishing amount of information on bird structure and mechanics, which every birder, let alone budding artist, would do well to read and study carefully.

The introductory chapter ‘Bird Drawing Basics’ has the dreaded two-circles section, which, after several re-reads, still leaves me unsure as to what situation the author expects the budding artist to use this. I presume (now) that it would be as an indoor exercise before going out and looking at birds? If so, then the same ‘home study’ may also apply for the subsequent chapters. ‘Mastering Bird Anatomy’ is truly excellent, covering a huge range of ancillary topics from cranial kinesis to differing leg scale types, ‘Details and Tips for Common Birds’ has many thought-provoking pointers (but maybe once you have already started to tackle different bird families), while ‘Birds in Flight’ is also clear and instructive.

At last, ‘Field Sketching’ follows, and is mostly sound, if a little brief compared with the treatment of subjects thus far, and concentrates on using binoculars while sketching, mentioning only briefly the rather important alternative of using an angled telescope (thus freeing up both hands to hold sketchbook and pencil and facilitating simultaneous observation and drawing). The final chapter, ‘Materials and Techniques’, which covers well such things as observing light and shadow, goes into extraordinary detail on colour (even down to naming and shaming pigments) and is on the whole another successful chapter, but given the detail about coloured pencils there is curiously barely a word about brushes or paper – just what the author uses, and no mention of oils or acrylic.

For me, this book contains both excellent and less favourable sections. The weakness of this type of book is that a single author presents methods of work which are successful for them, whereas several specialist authors would have given a much greater breadth of alternative paths, materials and techniques from which the reader may be enthused.

Alan Harris

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