Because I spend so much time looking for and using photo reference, I have had to learn to cope with inadequate images. Here are a three lessons I’ve learned that help me to get good results even when the photo doesn’t show everything I’d like it to.
Lesson One: The more you know about bird morphology, the better.
There is no perfect photo. Often, bird photos are taken at a low F-stop and the focal plane is very shallow. As a result, some portion of the bird is always going to be in soft focus. In addition, photos are often taken in flat light so the shadows that would give hints to volume are minimal or absent. And, naturally, parts of the bird are sometimes hidden or so badly out of focus that they can’t be used as reference at all.
The more I have learned about birds — especially bill, feathers, and feet—the less these problems have bothered me. By looking at literally hundreds of birds, I know what I’m looking for and what “should” be there. Whether it’s a part of the foot or the direction of feather growth, the more experience you have with the details of how a bird is put together, the better you will get at not only depicting those features but also determining what you need to compensate for.
Lesson Two: Always look at more than one image.
When I was drawing the Wrentit shown above, I started with an image from Wikimedia Commons. The image used was somewhat fuzzy and the resolution wasn’t great. But I liked the position of the bird. Once I had the contour drawn, I started looking at many other photos which showed certain details of the plumage more clearly (like this closeup). The level of detail in my drawing is much, much higher than anything the photo reference could provide. It was my knowledge of bird morphology aided by the other photos that allowed me to do that.
Lesson Three: Don’t be afraid to improvise and stylize.
Once you’ve gotten a good foundation of artistic skill and bird knowledge, you can start stepping away from the photo reference to add details that aren’t shown at all. For example, I always show the pupil in birds’ eyes. In many species, the iris is so dark that the pupil isn’t visible but I know it’s there and I prefer to give an indication of its presence.
Other ways I improvise are by adding or subtracting shadows, emphasizing feather edges (sometimes by adding a little wear), and “pushing” values by making certain areas darker than they might normally be. These are ways that I push past the limitation of the photo reference to create a more detailed image that is, to me, more interesting to look at.