Spotted Towhee © 2020 Tara Kate

In a recent post, I asked Do You Have to Be a Birder to Be a Good Bird Artist? But during a recent hike, I asked myself a different question: How can I bird like an artist?

Volumes and Planes

If you use a lot of photo reference in your art, as I do, you’ll quickly notice that images appear very flat. That’s because photographers prefer very even lighting, which reduces the shadows. In addition, they may be shooting at a very low F-stop which places only part of the bird in sharp focus. Seeing volumes and planes in these kinds of photos is very challenging!

When you’re observing a bird in the field, however, you get a variety of natural lighting which allows you to see how the birds are actually shaped. This is a great opportunity to do a quick field sketch or take some notes to help you when you return to the studio.

Habits and Habitats

During a recent trip to Findley National Wildlife Refuge, we started out in the forest but wandered into a restored prairie. Suddenly, we were seeing a whole different bird community! A Common Yellowthroat began performing a flight display—floating higher and higher into the sky and then swooping down to perch near his would-be mate.

This kind of experience is a reminder to take some reference photos of vegetation or even do a plein air of the habitat as a study for a future piece.

Poses and Activity

Bird photographers love profile views! Zip over to eBird and take a look at just about any species. The quality varies but the poses are nearly interchangeable.

Birding for real shows you just how many poses a bird might be in during the course of its day. As you watch it, you’ll see all kinds of activities from foraging to flying to stretching or even scratching an itch! As an artist, you can start to ask yourself: How might I depict this animal to tell a story and make it come alive? Suddenly, a perfect profile looks very static and boring!

Try telling yourself a story about the bird you’re watching. Having a narrative will help you to envision how to create a composition that is more true to life.

Angles and Points of View

Have you ever had warbler neck? It’s a condition that a birder gets after peering through binoculars at warblers high in the canopy over head.

Warbler neck aside, when you’re out birding, you’ll see birds from all sorts of angles and points of view—above, overhead, to the side, and straight on.

As an artist, this gives you so many more options in how you portray your subjects. Take notes or do a field sketch to capture your perspective. You might want to show warblers from below now and then!


Many years ago, when I was living in Panama, a Southern House Wren walked into my kitchen. I was gobsmacked! Not just because a bird had strolled into my house, but because Northern House Wrens don’t walk—they hop!

Birds are rarely still; they are almost always in motion. Yet most photo reference shows birds still and perched. As artists, we can bring our subjects to life by representing them in motion. Do a few quick thumbnail sketches while your experiences are still fresh.

Are you a birding artist? What are some of the ways that you combine birding with arting?

Want more ideas like this?

I publish Painterly, a monthly newsletter for bird-loving artists who want to learn more about birds and grow their artistic skills.

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