Sunday, December 4, 2011

Drawing From Memory

Yesterday we decided to take a brief break and take advantage of the sun and relatively warm weather. But a two hour walk at Morris Arboretum found few birds until we were getting near to closing time.

I thought I saw some movement in some tall grasses. I put my binoculars on it and saw a sparrow like bird with its tail cocked. Soon after it flushed and went to the top of a tall grass. The first thing I noticed was the buffy/ochre malar, one sign of a Lincoln's Sparrow. That got my attention and so I looked very carefully trying to note all the markings.

I was so involved with that that I forgot I was carrying my camera. Soon it flew, and then flew again. Another sparrow like bird flew with it. About 15 minutes later we came across two more very secretive sparrows in the grasses. You could see the stems move as they ate but the birds themselves just wouldn't show themselves.

For me this is always an interesting time. I'd love to say that at least one of the birds was the beautiful Lincoln's Sparrow. But was there enough evidence?

When I got home I looked through 3 or 4 guides trying to come to a conclusion. The buffy malars, fine streaking on breast and gray nape, all of which I carefully noted while looking at bird, indicated possible Lincoln's. But as it flew there was a flash of a light, whitish belly. That seemed more reminiscent of a Savannah Sparrow than a Lincoln's.

This is one of the many instances where as a birder you really can't say for sure what you've seen. And if the bird is mainly in memory without any visual representation it may morph into just about anything over time.

So today I decided to do some sketches from memory. I knew that they would look bad. I just don't know birds well enough that I can do a good job drawing them from memory.

Those sketches are above. In one I wanted to capture the buffy malar. In another I tried to show the fine-streaking and center spot when viewed from the front. Finally a sketch showing the cocked tail.

After that I pulled out some photos I'd taken of a Lincoln's Sparrow at Magee Marsh this spring. I then did the watercolor at top based on it. This was a very quick, 30-60 minute sketch.

As I did it I compared it to my sketches from memory. Boy I have the position of the malar wrong don't I? But I find that this is a good way to learn. Try to draw what I can recall. Then draw or paint from a detailed photo seeing both what was wrong with the memory sketches but also accentuating some areas, like the buffy malar, because of the strong memory of it.

I think the best artists can most likely do recognizable birds from memory. I hope one day that I'll reach that state. But the only way to do it is to keep practicing, knowing all the while that the results along the way maybe almost embarassing.

This type of exercise is also helpful to my abilities as a birder. As I compare what I remembered from memory to what a detailed photo of the presumed species i learn more about that species. At the end of the exercise I'm more convinced than ever that it was a Lincoln's Sparrow. But I'll have to go find it again to prove it!


Ellen Snyder said...

Hi Ken, With your description of the secretive sparrows and the sketches I can picture you straining to get a better view of the darn sparrows. People tend to ignore sparrows, but regardless whether you are 100% sure of the i.d., they are rather pretty birds with streaks, dots, muted colors, and their terrific ability to stay hidden in the tall grass. Nice watercolor.

Gabrielle said...

Hi Ken,

I really like your watercolor! And your exercise in memory sketching and then comparing it to your photos and learning from it is an excellent lesson both as an artist and a birder. IDing sparrows tends to make my brain shut down in frustration. Good for you for persevering!

Ken Januski said...

Hi Ellen,

Yes those sparrows do often have me straining for a better view. They're up just momentarily then back deep into the vegetation. But if you get a good look at them it's hard not to be impressed by their subtle beauty.

I guess this is the time of subtle gray and brown beauty, in birds and in vegetation.

Ken Januski said...

Thanks Gabrielle,

I think I need to do more memory drawings. It is an excellent learning tool for both artist and birder as you say.

I do understand the part about your brain shutting down with sparrows. I'm very familiar with it! But I'm trying harder. I do think just dabbling with sketching them has made me pay much more attention to what they actually look like.