A-Z of Bird Portraits || Andrew Forkner

There aren’t many books on painting birds. The reason, of course, isn’t hard to find: not many people want (or think they want) to paint them. They do, however, provide a wide variety of colourful subjects and there’s no reason in reality for them to be any less popular than flowers. And you can’t move for books on flowers.

Andrew Forkner adopts the sensible strategy of putting all the basic techniques (working in acrylics) together at the beginning of the book. These include information on colours, composition, eyes, beaks and, most importantly, feathers. These are the building blocks you’ll use later when it comes to particular species. The approach avoids continuous repetition, but it does mean a degree of jumping about if you haven’t fully grasped the technical elements – which, frankly, you should have. Time spent at this stage is like learning musical scales, unexciting perhaps, but invaluable.

The bulk of the book is devoted to the twenty-seven (yes, you get a bonus one) that the title implies. Arranging things by Latin rather than common names gives Andrew a bit of leeway, but the fact is that he still has to incorporate European, North American and other species in order to fulfil the brief the title gives him. It also means that each demonstration has to be relatively short – four pages including the final image that introduces it. Although the introductory technical sections cover a lot of the methodological work, you still get very few step-by-step stages and are limited to an initial sketch, a list of colours and a simple set of instructions linked to a captioned half-way stage and a detail breakout.

In the end, the variety promised by the title is a bit of a straitjacket. A lot has to be crammed into a limited space (even if it is 144 pages) and many of the species illustrated will be unfamiliar – European Robin, yes, Bee-eater, I wish, Red-billed Quelea … what? (That’s where the classification-by-Latin – Quelea quelea – and alphabetisation bit you on the leg, wasn’t it?) To be fair, though, I counted at least 19 species I have a fighting chance of seeing and a few more I have at least heard of.

The whole thing is neatly executed and is about as good, within its own constraints, as it could be. The A-Z format has worked before, but that was for flowers, and it’s just that I’m not sure this is the place for it. Flowers are popular and well-known. Birds are, too, but I doubt there are enough people who both admire them and want to paint them for something like this to work. It’s not, when all’s said and done, a book for the complete beginner and I do honestly think that’s what’s needed. On the other hand, if you’re passionate about painting birds but need practice and instruction, this is absolutely the book for you.

Click the picture to view on Amazon

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