Archive for category Subject: Birds

The Book of The Raven || Angus Hyland & Caroline Roberts

Ever since this arrived, it has been sitting on my desk, as opposed to being consigned to the “must get round to that” pile. It has several page markers in it, including the delivery note for an obscure book about the fishing industry (my reading is nothing if not eclectic), a reminder to complete my tax return and details of how to pay my electricity bill. So much of it captures the imagination that you’ll mark the pages with anything that comes to hand. Probably best not to be eating a bacon sandwich.

It helps, of course, to be a bit of a birdwatcher and a particular fan of Corvids (the book includes the whole family, despite the headline title) and of inking. Although colour is anything but absent from these pages, crows, ravens and rooks are black as ink and therefore a challenge to the artist.

The approach is the same as The Book of The Tree, in which Angus Hyland was also involved and I sense a theme, possibly a series here. There are well chosen illustrations in a variety of styles from a variety of artists, as well as history, natural history, legend and lore. Of course the Mad Hatter’s riddle is included: Why is a raven like a writing desk? Carroll’s own explanation makes no sense which, knowing Carroll, I suspect is deliberate. But why not “Because they both have quills as black as ink”?

What can I say? I absolutely love this. It may not be to everyone’s taste, but the choice of material, production and format are pitch-perfect if it’s yours.

The back cover quotes Edgar Allen Poe: “Darkness there and nothing more”. Oh, there’s a lot more, mate.

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Drawing Birds || Andrew Forkner

Where Andrew’s previous book dealt with acrylics and included colour, this concentrates on drawing and monochrome.

Birds are never an easy subject and simply observing them can be a challenge. Although Andrew does not cover the use of photographs in detail, he does hint at their possibilities and also has some useful notes on sketching in the field. The assumption is, I think, that you’ll find your own reference material, of which there is plenty available.

The book begins with some handy notes on structure and plumage along with features such as eyes, beaks and bills. This section is worthy of considerable attention as it introduces basic techniques and helps you work towards the complete studies that come later.

These demonstrations cover a good variety of species from garden birds to waterfowl, birds of prey and game birds. Andrew shows you how to map out the outline and structure and then fill in the shading so that your finished result has both shape and solidity.

Although birds are not a subject for the complete beginner, neither is this a masterclass that need deter those who are new to the subject and it should satisfy them as well as those who want to take the art considerably further.

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Bird Art || Alan Woollett

This is not, I think it’s fair to say, for the faint-hearted. Birds are a challenge to paint at the best of times, but in this detail, you need absolute confidence with your materials and techniques. If you’re up for it, however, this guide will satisfy the most demanding exponent. If you think of the difference between basic flower painting and botanical illustration, you’ll get the idea of what’s involved. Back when I was selling books, I was always surprised by how well this kind of thing did, so I think there’s a solid market.

The medium used is graphite and coloured pencils, which are capable of great subtlety of shading and record fine detail readily. The book has, as you’d expect, plenty of step-by-step demonstrations, but the way they’re incorporated into the overall instruction is interesting. Rather than an introductory section on materials and techniques that is separate from the main work, Alan plunges pretty much straight in. There’s no real “basic” section, but rather considerations of composition, colour, structure and the overall shape of the finished work: “leaving space” is some of the soundest advice here.

There are more words in this than you sometimes get in instructional books, but also plenty of illustrations and this betokens the fact that Alan is under no illusions about the magnitude of the task he has set himself. Although I said that this is not a book for the beginner, he doesn’t short-change the student and explains both the technical and ornithological considerations absolutely as much as is necessary.

This is a major work and Alan carries it through rather magnificently.

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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.

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Drawing Birds With Colored Pencils || Kaaren Poole

Let’s get one thing clear before we start: this is an American book. You need to know that or you’ll be in for a shock the moment you look up “Robin”. There’s a UK-originated book coming later this year, but that’ll be on acrylics and anyway, this is so good that I think its transatlantic coverage is something you should try to ignore.

The book consist of a series of demonstrations which have a good amount of step-by-step instruction, but a limited number of individual illustrations. This makes it something for the more advanced worker, but frankly, this is a subject you probably wouldn’t want to tackle as a beginner anyway. Each demonstration covers a different species and starts with the colours you’re going to need. Kaaren tends to work using her colours straight, with only a small amount of blending, so it may be more pencils than you’re used to. She then proceeds in a series of three layers and explains the stages that go into each. You get an illustration for each layer but, as I said, not each stage.

Coloured pencils can produce wonderfully fine detail and are perfect for feathers, where a little blending gives you the softness of colour interaction. Achieving this is something Kaaren covers comprehensively.

This is a gorgeous book. The basic principles of mark-making, colour and structure can be applied to any bird, but you are going to have to be prepared to make that jump from what you see on the page to what you see on the branch. It’s worth the effort, though.

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Painting Wildlife step by step || Rod Lawrence

I think it’s fair to say that you need a fair degree of skill under your belt before you tackle this book. However, that’s not unreasonable, because birds and animals are a difficult subject and anything that proclaims itself a beginner’s guide is inevitably going to trivialise and simply annoy the more serious practitioner.

That said, for those who aren’t daunted by the author’s highly detailed approach, it does start somewhere near the beginning, with main chapter heads devoted to fur, feathers, eyes and ears, feet and tails, etc. In other words, short demonstrations covering basic structure rather than full-blown and perhaps rather off-putting projects covering a whole creature.

Doing things this way allows you to build up your skills and techniques progressively and also to pick out whatever it is you need at any particular time. If there’s a criticism, it’s that there aren’t any complete projects, so you never get that “pulling it all together” section that most books like to include. Although, as the book is already 144 pages long, extending it in this way could double the length or significantly reduce the admirable attention to detail that characterises the author’s approach. Forewarned, you shouldn’t feel short-changed when you come to the end.

The overall approach is painstaking and Rod does well to break a complex and difficult subject down into manageable chunks that don’t become overwhelming.

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Draw Series

Looking at this series, which has just been reissued, it comes as a surprise to realise that it was first published in 1981, making most of the volumes over 25 years old. All too often, publishers look at their backlist with an uncritical eye that seems to overlook developments in style and design that they themselves have done much to push forward and eagerly reissue titles that just look tired and do their list no favours at all. However, the initial impression here is of a freshness and clarity that many more recent books would do well to emulate.

Each book is a mere 48 pages but, at £4.99, very competitively priced and covers a remarkable amount of ground. By sticking to a single subject, the general preamble is kept short and the authors are able to get stuck straight in, covering all the main areas right from the start. Text is kept to a minimum, giving the greatest prominence to the artwork itself and it is this, as much as anything else, that contributes to the longevity of the series as art instruction books have moved away from lengthy discursive text to shorter descriptions which mainly take the form of extended captions. This, in itself, has been driven by advances in printing technology which has provided illustrations which are nearly as good as the original itself.

These books are excellent primers for the novice and will encourage as well as educate.

Reissued 2007
£4.99 per volume

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