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The Laws Guide to Drawing Birds

Handbook / Manual
A new way to see and draw birds

By: John Muir Laws (Author), David Allen Sibley (Foreword By)

117 pages, 700+ colour illustrations

Heyday Books

Paperback | Sep 2012 | #202047 | ISBN-13: 9781597141956
Availability: Usually dispatched within 6 days Details
NHBS Price: £27.50 $34/€31 approx

About this book

John Muir Laws's guide to drawing birds is itself winged, soaring between a devotion not only to art but also to the lives, forms, and postures of the birds themselves. Here, artistic technique and the exquisite details of natural history intertwine, and drawing becomes the vehicle for seeing. As Laws writes, "To draw feathers, you must understand how feathers grow, overlap, and insert into the body. To create the body, you must have an understanding of the bird's skeletal structure. To pose this skeleton, you must be able to perceive the energy, intention, and life of the bird."

This how-to guide will perfect the technique of serious arists but also, perhaps more importantly, it will provide guidance for those who insist they can't draw. Leading the mind and hand through a series of detailed exercises, Laws delivers what he promises: that "drawing birds opens you to the beauty of the world."

"[...] If you’ve ever even remotely considered drawing birds, you will find The Laws Guide to Drawing Birds eye-opening, and then essential. If you are already an experienced artist, this guide is so “detailed and thorough” that it would be helpful to you as well, as David Allen Sibley writes in the forward here. Even if you never plan to take up pen or brush, there are still important lessons that you can learn. Altogether then, I’d recommend it to anyone interested in birds (excepting Mr. Sibley – I think he’s ok!)."
– Grant McCreary (20-12-2012), read the full review at The Birder's Library

"Tips that only an expert could provide are included throughout. Bird-watchers will be pleasantly surprised to discover how helpful this book can be toward fully seeing and understanding the birds they spot."
Library Journal

"I have read through Jack Laws's Guide to Drawing Birds, and my only comment is that it is outstanding – both from an artistic and ornithological perspective. I wish I had such a book when I first began to draw birds. Reading through the text and, more importantly, exploring his drawings and paintings, leads me through the visual journey that Jack took when he observed the subtle details of each bird. The book is well written, richly illustrated, and beautifully designed."
 – Robert Petty, Director of Field Support, Audubon


"This book is American in origin and so for a Brit the subjects are almost all refreshingly Nearctic. It is full of good sketches by John Muir Laws from beginning to end, but my heart sank when, after only a few pages, I found the reader introduced to the two-circles technique for drawing birds; field sketching is eventually dealt with in detail on page 75. That early impression is, however, rather harsh; delving deeper into this book there is an astonishing amount of information on bird structure and mechanics, which every birder, let alone budding artist, would do well to read and study carefully.

The introductory chapter ‘Bird Drawing Basics’ has the dreaded two-circles section, which, after several re-reads, still leaves me unsure as to what situation the author expects the budding artist to use this. I presume (now) that it would be as an indoor exercise before going out and looking at birds? If so, then the same ‘home study’ may also apply for the subsequent chapters. ‘Mastering Bird Anatomy’ is truly excellent, covering a huge range of ancillary topics from cranial kinesis to differing leg scale types, ‘Details and Tips for Common Birds’ has many thought-provoking pointers (but maybe once you have already started to tackle different bird families), while ‘Birds in Flight’ is also clear and instructive.

At last, ‘Field Sketching’ follows, and is mostly sound, if a little brief compared with the treatment of subjects thus far, and concentrates on using binoculars while sketching, mentioning only briefly the rather important alternative of using an angled telescope (thus freeing up both hands to hold sketchbook and pencil and facilitating simultaneous observation and drawing). The final chapter, ‘Materials and Techniques’, which covers well such things as observing light and shadow, goes into extraordinary detail on colour (even down to naming and shaming pigments) and is on the whole another successful chapter, but given the detail about coloured pencils there is curiously barely a word about brushes or paper – just what the author uses, and no mention of oils or acrylic.

For me, this book contains both excellent and less favourable sections. The weakness of this type of book is that a single author presents methods of work which are successful for them, whereas several specialist authors would have given a much greater breadth of alternative paths, materials and techniques from which the reader may be enthused."

- Alan Harris,, 17-02-2013

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John Muir Laws is a naturalist, educator, and artist, with degrees in conservation and resource studies from the University of California, Berkeley; in wildlife biology from the University of Montana, Missoula; and in scientific illustration from the University of California, Santa Cruz. He is a research associate with the California Academy of Sciences. Visit his website at

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