A pencil sketch of a captivating little songbird

A pencil sketch of a captivating little songbird

Still whiling away the Covid hours, this time with a little songbird pencil sketch. I’ve pottered around with the camera a bit, but nothing seems to pop out saying “post me”. Plus, it’s something to do with the relentless gloom.

I started on another street scene, but I’m struggling with the basics. The perspective is almost there, but something is off kilter. It’s difficult to pin down. To fight the frustration, I switched gears back to my old, feathered friends.  After flipping through a couple books, I settled on a lovely little winter sparrow. It’s also called an American Sparrow.

Start of a songbird pencil sketch

Pencil drawing of a winter sparrow - first draft

Start of a little songbird sketch

I thought about the lessons I learned over the last few years and applied them. First thing I did was layout the entire scene. In the past, I focused too much on one small area and work out from there. I sketched the outline of the bird. Then I traced in the branches and then the leaves. Working on the entire image, rather one small spot, made it easier to flesh the scene out. It was also a lot more fun. Working back and forth, laying in the basics then the shading was more challenging and interesting.

One of the other skills I worked on through the years is filling in the small details that create a full scene. Like the veins in the leaves and the shape of the fruit on the branches. I practiced drawing things like spheres and shading them, over and over. I have pages filled with them. The practice paid off. I finally got the shape and the shadows down. This in turn has created a better pencil sketch. Instead of an isolated little bird, I’ve begun to craft a scene.

The finished winter sparrow

Completed songbird sketch showing a little winter sparrow on a branch

A finished winter sparrow

The leg is a little too big and some of the feathers along the back of the sparrow are angled the wrong way. But the branches and fruit make the picture. I need to work on the leaves more. They are too static. I can feel a leaf binge coming on. I also need to work on a stronger sense of movement in the bird itself. Not sure how yet. That baffles me still. The pencil sketch is good but lacks a sense of realism. The bird isn’t lively enough. That too will come with time.

A simple urban pencil sketch – snippets of life in Toronto

A simple urban pencil sketch – snippets of life in Toronto

For years, I’ve wanted to try my hand at an urban pencil sketch. Drawing random snippets of life in a single frame has an emotional appeal to me. I’m attracted to any pencil sketches that show life in a city setting. But I’ve never been able to pull off a decent urban sketch. My sense of perspective is a bit off. It’s difficult for me to draw a street scene without everything looking slightly Daliesque. Domes slide off the tops of buildings, windows unaligned and a comical sense of proportions that throw the drawing into complete disarray.

What I see when I want to create an urban pencil sketch

I’ve bought so many “How to” books and read many websites that run through getting perspective correct, but after decades of trying I had stopped. My most heartfelt dream was to wander the city with a journal and sketch urban scenes on the go. I think, that’s why I eventually gravitated to a camera. Many of my shots are setup the way I see an urban pencil sketch unfolding. It’s difficult to explain, but this photo will help:

Photo taken from the outside a greenhouse, Each pane seems to tell a micro story.

The photo above was taken about 2 or 3 years ago. I was standing outside Allen Gardens watching people wander through the building. I kept seeing each frame telling a story. Blink and the scene changed. This is the type of image I always wanted to sketch out. But the skills weren’t there. In hindsight, it was less skills than the fear of failing that held me back. I was so busy reading How To books, I forgot to say, “screw it” and just draw.

Butterfly pencil sketch completed

I spent yesterday working on a new pencil drawing titled Waiting for the Subway. I’ve been less than thrilled by photos I’ve taken lately so it was time to shift gears and focus on sketching for a while. Earlier I worked my way through a slightly lopsided butterfly. The sketch came out better than I hoped, but it also gave me clues as to where I go wrong. I realised, although I use little guides to get the proportions correct, I tend to ignore them, once I start drawing in detail. I focus too much on one side of an image (usually the left side, go figure) and don’t see the entire picture.  This in turn leads me to get one portion spot on, and the rest looking like it’s tagged on at the end.

Here’s the completed butterfly to show you what I mean

Pencil sketch of a butterfly

It’s completed, but a bit lopsided

I realised I need to work on both sides of the image to keep the proportions correct.  Critiquing the butterfly encouraged me to try urban sketching again. I started with a basic multistory building to practice. I carefully laid out the grid, laid out the edges of the building, and started layering in the bricks and windows. The drawing was lopsided, but not as bad as previous attempts. It was good practice.

Urban pencil sketch – the outline

Next attempt in my sketching forays was a photo I took while waiting for the subway. I used it as the basis of some digital art, but never tried to free hand the scene.  I measured the lines on the original and laid them out on the paper, carefully measuring the distance between the vanishing lines. Then, instead of starting on one section and working out, I created a complete outline, not just guides.

Scan showing the outline for the Urban pencil sketch attempt

The basic outline of the subway at Union station

So far so good. I debated what pencil to use and settled on a mechanical pencil and gradually built up the framework. That’s my second fatal flaw, I start out too heavy handed when I draw and end up with a dark, heavy picture.

Layering some shading

Scan of the second step, filling in details

A bit of shading to flesh out details

I moved slowly, working back and forth, adding shadows, and building up the human figures. I also experimented with different shading techniques. Cross hatching works well for this sketch.

Third scan of the urban pencil sketch of the subway at Union station

Slowly the platform took shape

Working on the entire picture, rather than focusing on one small part, allowed me to make numerous micro adjustments as I went. It prevented the sketch from taking on that familiar unbalanced look.

Fleshing out the people on the platform

Forth scan shows even more shading layered into the sketch

Slowly building up the shadows

I stopped at this point and evaluated the shading. Where did I want to go with this? I knew my history of over doing things, so I had to think carefully.

Time for my faithful 2B pencil

Fifth scan shows the effect of a softer pencil lead on the sign above the platform

The sign starts to pop out

A darker lead was needed, so time for my beloved 2B pencil. I focused on the sign to give it emphasis.  I also used the 2B pencil on various parts of the clothing to bring out the creases and highlights.

My first urban pencil sketch completed – Waiting for the Subway

Final scan - Urban pencil sketching the TTC

Completed urban pencil sketch – my very first

To complete the sketch, I used a 9B lead on the sign above the platform to make it really pop. It guides the eye along the platform and seems to pull everything together.

I didn’t finish the people on the left of the platform. I liked the way they started to come out of the wall. I also wimped out on the lady with all the bags. No feet. I struggled with them and decided no feet was the only choice. Overall, I’m thrilled to have pulled it off. My first genuine urban pencil sketch.

What will be my next urban pencil sketch? No idea, but I feel cocky now.

A struggle to get a realistic pencil sketch

A struggle to get a realistic pencil sketch

My pencil sketch of a butterfly isn’t going well. I’m not sure what I’m doing wrong, but it just isn’t working out. It’s ok. But none of my attempts are realistic so far. To improve, I am keeping a journal of the steps taken to draw a realistic butterfly.

First attempt at a butterfly pencil sketch

I couldn’t seem to get the pencil strokes right.  The pencil sketch has more of a draft feel to it, but the delicate wings are baffling me. I can get the body and the shadows, but how do I capture a realistic feel to the wings?

 

Scan of first attempt at a butterfly pencil sketch nearly completed

I became frustrated with this and abandoned it.

Can’t remember what paper I used. It’s something I have laying around for doodling on. I thought maybe, I need rougher paper, something that would grab the pencil lead a bit more. Butterfly 1 was set aside.

Butterfly pencil sketch two – another meh

Scan of the second attempt at drawing a butterfly

Hmm, ok, but not realistic

I stopped at the body. The entire sketch wasn’t working. Still very two dimensional. I switched up the style and tried a stippling pattern on some of the wing portions, trying for a less mechanical feel to the bug parts. I spent about an hour working on different strokes and styles, moving between a mechanical pencil and regular pencils of various lead types. I tend to rely on 2b pencils more than I should, but I love the way it feels running across paper. And that’s where I went wrong, again, with this drawing. It’s too uniform in the blacks, and I didn’t leave myself room for lacy sections of the wing.

Looking at the second drawing makes me think just a mechanical pencil should be used. Start with a basic HB and then gradually shift to a softer led?

In search of sketching help

I watch several YouTube artists channels that have helped enormously. In this instance, I need something a bit more butterfly oriented. This one is useful for the basics How to Draw a Butterfly Step-by-Step.  It’s helpful in understanding the outline and patterns but doesn’t get down to sketching a realistic butterfly with pencils. This next site has a bit more shadowing details Easy Drawings and Sketches. I like how they shade parts of the wings to give them depth. Both helped in understanding butterfly bodies.

Third kick at the pencil can

A scan of a partially completed pencil sketch of a butterfly

Third try and it’s still not there

This one is better, but still missing depth. I’ll go back at it tonight and see how the second wing fleshes out. This time I used a gentler hand on the shading and switched up between the mechanical pencil leads and a very sharp 6b for the darkest spots. Keeping the point on a 6b is a trial.

The body has potential but needs more work. The soft feathery bits around the body need more depth and an airy feel to them, but that’s easy to correct as I go along. At this point, I’m not sure what I’m going to do for the head. I’ve spent so much time fussing with the wings. I haven’t even thought about it.

Although the wings are better defined in this sketch, I still went too heavy handed on it. That’s my drawing kryptonite. I never know when to stop with the shading and strong strokes. But the patterns are much better this outing.

There’s still an element to the butterfly’s structure I’m missing. Something about them I’m not understanding. More research is required.

Butterfly biology and summing up

This has been a maddening and satisfying exercise. I’m attempting to push myself creatively and try drawing things that … are scary to draw. No, butterflies aren’t frightening (at least to me). The fear of failing is. It’s easy to start a sketch and give up when it doesn’t work. I’m applying the ideas I’ve acquired from my amateur photography sessions to my drawing – just keep at it. Examine everything, look for tips and hints from people who are better and keep a progress journal.

One thing I did when I started drawing birds was look at ornithology texts. I went through many books and websites that dealt with detailed anatomy of bird eyes, feet, beaks, and differences in feathers. It wasn’t until I understood more about bird anatomy did my drawings improve. At that point, my pencil sketches took on a realistic feel.

Scan of pencil sketches of bird heads and beaks

First step is understanding the diversity

Scan of drawings of eyes from various species of birds

Second step is examing the finer details

I also took several trips to the Royal Ontario Museum and used their ornithology resources. The ROM has “birds on a stick” you can access to see the details up close. Their material is first rate and accessible for novices like me. I spent hours doing nothing but drawing bird feet, beaks, and eyes. Unfortunately, that’s not a luxury I can tap into at this time. I’ll have to make do with internet resources.

My recent searches took me to Cornel University’s little pdf The Biology of Butterflies compiled by Emily Kearny, Cornell University, 2010. It illustrated what I’ve been doing wrong.

An image from Biology of Butterflies showing details of a butterfly's structure

Veins and wing order

Do you see what I’ve been missing? Two vital misunderstandings of butterfly anatomy. First is the wing order. There is a forewing and a hindwing. That clarifies how the shadows on the wing should fall. It’s a subtle aspect, but important.

The bigger triumph of knowledge is in the second image. Those lines I’ve been glossing over are wing veins. They aren’t the pattern, they are veins. Funny how this bit of information has made me want to try a new butterfly pencil sketch. Knowing where all the veins are, are like following a road map to the butterfly’s design. This is exciting.

So, there you go. You get to share my successes and failures. Although, I hesitate to use the word failure in hindsight. Less a failure than a building block to achieving stronger skills.

Bring on the adult fidget spinners

Bring on the adult fidget spinners

I’m incapable of sitting around doing nothing so my hands find things to turn into adult fidget spinners. I’m designed to fidget. I have no science to back my theory of Genetic Fidgitery but just ride with me on it.

I have notebooks and bits of paper filled with random doodles and thoughts – most of which collect dust until I toss them in a spasm of tidiness.  I’m one of those people who tears apart a paper cup to create little dioramas when I’m out having coffee with friends. I’ve destroyed hundreds of paper clips in meetings.  Worse still, I’ll carefully tear the label off beer bottles and fold them into little creatures. I’m paying attention to the conversations around me, It’s just my hands start fidgeting. A friend recently threatened to buy me a child’s toybox so I’d have things to play with.

Sometimes I see something, a shape usually, that triggers an idea that plunges me down a rabbit hole of silly ideas. Recently, while having a mediocre coffee in a place that will remain unnamed – forgive me espresso gods – I kept staring at the clip art coffee bean  on the back of the bag. With the right flourishes, it would make a great badge for the magazine and ended up with Killer Bean:

Well, not a fidget spinner, but a scan of a hand drawn logo of a coffee bean with fangs.

This would make a great fidget spinner for me

If that isn’t the name of an espresso bar, then it damn well should be.