Q&A: John Muir Laws discusses “The Laws Guide to Drawing Birds”

John Muir Laws is the author of the recent title “The Laws Guide to Drawing Birds”, a manual on drawing the natural world and cultivating new ways of seeing that grant one’s artistic technique more precision and accuracy. Here, he talks about the logistical and philosophical factors at play in nature, his work as an artist-cum-naturalist, and the book itself.

Why is drawing important to you?

Drawing is important because it’s a way of improving my ability to observe. I actually see better when I draw. If I’m just looking at something, I can easily miss the details. But if I observe while drawing, I look again and again at things that I thought I knew. I see details that I thought I knew but never really concentrated on or details I would have glanced over if I hadn’t been drawing. Another thing drawing does is helps me remember what I observe. It cements an experience in my memory.

What do you believe happens to an individual when they combine drawing with oberserving nature?

Drawing a bird makes you slow down long enough to really observe the details, not just field marks. It gets you looking at the bird’s proportions, shape and silhouette, and helps get an intuitive sense of the characteristics of birds. The act of drawing also forces you to sit till long enough to let the birds get used to you in their environment, for them to relax and show you behaviors that you otherwise wouldn’t have seen. In short, drawing helps us be actively engaged in observation while we wait for the birds to accept us into their world.

For you, how does drawing birds fit in with a goal of environmental preservation?

I think an interesting and useful definition of love is sustained and compassionate attention. If we’re able to give a partner or beloved undivided and focused attention with an overall sense of caring, it allows us you to be present, to listen; so let’s apply that to nature. The process of drawing something forces you to sustain your attention on it. I find that if you really spend time observing something, drawing something, you develop a much greater appreciation for what you are drawing. I literally fall in love with what I draw and this gives me a stronger will as a conservationist. The beauty of times spent among wild things is sustaining. It is easy for people to get burned out in this line of work; but falling in love with nature prevents that. The process of drawing forces us to give attention, and when we give attention, we fall in love.

Laws Guide to Drawing Birds

In your book, the focus is not on drawing a pretty picture or creating a good piece of art, but rather on creating a picture that is genuine to the experience and true to what is observed. What do believe an artist can achieve in embracing this philosophy? What can a scientist?

I use drawing as a meditation process, I do not think that I can create anything more beautiful than the speckling and patterns on the body of Lesser Yellowlegs. Drawing is a way of appreciating that beauty. My drawing and sketching is a way to throw myself more deeply into observing more details. For me the satisfaction comes from the process itself, not so much the product. If you observed something more deeply, if you’re able to remember it, then you’ve been touched by the beauty of the Lesser Yellowlegs. There are times when I do get wrapped around trying to make a pretty picture, during those times the process of drawing is not as fun. But the more I let that go, the more I draw. If I draw a lot, I get better at drawing. Drawing builds observational skills that are essential for a scientist and makes being alive a richer experience.

It’s obvious that a lot of careful research went into this book, how has your research of birds (structure, anatomy, behavior, etc.) changed your drawing process over the years?

The more that I am able to see and understand below the surface, the better I am able to catch the spirit and essence of each bird. In order to draw feathers convincingly, I want to understand the structures below. How are those patterns made up by the masses of feathers? Understanding more deeply doesn’t restrict my ability, it improves my ability to, with a few lines, generalize a lot of information. It allows me to capture the spirit and the essence of the bird, rather than just get focused on some more superficial. Understanding the structure of the bird makes the mechanical process easier, so I can spend more time getting the feeling behind that bird. I want to capture the essence and energy of that bird. How they move? How don’t they move?

What other types of animals, if any, do you observe while in the field and what do different animals teach you?

I draw whatever I encounter. When I go out to sketch, I don’t say to myself “I’m going to go draw birds.” What I do is go out try and find what is going on at this place on this day at this time. If I find a spider, a flower, a track, a pattern of clouds that captures my eye, I’ll take notes of that and put it in my sketchbook. If I do that I can capture what’s true to a certain place at certain time. If I’m drawing a flower, other animals get used to my presence and show themselves. I take advantage of this situation and switch over to drawing them.

What are your hopes for this book? What do you hope readers get from it?

 

I hope that I put together a set of resources that will help people incorporate sketching into their practice of nature study. I want to make the tool of nature sketching accessible to other people. Making a carefully planned drawing of birds helps us notice things that we really would not see otherwise. I would like to help people fall in love with the world that is around them everyday. I’ve done my job if somebody could see a Song Sparrow and be overwhelmed and delighted with the subtly and beauty of the feathers rather than saying “another Song Sparrow, already on my list” and move on. Finally my hope is that with this growing love, our collective sense of stewardship and duty to protect wildness and nature will grow

Education and outreach is also a passion of yours, can you give some insight into what you’re experiences as an educator have taught you?

I have done a lot of work leading nature trips, nature study experiences and also field sketching experiences and I have watched the transformative effect and joy that comes form people collecting their experiences into a notebook. It is a powerful educational tool. We take for granted that if a person can see, a person can observe, I would argue that making accurate observations is a skill. It’s the most important skill for a scientist or a writer or for being an engaged human being. The more we can see perceive, notice, and understand the more productive we’re going to be with whatever we’re doing. People get to college and don’t know how to observe an experiment happening right in front of their face. All science comes from accurate observations. I think observation is the most important life skill I can teach.

Is there anything else you’d like to share about your book?

One idea that is very important and misunderstood, people think of drawing as a gift that some people have and others don’t, I don’t agree. Drawing is not a gift, it’s a skill, a skill that you develop by doing and that improves with practice. Anyone can develop this skill by making drawing a regular practice. If you don’t draw you don’t get better. I’d like to encourage people not to fall into the trap of thinking “oh my cousin is the artist, I never got the drawing gene.” If you think of it that way you’ll really curse yourself. If you draw on a regular basis (say 3 times a week) it takes about a year to really have this skill solidly come up and work for you. Pretty pictures will come if you draw a lot of pictures.