Why Use Sport Optics to Sketch Wildlife?

In the same way that binoculars and telescopes have revolutionized the way we observe nature, they have revolutionized the way we approach wildlife sketching and painting in the field. The advantages are particularly felt when rendering birds; their fleeting nature and small size make it often difficult to get close looks without flushing them. Sport optics allow us to see great detail, even at a distance.

The key to good field sketches is plenty of time observing. By holding a sketch pad in one hand, I can use the binoculars with the other.
The key to good field sketches is to spend as much time observing your subject as possible. By holding a sketch pad in one hand, I can use the binoculars with the other. This way, I can go back and forth quickly between views and drawing to give my thumbnails the necessary character.

Binoculars give you the portability to do sketches on-the-go while using a small sketch pad. This is a great way of loosening up and doing quick gestures. You’d be surprised how much of a bird’s posture and behavior you can capture in this manner. It is an excellent way of quickly retaining information about your observations while you are birding and will help you better understand birds in the long run.

With their greater magnification, spotting scopes are excellent for observing extreme detail on birds. Once upon a time, only a bird in the hand could have given us such information to complete our drawings and paintings. With practice, it is possible to create accurate renderings of birds and other wildlife based entirely on observation through a scope, without the need for additional source material. With the stability of the tripod, you may spend lengthy periods of observation while developing complex drawing and paintings.

The stability of a scope and tripod frees your hands for lengthier sketches.
The stability of a scope and tripod frees your hands for lengthier sketches.

But why use binoculars or a scope to draw wildlife, when one could just take multiple photographs and video, and paint from the comfort of the studio?

While some like to work exclusively from photographs, I like to base my work as much as possible on the field experience. My position on the use of photographs is that it would be a big loss of a tremendous opportunity not to take advantage of their ready availability as reference material. Where many err in the use of photos is when they copy ONE image, and inevitably turn out a lifeless drawing.

But at the end of the day, it is all about what you want to get from a sketch or a painting. If all you are interested in is the pure enjoyment of expressing animals through an unrestricted use of form and color, then field sketching with optics may not be the challenge for you.

As I observed a Snail Kite on its perch, I took advantage of its head constantly turning to understand its complex bill from different perspectives.
As I observed a Snail Kite on its perch, I took advantage of its head constantly turning to learn more about its complex bill and head by sketching it from different perspectives.

The great advantage of working from a living subject is the opportunity to observe and understand its form “in the round.” Copying one photograph will never give you that advantage, since you can only see the “shape” of the bird as dictated by its particular frozen posture at the time the picture was taken, and not its “form” and volume.

Illustrations of Snail Kites from "A Field Guide to Hawks, North America" by Clark and Wheeler (1987). The depictions of birds in field guides have traditionally been rendered with a graphic flatness conducive of their use as comparative images.
Illustrations of Snail Kites from “A Field Guide to Hawks, North America” by Clark and Wheeler (1987). The depictions of birds in field guides have traditionally been rendered with a graphic flatness conducive of their use as comparative images.

For many of us with a long history of ingesting bird paintings primarily through the use of field guides, it is as if we’ve conditioned ourselves to the depiction of birds as flat icons.

In reality, birds – and most animals – are all but flat. Many bird species are quite sculptural, and the forms of some may change quite radically depending on their posture, behavior, and on the angle from which we are viewing them. Light and the use of feathers also play a tremendous role on how we perceive birds. Binoculars and scopes are great tool that will help you study birds though your sketches with more intimacy and precision, allowing you access to information that will strengthen your drawings and give you a deeper understanding of your subject matter.

Like most challenging endeavors, practice and patience are important. Below are links to a series of articles covering topics related to sketching in the field through binoculars and spotting scopes:

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