top of page

Artist's Blog

Blog #1: The Importance of the Base Sketch 

   Hi there! This is Gracie.

   Since this is my first artist blog, I think the best place to start would be the beginning! I'm going to talk about the importance of a sketch before a painting is even begun, and go over some step-by-step points to show how and why a painting needs an accurate base sketch.

   If you are aiming for something to look realistic, your first priority is going to be getting the proportions correct. Contrary to how it may feel before you start your sketch, it's not terribly hard to iron out your proportions, as long as you're careful. The reason it's pretty critical to get the proportions correct before you start painting is because it is essentially the bones of your painting. If your sketch is wrong, your painting will be wrong. You're basically a taxidermist with paper and pencil (don't worry though - you're not going to draw a skeleton!).


   For example: I saw an artist's work (who had exceptional painting skills) of a large cat who was painted to look as if it's jumping at you. You could see that the painter did a beautiful job capturing the little details: the light on the fur, the shading, the texture of the paws. But one thing stuck out as badly as spinach in a smile: the cat's face looked like it had been very badly taxidermed. As in, one side of the cat's face was really disproportionate and sort of looked squished in like its skull had been damaged. I felt terrible for the artist because you could see that they had put a lot of hard work into the painting, but it was essentially ruined because the base proportions (might I say of the most important part of the painting) were not true to what they were aiming for. All this to say, if you're wanting to paint anything to look at least somewhat realistic, getting your foundation correct is key. 

   For starters, let's use a front-facing with head turned bird as an example. If you're new to painting and/or sketching, a front-facing bird with its head turned is probably a good specimen to start practicing on because, depending on the bird, it's usually more forgiving in some ways than a bird from the side or back view. In the example below, we're going to be using a tufted titmouse for our reference.


Step 1: The basic shape.

Using very light pencil pressure (so you're free to erase without making scars in your paper) try to nail down the size difference between the bird's body and its head. Start to study your reference photo and look for certain things before you begin your sketch:

  • What is the size difference between the head and the body? 

  • Is the base body shape leaning any certain direction ever so slightly more than the other? When we turn our heads, our bodies naturally follow that direction slightly in how they lean. Most animals are the same way, too. So you can see in the example photo that the larger oval is leaning slightly towards the direction to where the head (smaller circle) is turned.

  • How long is the neck of the bird? That will make a difference in where you place the base circles. On a bird like a tufted titmouse the neck isn't very long, but it's definitely there. So in the example photo, the neck is shown more on the sides of the circles. (Some birds like wrens or nuthatches don't have much of a neck at all!) 

Step 2: Adding the main shapes/outlines.

Next up is adding the beak, eye, head tuft, and articulating the neck and where the wings begin to fold back.

  • What's the size of the beak? What is the main shape of the beak? Beaks are always more subtly shaped than a sideways triangle, and usually the trickiest part of the sketch (I almost always wait until close to the end of the painting to actually paint the beak just in case it needs any last second tweaking). How high or low is the beak located on the head? How far out does the beak protrude from the head? How much of the beak is actually within the lines of the head?

  • Tip for eyes on songbirds: always start with a small circle, not a sideways oval. What's the size of the eye / circle? What's the distance between the beak and the eye, distance between the eye and the top of the head, the side of the head, etc. 

  • Head tuft tip: Less is more. If you make it too tall or wide, it will look fake. I've had to learn the hard way to make it just a bit smaller than I think it is, because when it's painted, it very easily grows in size from the paint spread. 

  • Here, we are sketching the "shoulders," and broadening the chest of the little bird ever so slightly. The scooping line across the chest will help with the shading part of the painting. Its wings are tucked behind its back, but that doesn't mean we won't be painting any of the wing. Notice that the swelling of the chest on the bird coincides evenly with the bird's "shoulders."


Step 3: Finish the rest of the main outlining (legs, tail, and perch).

Here's where the sketch gives us an idea about what the finished product will look like.

  • Legs:  How far apart are they? How thin are they? How long are they? And how are they situated on the perch? The talons of songbirds are often oddly situated and look crooked or wonky, so if they look a bit weird in your sketch, it will most likely be okay. Just make sure you're trying to make them look like the reference photo you're using.

  • Tail: In the reference photo for this sketch, the tail is somewhat hidden, but still goes along with the way that the bird's body is leaning (from Step 1). 

  • Perch: This is where you can finally relax a little bit in terms of the sketch. As long as it looks similar in shape and size to the reference photo, it'll be fine. I must warn, though: wood is hard to paint realistically (at least for me), so you may not want to be too creative with it so that when it comes time to paint it, you can look at your reference photo. Here you can see that the places where the wood texture differs is sketched, too, not just the overall shape of the perch. Tip: If the reference photo perch looks pretty difficult with the bird you've chosen, find another bird photo and just use the perch from that one! 


Step 4: Adding shading references on the bird, extra perch detail, and last-minute reference checking.

This is the very last step in the sketch process before you dip your brush into the water and begin. Woohoo!

  • Shading references: Very lightly, draw the areas of the bird that you see where color or shading is the most prominent. For example, tufted titmice have a small black patch just above their beak. That's something you want to very lightly sketch/outline so that when it comes time to paint, you know that the size and shape is right. If you look closely in this photo, you can see that the crown and cheek are distinguished from each other by a sketched shape. That's because the crown is definitely a darker shade of grey than the cheek, chest, and belly, and we need to differentiate where those colors begin and end. The color placement of the shoulders/wings are also sketched because there are going to be different colors here (black, dark grey, white, and brown). Don't be afraid to draw plenty of these shade referencing lines, because they map out your painting for you. 

  • Extra perch detail: The perch has a sprig of berries coming up the side. The berries are a little bigger than the eye of the bird, and the sprig is a bit wider than the bird's legs. These are just things to look out for when you're adding the extra perch detail. Check your reference photo all the time

So there you are! You're ready to start painting. On Blog #2, we'll continue this little titmouse on to completion. Thanks for reading!


bottom of page