Draw A Bird Day: Jump Right In!

Happy Draw-a-Bird-Day! I mentioned in my last post that I had started the Cornell Lab Bird Academy Nature Journaling and Field Sketching course and had completed two lessons. Two months later, I’m on lesson 3, which has 3 little assignments, and I’m on the third, which involves comparing two similar entities that I observe in nature. I chose Surf Scoters and White-Winged Scoters because they are similar-looking diving ducks that choose to spend the winter on Lake Ontario near Burlington, Ontario, where I live. I think I’ll have all the scoter drawings and paintings done by next month.

Today’s post is all about the first assignment: Jump Right In! Jump Right In involved drawing or painting a male Yellow Warbler in my nature journal, using a course-provided photo. I bought the recommended 24-watercolour Koi palette box and Moleskine journal, and I watched an inspiring video where different people showed how they used their nature journals, so I was keen to try watercolour painting again, after avoiding watercolours since July 2016. I didn’t jump in though. No way! I got to know the colours in my palette box by making colour swatches. I looked at the Yellow Warbler photo and the dry swatches, and I knew what colours to use!!!

The first watercolours I bought, in January 2016, were Grumbacher tubes – cool and warm primaries and a few earth tones like burnt umber and yellow ochre. These were the recommended paints for a beginners’ watercolour course in Calgary. To me, using tubes and mixing colours from primaries feels scary. Using a field palette box with 24 colours feels much easier. After painting the warbler, I was excited about that little victory, so I jumped into painting another small, similarly coloured bird, a male Western Tanager. I saw a few Western Tanagers in Edmonton, but in Burlington, they are very unlikely to make an appearance. Scarlet Tanagers are more likely sightings here.

The waterbrush that comes with the Koi palette box also simplifies the assortment of necessary painting materials. The handle of the waterbrush holds water which wets the brush bristles when squeezed. I’ve noticed that a lot of watercolour sketchers on the internet use this brush, but I found it impossible to control the amount of water that came out. So after using it for two bird paintings, I took my little assortment of taklon brushes out of retirement and found two water jars and a water dropper (for adding a few drops of water to paint).

My next nature journal bird was also an excursion outside of the journaling course. I can’t remember why, but I drew the Carolina Wrens with non-waterproof ink. Maybe this was when my waterproof Micron pen ran out of ink? Painting over runny, black ink sounded yucky so I thought I’d try using black ink washes. I finally opened the bottle of black ink I bought two years ago! October of this year was my first time seeing Carolina Wrens. I love the way they look and move and sound! I drew the wrens from photos I took in November.

I’m looking forward to doing some nature journalling outdoors this spring, but for now, I’m practicing my skills indoors.


  1. I recall your decision to do the Cornell course! Thanks for sharing your progress and your journal pages. I decided at that time to just collect drawing materials and follow Jack Laws blog and videos though I haven’t kept up as much as I should. I think from time to time that maybe the Cornell course would be a renewed motivator. Can you do the Cornell course entirely at your own pace and follow each lesson whenever you choose?
    I love seeing your wonderful work! And, I confess that I especially love your Carolina Wren drawings as I am especially partial to those sweet wrens1

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    • Wren love!! 💕 Yes, you can do the Cornell course at any pace you like. That is super necessary for me. That’s awesome that you’ve started collecting some art materials. I always find that a bit daunting. There are so many options! I’m in the early part of the course, so the teacher hasn’t talked about paint yet. She has only covered pencil techniques so far and the lessons after that involve how to observe nature in a scientific way and the kinds of questions that one can think about and investigate. I like seeing the sketches and written observations that people all over the US and Canada post. These sketches, the continuity and quality of the lessons and the cost keep me motivated to return to the lessons. So far, the course feels like half a drawing course and half a natural science observation course. If you are interested in both those things, then I think you would enjoy it.

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  2. Thanks for sharing your adventure in painting! I’ve seen those brushes with water too, but never tried one. I keep going back to my calligraphy brushes. But I should branch out. I love the perky look of your warbler. and wonderful clear colors. (K)

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  3. Oh, the Yellow warblers are so lovely! Instantly recognizable, expressions and all. No wonder you were excited. I like the bits of lichen on the branch the tanager is perching on and the soft background. And Carolina wrens – what a treat they are to listen to And that’s another really nice illustration. I see the characteristic wrne enrgy there. 🙂

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    • Thanks for dropping by and sharing your impressions, Lynn. I’m glad I conveyed some of that wren energy. So key! Lichen is so beautiful. I’m always impressed when other people paint it in detail. Maybe some day… 😊

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