The profile view of a duck is a great way to record details of plumage and shape. If you draw several species side-by-side, you can construct a mini field guide for yourself and you will find that you can learn to identify the species much more quickly. Drawing two species in comparison is much more helpful than just one. When you see them next to each other, you can make relative observations such as this one has a larger head, or this one has a steeper forehead.
Start with a light sketch to block in the shape and add the details on top of this framework. Pay attention to the head shape. There is tremendous variation between species.
Click on the thumbnails below to see a step-by-step demonstration of my approach drawing a Northern Pintail.
Ducks floating on the water have a horizontal posture. The front end of rapidly swimming ducks will ride lower in the water than the rear.
Place an oval body across the posture line. Do not make the mistake of putting the oval above the line, half of the body should be submerged below the surface.
Carefully study the size and location of the head and place it as best you can.
It helps to imagine a vertical line projected from the chest of the duck. The head is unlikely to be in front of this line. As the duck lowers its head into its feathers, the chest bulges forward.
Place quick lines to indicate the bill and tail. Diving ducks will often hold the tail down on the water’s surface when actively feeding. You do not see this in dabbling ducks such as this Pintail.
Now carve into those circles with stright lines, finding the angles and corners that define the edges of the duck. At this stage, exaggerate the angularity.
It is very helpful to look at the negative shapes when carving the angles. Pay particular attention to the shape below the head, behind the neck, and under the tail. Also watch that forehead to bill angle.
Now you can draw on top of this framework with confidence and deliberate strokes, knowing that you have the basic shape. It is a lot easier to “fill in” a bird when you already have the outline.
If you are field sketching, make extensive color notes directly on top of the drawing or with little pointer lines. I use my own one or two letter codes for colors. Violet is a V, orange is an O. Many colors start with B or G so I use the first and last letters: green is GN and Gray is GY
If the bird starts moving its head, I add in extra head showing the changes in shape and posture. You can pack a lot of information into one of these “hydra” birds.
I now block in the values with a soft pencil. Do not be afraid to push the darks. You may have better luck using a soft 2B pencil rather than that handy HB. The angles of the shading lines can also suggest the planes of the body or the “vermiculation” or little wiggling lines on feathers.
I often start painting with the shadows. If I leave them to the end, they will feel like an after thought (because they probably are) and may blur or smudge other details.
I lay in lighter color washes first. I use a Pentel waterbrush so the paint slowly lightens as I work. I start my brush strokes in the areas I know I want to be darker and work out from there.
Now I add the darks. Some watercolor artists cringe at the thought of using black paint. I find it really useful for fast field sketches. These blacks are “neutral tint”. It is fun to see how punching the blacks makes a drawing pop with contrast. If you find your whole drawing is too pale, you may want to start with a little black to force yourself to adjust to that value as you paint.
Many of the pintails at Radio Road in Redwood City CA have orange tinted chests. Are folks seeing this in other regions? My field guides all show white chests.
When you start drawing ducks, turn some of your sketches into plumage diagrams. Name and define each part of the duck to help yourself learn and see each region. When I did this with my pintail I discovered that I had no clue what feathers made that black bar on the side. See if you can figure it out by doing an online image search. It is not what you think…
So what feathers are that little black patch? Leave a comment below and happy sketching.