Book Review: Looking at Birds

Blackbird Shapes. Illustration by John Busby
Blackbird Shapes. Illustration by John Busby

Looking at Birds: An Antidote to Field Guides is an outstanding guide to observing the world and bringing greater joy and curiosity to the study of birds. The author is John Busby, master bird artist whose fast bird sketches capture the aliveness and energy of a bird like no one I have ever seen. His work has inspired me for years. Now, in this richly illustrated book, he describes practical ways to look at the familiar with new eyes.

I am dyslexic, and reading has always been a difficult process for me. With most of the books on my shelf, I only skim and look at the pictures. On rare occasions, I find myself pulled more deeply into a book. I am delighted to find that happening again with Looking at Birds. I have not been able to put it down. In this book, Busby gives insights into his process of seeing and his light-hearted invitation to slow down and pay attention. Have you ever been frustrated that the bird you are trying to study is obscured by vegetation or looks completely different from the bird in the field guide because of lighting? Busby turns these frustrations on their head, helping us appreciate the experience of the moment such as the play of shadow and light on the body of the bird or the way the bird conceals itself. This way of observing accepts and engages with what you really  experience. It moves the reader beyond identification to being present and looking more deeply. This book shines a new light on ideas that I have been playing with and exploring for years and has all ready has led to better observation.

While not a how to draw book, Looking at Birds is a game changer for bird artists. The book includes hundreds of Busby’s lively sketches, that feel alive and reflect a deep understanding of anatomy and energy. Busby uses a soft pencil and fast watercolor washes with an immediate and direct effect.  I study his drawings to help me loosen up and go for the feeling and energy of a moment. If you lock in on detail, each drawing takes more time and there are many poses that you may not even attempt to draw because you do not know where each feather would go. I have watched preening or actively feeding birds, continuously morphing in shape and posture, and not known how to even start. All that movement is daunting. Studying Busby’s drawings is the key for me. I have copied his drawings, exploring how he simplifies shapes, volumes and details while still maintaining the integrity of the bird. Learn how he draws birds that move, birds hidden in foliage, birds in strong sunlight and shadow, birds on the water, and learn to keep your mind open to the wonder, beauty and humor of it all.

The abundance of Busby’s sketches and the insight into his thought process makes Looking at Birds a great companion to one of his previous titles, Drawing Birds (also a must have). Order Looking at Birds: An Antidote to Field Guides today. Set aside some time for carefull and delighted study. It will change the way you see and draw.

If you are a fan of Busby’s work, you may enjoy this short video in which you can watch him sketching in the field. His deliberate pencil strokes are borne of years of watching and drawing.