Bird By Bird

By Rama Hughes, posted on Dec 8, 2021

My grandfather, Wallace Oscar Hughes, was a wildlife artist. He made his living drawing animals for books, magazines, stamps, and more. His specialty was birdlife. When I was a kid learning to draw, my grandpa gave me a tip that has helped me with my artwork ever since. He told me, “It doesn’t matter how realistically you draw. Instead, just notice what makes each bird special. Then make sure to include those special details in your drawing.” That concept is the basis of an art lesson that has worked very successfully with students of all ages in class and online.

SchoolArts magazine, January 2022 issue, Elementary art lesson, drawing, birds
Maira H.
SchoolArts magazine, January 2022 issue, Elementary art lesson, drawing, birds
James B.

Image Resources
Students can use any drawing supplies, but you’re going to need a timer and lots of photographs of birds. I collected my photos from the internet and titled them by number, one through thirty. I do that so students can take turns selecting birds for us to draw. “Pick a number,” I tell students who are listening attentively.

“The objective of the project,” I remind students, “is to notice and show what makes each bird unique.” We do that online by selecting a bird to spotlight on-screen. In class, I’ve displayed the birds on our whiteboard or distributed printouts of birds at each table. “We’re going to see how many unique birds we can fit into one composition before our class time ends.”

Using a Timer
We use a timer to make sure that students focus on what makes each bird special instead of all the other details they might want to draw. I give students anywhere between one and four minutes to draw each bird. Online, I let the student who picked the bird decide the time limit. When the timer goes off, we do a quick show-and-tell. Then we pick a new bird to draw. We keep going until it’s time to tidy up.

Looking for Unique Qualities
The goal is to include at least enough detail to show what makes each bird unique. We remind each other to notice the colors, patterns, beak shapes, and talons. Within that constraint, there is enormous room for creativity. Most students work to fit their many birds into a satisfying composition. Others add fantastic details like fire spewing from the mouth of a peregrine falcon. Still other students arranged their birds into a series of gag cartoons.

The clear-cut goal, the room for creativity, and the quick pace make this drawing lesson ideal for demo lessons and workshops. As a guest artist at other schools, I have led this exercise in thirty-minute, forty-minute, and sixty-minute windows. At my own school, students ask several times each year when we will do the project again. Thanks to their enthusiasm, I have repeated the project with fish and bugs and barnyard animals. Once we’ve practiced our wildlife drawing, I invite students to join me for our annual sketchbook safari at our local zoo.

Rama Hughes is an art teacher at the Buckley School in Sherman Oaks, California, the founder and lead teacher of the Art School of the Future, and a contributing editor for SchoolArts.

National Standard
Creating: Organize and develop artistic ideas and work.


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