Northern Mockingbird – Pen and Ink

My hobby is birding. I’m quite passionate about it, as I am about art, and occasionally these two loves of my life converge. I don’t draw or paint birds very often although I tell myself that I should. I’ve taught a few workshops on the subject and have enjoyed the enthusiasm and talent that the students have shown.

I have a birding blog that may be seen here. If you’d like, have a look at the Drawings and Paintings page. Recently, I was updating the page and something moved me to draw a new bird. A Northern Mockingbird I photographed last week had been on my mind and I decided to give it a go. Then, realizing that I hadn’t posted on this blog in eons, I thought I’d scan the main steps and tell you a bit about my process.

The Drawing Board

I’ll start with the tools of the trade and my initial process. I work from my own photographs, which can be limiting because my camera skills are pedestrian. Still, once in a while I luck out and I had a nice image of the Northern Mockingbird (NOMO from here on). I duplicate the photo on my computer and convert the duplicate to black and white so I can better see the values. I grid the photo for accuracy. In this case, I wanted the drawing to be about 3/4 the size of the photo so I created a smaller rectangle of the exact same proportions and then gridded it. I work with a soft 2B pencil for all of the preliminary drawing. The softer the pencil, and lighter the touch, the easier it is to clean up the drawing later on with a kneaded eraser.

Evaluating the photograph at the outset is very important. Is anything unclear or confusing? In this case, I edited out several branches. Another concern was the bird’s tail. NOMOs have very long tails and the tilt of the body foreshortens the tail as it’s pointing slightly towards the viewer. I liked the pose, despite the potentially misleading tail position, and went ahead with it.

Step One

Next, I begin work with the pen and ink. I work with a traditional dipping pen. The Speedball nib is inserted into a holder. My ink of choice, since my teen years, is Speedball Super Black India Ink. I won’t bore you with every detail but I’m careful with how I dip and handle the pen to the point of ritual. Something works. I haven’t had a tragic blob in a long, long time. Note the ‘test’ sheet under the pen and pencil, though. It’s an indispensable tool. Note, also, the crumpled, ink-stained paper towel on the left. I’m obsessive about keeping my nib clean.

Tools of the Trade

I’m versed in many basic pen techniques and have taught them for decades. On my own, I have a few favourites and cross-hatching has always been foremost. My second step with the drawing is to explore the forms and, critically, to identify areas of the paper that will remain white. Stroke direction is fairly intuitive although I generally try to describe the underlying planes. The whole drawing is addressed once with these directional strokes (hatching). The cross-hatching comes next.

Step Two

Step Three is an effort to develop the relationships between the values. For the most part, the different areas are cross-hatched once only so the newer strokes overlap the original strokes just once. Yes, I’m patient. This step starts to show the different values in the plumage of the NOMO. This species displays a lovely, subtle range of greys and blacks with a brown eye. In a monochromatic drawing, these elements can only be suggested.

Step Three

In Step Four, I do a lot of work on the darks and blacks. While remaining as true as possible to plumage details, my goal is to give the drawing the strength and vitality of this beautiful, living creature. I don’t rush Step Four and take lots of breaks.

Step Four

Eventually, after long looks from several feet away, I call it a finished drawing. The unresolved look of the upper branch, still at Step Two, is deliberate. The drawing is approximately 7 x 8″. It’s on Strathmore Bristol paper, vellum surface.

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14 Responses to “Northern Mockingbird – Pen and Ink”

  1. Robin Campbell Says:

    Beautiful rendering of the Northern Mockingbird, Barry. Just beautiful! I love that cross-hatching.

    Cheers, – Rob


  2. William Brisland Says:

    Simply wonderful and what precise line work. I drool at your talents !William

  3. FRAN MARINI Says:

    Hi Barry:

    Your NOMO in pen and ink is just spectacular! I love it. Yes, you certainly possess patience and passion for your art. But you also have a way with written expression. Have you considered writing a book? Hmmm….something to think about. Seriously!

    Fan Fran

  4. ANGELA B, Says:

    This is beautiful Barry !! I’m also a birder and missed going to Pelee last May… anyway am going to try this. Thank you for sharing with us.

    • Barry Coombs Says:

      I’m glad that you enjoyed the post. I missed Pelee and a few other birding trips, as well. I had to cancel a ‘life experience’ trip to Kazakhstan!

  5. elizjay Says:

    Good to hear from you, Barry. Interesting description…helpful re technique.Hope all is well with you.Do you have a picture of a blue jay?Best to Aleda.Sent from my Galaxy

  6. Liliana Says:

    I loved reading this article, I have had many great teachers but you stand out as having inspired me to paint birds. I took your Thursday workshops at DVSA several years ago although I am not a water-colourist the combination of pen and ink and pushed me forward to “play” with this medium. Keep up the amazing work and you know if you have another “bird” art class I will be there!

  7. Howard Davidson Says:

    I used to draw and paint birds years ago when I was a teenager. About twenty years ago I began again to draw birds. I have always admired the ink drawings of T.M. Shortt, and I try to emulate him, but without success. My models in painting are Allan Brooks and Louis Agassiz Fuertes. After twenty years I have over 300 ink drawings and watercolour paintings of birds and animals. I don’t think my drawings are great art but I find the practice therapeutic. Now, locked down during the pandemic I am cranking out drawings at a great rate. I have seen 290 birds in Ontario and have painted or drawn all of them.

    For my ink drawings I also use Speedball Black India Ink.

  8. Two Birds in Watercolour | Barry Coombs Art Workshops Says:

    […] Learn Traditionally; Paint Creatively « Northern Mockingbird – Pen and Ink […]

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