Things I learned from my amazing raven drawing encounter in Utah.

Our recent vacation to Utah was an opportunity for me to keep up with my goal of drawing daily, so I carried my nature journal everywhere I went. I drew landscapes, dinosaur tracks, and ancient artifacts, but the most educational session of the trip was the time I spent drawing a common raven (Corvus corax). I learned lots about ravens and one very important thing about drawing.

Kit Dunsmore sketching a cooperative common raven. (Photo by Kurt Fristrup)

(You can read the full details of my magical encounter with this raven in an earlier post.)

A page of ravens from Kit Dunsmore’s nature journal.

Even though the raven let me draw for twenty minutes, I worked quickly, convinced that he would fly off at any moment. I really struggled to capture the raven’s head and bill and it wasn’t just because the bird kept moving. I was sure that I wasn’t getting it right. My drawings reminded me of parrots, not ravens.

A page of ravens from Kit Dunsmore’s nature journal.

Despite my struggles, I learned a lot by drawing the raven. None of my field sketches are beautiful, but making them forced me to really look at the bird. I wrote notes to remind myself of the things I’d noticed.

  • Ravens have a beard or bib of large glossy feathers that are different from the other feathers on their body.
  • When folded, their wings are nearly as long as their tail.
  • When perched, their tail makes a big wedge.
  • The bristles on my raven lay so tightly against the upper bill that it looked like the bill was two different colors.
  • My raven also had short bristles at the base of the lower part of his bill.
A page of ravens from Kit Dunsmore’s nature journal.

There was one thing I couldn’t draw: his intelligence. I could see and feel him thinking. He definitely looked to see what was in the front seat of our car. But he also kept an eye on me. What did he think I was doing? I can only wonder.

Later, I printed out a photo of the raven I’d been drawing and did a study from that. I discovered that the bird’s head is almost exactly the same length front to back as the bill, and that the angle between the upper bill and forehead is incredibly shallow. But my big realization was that my field sketches weren’t that far off.

Study of raven made using a photo. (Sketch by Kit Dunsmore.)

It was a good reminder that I have to ignore what my brain thinks is right and just draw what I see. The more I look and the less I think, the better. I was more successful than I imagined, probably because I was rushing to get down whatever I could while the bird was there and didn’t have time to think.

I’m still in awe of my moment with the raven. It’s the most memorable thing that happened on a trip full of amazing and wonderful experiences. But what made it so special and has carved it into my memory in detail was the things I learned as I took the time to draw the bird in front of me.

Have you learned interesting things by drawing wildlife or nature? What’s your favorite drawing story?

2 thoughts on “What I Learned by Drawing Ravens”

  1. Sounds a great experience all round. I went to a talk by a guy who is really experience at wildlife sketching a couple of weeks ago. He says he often has to return for 5 or 6 days before he can satisfactorily capture his subjects – so what you got in one sitting is amazing!

    1. Wow! Thanks. I do think the lengthy session really helped. I also drew birds when we ate at picnic areas, and I only have the sketchiest of drawings because I only got a total of a few minutes to work. I imagine more time makes a big difference.

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