'Capturing flight can be one of the most daunting and difficult aspects of portraying birds, yet this is where they truly come into their own,' says Becky Thorley-Fox. 'To paint a bird moving freely through the air poses a number of challenges. A bird in flight continually adjusts to balance as it moves, so there are the problems of foreshortening, light and shadow placement and a form in constant motion.'

When to study birds

It can be difficult to find opportunities to study birds in flight with the naked eye. Binoculars provide a wonderful opportunity to focus in on the feeling of being airborne – you lose your ‘grounded’ field of view and become immersed in their world of flight. 

Autumn and winter are the perfect time to study birds in flight as birds gather in large numbers for survival, to migrate or to roost and to feed. It is uplifting to see a flock of geese fly overhead and to hear their calls. As the days shorten it becomes even more important for us to get out and absorb the limited daylight. The colours in the landscape are warmer, richer and more nuanced. The low sun creates a beautiful light quality with long shadows in the morning and evening, the perfect setting for observing birds in flight.

Large flocks pose such wonderful opportunities to observe bird shapes. Behaviours are often repeated due the sheer volume of birds. This gives you the chance to observe new details and interesting light effects that otherwise might be missed. Capturing birds in a scene such as Gull Flocks in Ploughed Fields (below) is a great way to begin painting birds in flight. An impressionist approach to painting is more forgiving and prevents you from becoming too absorbed and distracted by details too early on. It is best to work instinctively, to feel and convey the movement and rhythm of flight, capturing the simple motion in a few brushstrokes. Studio paintings allow for more time to contemplate a scene and I can consider aspects that I’d left out due to time pressures and fleeting light conditions.

Gull Flocks in Ploughed Fields, oil on primed paper, (15x20.5cm)

I liked the way this study broke up the horizontal layers with the gentle slope to the fields and the diagonal edge to the background tree line. The light shining through in the top-right corner draws the eye in and gives a greater sense of depth. It is important to set the stage and create space for your birds to move through.

Exercise 1 - Wing and flight study

I recommend beginning with larger, longer-winged birds as they will be easier to observe and draw. Film footage provides a fantastic source as you can slow down or pause wing movement, which will help build up your knowledge and understanding of flight. I also recommend introducing yourself to the basic physics of flight and then to observe birds in motion, looking at the structure, function and behaviour of wings as they move through the air.

Try producing a series of sketches of the various wing positions of a bird in level flight from film. This knowledge will quickly help you to retain visual information for when you make drawings from life. Bird wings in flight may be imitated with your own arms to help you imagine the feeling of being airborne and moving on invisible air currents. If you bend your hand back at the wrist, your thumb represents the alula (feathers used for breaking and slowing down) and your fingers the primary feathers. The bird’s ‘elbow’ is between the secondaries and tertiaries.

Basic shapes and groups of feathers on a goose wing

Exercise 2 - Field sketches

Begin your field sketches with a shorthand approach with simple lines that represent the body and wings.

As you progress, look for the basic shapes, angles and foreshortening. Aim for catching the feel and rhythm of birds in flight without worrying about details at this stage. Often there are repeated patterns within flocks and similar flight positions recur as birds are flying in the same plane and direction. Don’t worry if you don’t quite finish a sketch. Tracing lines to indicate a bird’s flight path is a helpful way of illustrating a flock’s movement through the air. This is useful when planning a composition for a later painting in the studio.

Exercise 3 - Goose template with fold line

Cut out a basic bird shape and fold along the dotted line in order to create a crude model of a soaring goose. I learnt this from wildlife artist John Busby. It is a really helpful tool and memory aid to recreate the flight pose to show how the wings were behaving. It helps to clarify wing foreshortening and how shadows fall on the wings.

Goose flight position viewed with a model made using watercolour paper

DEMONSTRATION: Colours of Autumn Take Flight

Colours of Autumn Take Flight, oil on linen, (20.5x30.5cm)