David Sibley Online
It is probably quite difficult not to be aware of the new book that everyone has been talking about. The Sibley Guide to the Birds of North America was published in October 2002 and is already being hailed as a landmark publication for american birding. David is currently in the midst of a whirlwind publicity tour but he kindly took the time to answer a few questions from Surfbirds and Surfbirds readers. We'd like to thank all readers who sent in questions.
David Sibley, son of the well-known ornithologist Fred Sibley, began seriously watching and drawing birds in 1969, at age seven. He has written and illustrated articles on bird identification for Birding and American Birds (now Field Notes) as well as regional publications and books including "The Wind Masters", "Hawks in Flight" and "The Birds of Cape May". Since 1980, David has traveled the continent watching birds on his own and as a professional tour leader. He has spent most of the last six years at a drawing table writing and illustrating the new "Sibley Guide to Birds", a comprehensive guide to the identification of North American birds due to be published by Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. in Oct 2000. You can see more of David's artwork at his website - www.sibleyart.com. He now lives in Concord, Massachusetts with his wife and two sons.
Surfbirds: How did you get started in birding and who were your early mentors?
David: I got started in birding because my father is an ornithologist (Fred Sibley - recently retired from Yale University's Peabody Museum), so it was something I grew up with. When I actually started keeping a bird list at the age of 7 he was at Point Reyes Bird Observatory on California, so my introduction to birds was in a spectacular and exciting place with the opportunity to band birds - to hold them in my hands and study them up close. I think that experience at a young age is one of the things that really hooked me on birds.
Surfbirds: When did you first realise that you had a talent for drawing birds? Was art something that played a key part in your life whilst growing up?
David: I started drawing birds even before I started watching them in the field, I've always been fascinated by them. Of course when I was 7 peopl
e were saying very nice things about my drawings, and I believed them, so I kept at it. For my whole life the two activities, watching and drawing birds, have always been closely linked. I'm never in the field watching birds without thinking about drawing them, or drawing birds without remembering field experiences, and I would say that most of my talent for drawing birds comes from years of study and practice.
Surfbirds: How long did the NAS Sibley Guide take you to complete?
David: The art and text that appears in the published "final draft" took six years to complete, but I couldn't have done that without the previous six years of work doing research, practicing painting, and most importantly coming up with the ideas for layout and presentation that eventually became the book. Of course, in retrospect I can see that I have been working on this book since I was 12 years old or younger, and it draws on all the birding experience of my life.
Surfbirds: What was your inspiration to make the book? Was there an existing guide (or rather a lack of one) that you had in your mind that you wanted to emulate or better?
David: I have always wanted a book that would have comprehensive information on field identification. A single book that would illustrate every plumage of every subspecies, at rest and in flight, with additional illustrations of odd variations, identification problems, etc. Also complete voice descriptions, detailed range maps, information on distinctive habits, molt, etc. This was what I dreamed of many years ago, and along the way the concept was trimmed down a little to fit in a single book and to be something I could finish in a reasonable length of time.
During those years of planning I studied every bird guide I found (as well as field guides to flowers, trees, reptiles, etc), and learned a lot by analyzing the pros and cons of each book. After Peterson's work there was more innovation in Europe than in North America, and I was especially impressed with the compact organization of the Mitchell Beazley Birdwatcher's Pocket Guide by Peter Hayman, and of course the artistry of Lars Jonsson's paintings in Birds of Europe.
Surfbirds: Your illustrations and paintings always have a very lively feel. To achieve this, do you rely quite heavily on field sketches and the real life experience of the bird rather than skins and photos?
David: I think the field experience is the most important ingredient in any bird art. When I actually sit down to paint I work from a combination of sketches (often including notes from museum specimens) and photos, but all filtered through my own mental image of each species. I did take photographs of birds myself for a short time many years ago, but I discovered that I was concentrating on framing the photo rather than looking at the bird. There is so much more value in studying the bird to do a sketch - even if I never look at the sketch again!
I spend a lot of time in the field studying how feather patterns merge to create an overall pattern, and how those patterns fit around the form of the bird. Try "stepping back" the next time you're looking at a bird, ignore the details of individual feathers and instead squint or allow your eyes to blur and look at the larger patterns of dark and light.
Painting this is one of the things that can give an illustration that stamp of reality. Another thing is that I paint the originals quite large, in this case about three times the size of the printed version. This means that the original paintings are in many cases "larger than life" and it allows me to work very loosely, with a larger brush, and to not worry so much about following exact lines and edges, because a mistake of a millimeter or two just doesn't matter.
Surfbirds: What do you find you struggle most with when you are painting?
David: I struggle most with painting birds' feet!
Surfbirds: If you were to give one small piece of advice to budding bird artists to hone their skills what would it be?
David: Watch birds. During the 1980s, while I was travelling around the country, I often went for months without drawing, but I was always thinking about drawing, and when I returned to sketching after an intensive period of just watching, my drawings were always greatly improved. I think one can get into a rut by drawing too much, it is important to take some breaks and just enjoy watching the subject, and it is critical to understand the subject. At times I would go birding and look only at certain parts of birds: the way the wings fold over the tail, the way the neck feathers move, etc. These sorts of exercises were extremely valuable, and nowadays these things can be done to some extent by studying photos or videos, but I would still urge everyone to spend as much time in the field as possible.
Surfbirds: What medium do you paint in for your plates? Do you find painting plates for a field guide a completely different experience from painting paintings to hang on a wall?
David: I paint in gouache - opaque watercolors - like most other bird illustrators. And I don't find the two types of painting very different. When I do a painting to be hung on a wall I am trying to convey a sense of the moment, to evoke some feeling in the viewer. In the field guide illustrations, even though the poses are all similar and the lighting is flat, I am trying to convey a sense of the species and to evoke a feeling of recognition in the viewer. I tried to show in these illustrations some character, what the birds actually look like in the field, and not just colored diagrams of feather patterns.
Surfbirds: What bird artists do you feel greatly influence your work?
David: I've found inspiration from many different bird illustrators. At age 7 it was Arthur Singer's paintings in "Birds of the World" that caught my eye. I studied the paintings of Singer, Louis Agassiz Fuertes, Bob Clem, Don Eckelberry, and others. From the time I discovered it in 1980, Lars Jonsson's work has had a greater influence on me than any other. There are so many excellent artists painting birds now, with lots of creative ideas and truthful representations of the birds. I continue to be inspired by all of them.
Surfbirds: How did you cope with illustrating and writing this book? Doing one or the other is enough for most people. Did you ever have any regrets during the course of its production and wish you could bring someone else on to help you?
David: This question always surprises me a little. I found that after digesting all of the information that I needed to do the painting it was a simple task to put the key points on paper. Following that, the editing needed to be done with a vision of the whole book and with the idea of integrating text and art to work together, and I wanted to do all of that myself. I did have the benefit of a very good editing and design staff at Chanticleer Press, and the review of various drafts by birding friends and family, so I was able to make adjustments based on early comments.
Surfbirds: It looks like your book tackles just about all the difficult identification issues. What's next - another book or a long rest?
David: Well, let's say I tried to tackle all of them, but I could only present a summary of each one in the book. There are lots of details not included in the book, lots of things to be clarified and refined, and there is always more to learn. For now, I'm working on some other book ideas (but not quite as large as this one!), and looking forward to having some time to go birding and just paint for fun.
Surfbirds: Do you have any thoughts on how the internet will affect birding and birders? Do you see it as a positive influence in that it can increase the speed of communication and connect birders from many different countries easily or is there the danger of misinformation and confusion being more easily spread?
David: I'm very excited about the growth of birding information on the internet. The idea of someone in Australia being able to comment on the identification of a gull or an albatross photographed in the US the same day, conversing with other experts from around the world! Or amateurs tracking the advance of migrating hummingbirds across the US. More, and more current, information is good for everyone. It's just incredible. Much of the information exchange on the internet is in the form of informal conversation, which is great, and which has always been fairly unreliable. I don't think there's any MORE misinformation on the internet, just the danger that people might take it more seriously than they would a conversation.