Benefitting from Wildlife Books with Drawings and not Simply Photos
By Lance Hickerson, Reference Assistant
A few months ago in the children’s library I stopped abruptly upon glimpsing a book on the shelf that I had not seen since childhood. It was my very first bird book, the Golden Press Guide, Birds. Certainly it had an updated cover, but inside were many of the same drawings that started my birding in the fourth grade. Alongside the classic book were other bird guides for children. Some of them, like Birds A to Z by Chris Earley, contain clear and close up photos of the same birds covered by drawings in the Golden Guide. It was then that a question arose: Why have a bird book with drawings when you can have one with well-done photos? Aren’t we in the digital age? Why had Golden Press continued to use drawings when so many good photos were now available?
At first I thought the answer might be that the latest version of the Golden Guide continued to use drawings for cost-saving reasons. But near the Golden Guide were newer books like the World Book Science and Nature Guide to Birds, and the Usborne Spotter’s Guide to Birds, both full of detailed drawings and no photos. Is there something about drawings that photos cannot do?
I asked a similar question some years back to a talented painter who trained at Parsons and traveled to Nice, France each year creating Matisse-like water colors that hang on walls the world over. My question to her was this: “Why would anyone want a painted portrait, when they could hire a good photographer to do the same?” Her answer was instructive. She explained that a painting is able to express things a photograph might only accidentally show. A painting can reveal marks of character that endure over time, those aspects of heart that a single photographic instance will often miss. And that is why good portrait artists continue to get commissions, like Paul Emsley who recently completed a painting of Kate Middleton entitled, Portrait of Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge.
Is there a sense in which the principles of portraiture apply to pictures of animals in general and birds in particular? Do we see good “portrait artists” of birds receiving commissions? The answer surprised me at first. A survey of some of the best bird identification field guides presently available shows that, while some have outstanding photos, others continue to offer painted bird drawings. Among these are The Sibley Guide to Birds, the National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America, and the Peterson Field Guide to Birds of North America.
The lead artist for the National Geographic book, Jonathan Alderfer, comments on using illustrations versus photography. “Even though a series of photographs can reveal minute details, most birders eventually come to realize that illustrations are more helpful than photographs in a field guide. Art distills the image of a bird into what our brains experience rather than what a camera sees in a single instant, and illustrations are much easier to compare … “
David Allen Sibley recently released an update to his 2000 best seller, The Sibley Guide to Birds. He was interviewed by The Wall Street Journal (Ellen Gamerman, “Bird-World Star David Allen Sibley Releases New Guide,” March 12, 2014) which reveals the following:
A perpetual researcher, Mr. Sibley brings his binoculars everywhere, even to the gas station. He is always sketching in the field, a process he calls “interviewing the bird,” which he said allows him to internalize each bird’s gestures and shapes.
The Sibley guide has one main purpose: to help identify and differentiate more than 900 species. Mr. Sibley’s birds aren’t the most lifelike . . . but instead demonstrate the most essential traits of a species.
“Sibley’s achievement has been to draw birds not as they are but as they appear to the birder trying to identify them,” novelist Jonathan Franzen, an avid birder, wrote in an email. “They’re brilliant drawings of ideas, of what the birder needs to be seeing.”
In all this there is a strong irony. One of the greatest bird artists of all time has a wonderful society by his name (Audubon) that publishes an indispensable bird guide full of photographs. But as we have seen, others continue the drawing tradition that even today plays a significant role in acquainting us with nature. Bird watching is an increasingly popular hobby with presently around 47 million Americans participating. If the latest Golden Guide to birds (Birds of North America, Golden Field Guide from St. Martin’s Press) becomes our childrens’ first bird book among so many available, we have done well. There will always be good photos, but drawings can express things photos cannot. It is good that we, and our children, benefit from both.