How I began drawing birds

How I began drawing birds

When my father passed away in 2013, I had just quit my job as the morning shift manager at the Starbucks in Times Square and started a part time gig as a visitor services assistant at the Cloisters museum. Before I quit, I was working between 60 to 80 hours a week to be able to pay rent and student loans. I wasn’t really making any art at all.

I took my dad’s death pretty hard since I never really knew him. He was a free spirit who always did his own thing and was 53 when I was born and 58 when my sister was born. He certainly didn’t have the energy to spend time with us but he continued to work well into his golden years to provide for us. I like to attribute my work ethic to my dad for this reason.

After he passed, I decided that making art again would be a priority. I just needed to figure out a way to do it while at work. Not too long after, in the spring of 2014, I bought an iPad and discovered Adobe Sketch, the predecessor to Adobe Fresco now. Digital drawing was a new, exciting venture but it was frustrating too because I sucked. The process and app were brand new, the lag between stylus and screen sucked. None of it deter me from staying curious and open to the process (growing pains and all). I started to draw birds, partially because I had always wanted to, partially because I asked on Facebook for requests and my friend asked for a drawing of an American Robin. This is how I started drawing birds: a combination of curiosity, serendipity, and surrender.

American Robin digital illustration by Vanessa Lee

In December 2014, I was accepted to sell at the Degenerate Craft Fair (and nursing the wound of being rejected from Renegade). I decided to make postcard prints of what I thought were my best bird illustrations to bring to the fair. The person I was dating at the time thought I was absolutely crazy. He told me that they would never sell and I was wasting my time and money.  

Vanessa Lee vending at Degenerate Craft Fair, December 2014

I refused to listen. I gave myself the time to practice, even though I wasn’t enjoying the mixed feelings that come with falling short of my own expectations.  Today, I’m so glad I believed in myself enough back then to stay the course. The bird illustration project brings me so much joy. Year after year, I talk to other enthusiasts at the various markets who express the same wonder & awe and share their birding memories with me. 

Photo of Vanessa working on a digital drawing using Adobe Fresco and iPad Pro

Allowing myself the space to repeat the process is what got me here. It wanted to honor my passion within the limits of my time and honor my dad who, in my eyes, was brave enough to chase his passions too. It’s been over ten years since I began this project and I’ve been more engaged with my art practice than ever before.


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