My Life As a Bird Artist

Capturing the inherent beauty of birds through ink and paper

As I write this, I’m sitting outside on my balcony with a morning cup of tea, listening to the birds singing and planning the day. My own two parrots are out here with me and I’m watching a kingfisher pair spend time together on their favorite branch next to the river. In this moment of tranquility, it’s easy to forget that I live a couple of kilometers away from the center of Ho Chi Minh City.

rw blackbird c

Red-winged blackbird

Once I’m finished drinking my tea, I’ll make my way back inside to start work for the day. This week, I’m finishing up three different commission projects: two large ones and a small one. One is a project for a book, and a deviation from my regular style. The second is a series of commemorative portraits of beloved family pets over the years. The third, the small one and my favorite, is a parrot. I never set out to be an artist. I didn’t go to art school or attend artist residencies anywhere in preparation for a career in fine art. My journey to being an artist has been a slow, quiet one. Drawing began as a hobby, a creative outlet in my free time. I was shy about what I created but, with a desire for feedback and direction, I posted my artwork on an anonymous Instagram account and with time I built an audience, and began to discover a style. Eventually messages about commissions and purchasing my artwork started coming in, and the thought was born that I just might be able to do this for a living.

Red Whiskered Bulbul

Red Whiskered Bulbul

I draw what inspires me, and lately this has been almost exclusively birds. What began as the desire to overcome a challenging subject became a fascination, an obsession even, with feathers and beaks and the insane amount of character birds possess. Living in Vietnam has only furthered this obsession. What surprised me the first time I walked around downtown Ho Chi Minh City wasn’t the traffic or the chaos on the sidewalks or even the muggy heat—those things I had been expecting—it was the sound of songbirds rising above all the traffic noise while millions of people going about their lives. I have seen song sparrows everywhere I’ve lived, but with renewed excitement I rushed home to sketch them. And since that day, the abundance of birds in this bustling city (both pet and wild) has helped keep me grounded. I daresay the multitude of people in Vietnam who keep birds as pets feel the same way.

White Collared Kingfisher 1

White Collared Kingfisher

If you’ve spent anytime watching birds, you’ll see immediately why they make poor live models—they never stay in one place for longer than a few seconds. While drawing from life is my preference, I almost always draw from reference photos and bird books. I study birds I see in parrot cafés, pet shops, kept outside storefronts and flying outside my window to better understand the way they move, the way they sound, feel and the noises they make. Then I use reference photos to help with posing and  proportions when I plan out my pieces. Behind every drawing is an awareness of the life in each animal, and the desire to keep and convey as much of that life as possible. This obsession with birds is the result of a desire to completely understand my subject.



Life as a pen and ink artist has unique challenges. The art community as a whole carries the belief that paintings on canvas are inherently more valuable than works on paper, regardless of the time and skill involved in either. My style of using thousands of tiny dots and lines is very time consuming, and it’s difficult to create work fast enough to sell it at an affordable rate and keep up with commission deadlines. Living in Vietnam also presents its own brand of challenges, primarily limited opportunities for gallery showings and unreliable (and expensive) international shipping. However, the lower cost of living here also means more financial freedom to pursue a potentially unreliable career. The money I bring in with my art goes further, with less pressure to make sales and commissions.

spotted owl print

Spotted Owl

At some point during the day today I will put my pen down and stop to think about how grateful I am to call this my work. It’s difficult work, mind you; navigating the world of marketing and self-promotion can be exhausting, and the lack of reliability stressful. But the sense of satisfaction from paying bills with money earned as an artist far outweighs any of this.

For more of KC Gillies’ artwork, visit or



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