With vibrant colors, interesting textures, and dynamic movements, birds are amazing subjects for watercolor paintings. Not sure what type of bird to start with? Try painting a watercolor cardinal. A cardinal’s bold, bright red hue offers a fun and unique lesson in layering watercolors, building pigment and texture until you perfectly capture the bird’s coloring. Learn how to paint a cardinal in watercolor with the tutorial below. 

How to Paint an Easy Watercolor Cardinal 

Learning how to paint a cardinal in watercolor requires just a few materials: watercolor paper, watercolor paints (focus on shades of red, yellow, orange, brown, and black), a few brushes, a pencil, and a fine-tipped black marker. 

Step 1: Sketch the Bird 

bird sketch
Before painting, create a sketch of the cardinal, focusing on the outline and major details of the bird. 

Before you pick up your paintbrush, use a pencil to create a sketch of the cardinal. If you don’t regularly sketch and paint birds (and honestly, even if you do), it can be helpful to use a reference image to make sure you get the proportions and body shape right. 

The sketch shouldn’t be too detailed—focus on capturing the outline of the bird’s body and major details, such as the beak, eyes, and wing position. Keep your pencil strokes as light as possible, so they don’t show through the paint later in the process. 

Step 2: Add the Initial Wash of Paint

watercolor bird
Use a wet-on-wet technique with yellow, orange, and red hues to paint the base layer of the bird. 

Apply the first layer of paint with a wet-on-wet technique. First, use a clean, damp brush to add short strokes of water to the bird’s head. Then, load your brush with a mixture of yellow and orange paint and add it to the damp section. Working in small sections, continue using this technique to cover the rest of the bird’s body. Incorporate your lightest shades of yellow, orange, and red, allowing them to bleed together to create color variations and dimension. 

When you reach the wing area, use the very tip of your brush to paint long, thin lines to create the look of feathers. Finally, use a black-brown color to fill in the small area around the beak. 

Step 3: Paint the Mid Tones

watercolor bird
Use quick, short strokes in red and orange to add vibrant feathers to the cardinal.

Now, the goal is to increase pigment density throughout the cardinal’s body. To do this, first load your brush with a vibrant shade of color—for example, red or red-orange. Add a few quick, short strokes on the bird’s head. Then quickly clean your brush and dab it onto a paper towel to remove excess water. Use the damp brush to blend out and soften the strokes you painted. (If you don’t do this right away, you’ll have a hard time blending—so it’s essential to work quickly.) Work your way down the bird’s body with this technique, alternating between vibrant reds and oranges. 

When you get to the wing and tail—the darker areas of the bird—incorporate a bit of brown and off-black. 

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Step 4: Accentuate With Dark Tones

watercolor bird
Add in the darkest tones, including the black surrounding the cardinal’s beak. 

For the dark tones, use highly pigmented paint with very little water. This will allow those deep colors to show up dark and nearly opaque. With dark reds and reddish browns, apply the same technique you used for the mid tones: Create quick, short strokes with the paint, and then use a clean, damp brush to blend those strokes. However, you won’t add these dark tones uniformly across the bird’s body; rather, focus them where you see shadows and dark areas in your reference photo. 

Then, add black to the tip of the tail and wing, as well as the portion of the bird’s face surrounding its beak. Finally, fill in the cardinal’s legs with light brown. 

Step 5: Finish With the Eye 

watercolor bird framed
Your finished watercolor cardinal portrait will be bold and vibrant. 

At this point, there should be just one unpainted area of the bird: the eye. To complete it, first use an ultra-fine marker to outline the eye, and then draw a smaller circle within the eye. With a fine-tipped brush, fill in the outer circle, leaving the inner dot as a highlight. Alternatively (or if you accidentally fill in the eye completely), you can use a white gel pen to add a highlight after the paint has dried. 

Let Your Creativity Soar

A watercolor cardinal can be stunning on its own or a breathtaking addition to a snowy scene (fun fact: cardinals don’t migrate!). So get painting and embrace the fiery, red-orange tones of the cardinal. 

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