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If you need some inspiration for your next watercolor painting, look to the sky—birds are a fantastic choice! With their bright, bold colors and eye-catching details like beaks and textured feathers, birds make beautiful and fascinating subjects. Of course, if you’re not familiar with painting watercolor birds, they may seem a little intimidating. How do you create those beautiful, blended colors and interesting textures? In this guide, learn how to paint watercolor birds of all kinds in just a few simple steps.
How to Paint Watercolor Birds
As you start thinking about what type of bird you want to paint, you may be surprised to realize how diverse birds can be. From bright red cardinals to long-legged flamingos to multi-hued parrots, there are so many different sizes, types, and colors of birds to choose from. Fortunately, you can use this guide to create any type of easy watercolor bird—all you need is a good photo to reference!
However, before you jump into painting, you will need a few supplies:
- Watercolor paper
- Watercolor paints
- Kneaded eraser
- A few watercolor brushes
A note on brushes: To learn how to paint a bird in watercolor, you really only need two or three brushes. For the best results, try round brushes with pointy tips. They give you the option to create broad strokes for large areas of the bird’s feathers, as well as sharp, thin lines for fine details.
Step 1: Gather and Prepare Your Reference Photos
Especially if you don’t have much experience painting birds with watercolor, it’s often helpful to use a reference photo to inspire your artwork. This step is pretty easy—simply take a look online to find an image of a bird that you find beautiful or inspiring.
If you feel comfortable using that image as-is to create your initial sketch, you can go ahead and move to the next phase of the tutorial. However, there are a few additional steps you can take if you need a bit more guidance.
First, scale the image to the size you plan to make your painting. So, for example, if your painting will be six inches by six inches, adjust your reference photo to that exact size. You can do this in the built-in photo app on your computer, Photoshop, or an online photo editor, like PicMonkey. It can also be helpful to use photo-editing software, like Photoshop, to remove the background from the photo, so you can focus solely on the bird.
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Step 2: Create an Initial Sketch
Now, create a sketch of the bird from your reference photo. However, don’t spend too much time drawing—too much detail can bog you down and hinder the painting process. Focus on getting your bird’s general silhouette and proportions correct.
It can be helpful to think about the bird in terms of a few general shapes: head, body, wings, and tail. Also make sure to add in important details like the beak and eye, since you will need to be aware of those areas when you begin layering your paint. If you want to make sure you capture the bird accurately, try tracing it directly from your reference photo.
Then, once you’re satisfied with your sketch, erase it! OK, not completely—but gently rub a kneaded eraser over the sketch so that only very faint pencil lines remain. By doing this, you will ensure that no pencil marks show through the paint in your finished work.
Step 3: Paint a Base Layer
For the first layer of paint, you’ll use a wet-on-wet technique. Take a look at your reference photo and pinpoint the first color you want to paint. Then, load your largest brush with water, and spread the water in the areas where you want that color to appear. Dip your brush into the paint, and then dab that color onto the wet areas, starting in the places where you want the most concentrated color.
As the paint bleeds into the water, you can navigate it into the areas where the color is a bit lighter. You may also need to add in additional colors at this point, so they can blend together to produce the right color mix.
Then, move on to the next large area of color and repeat the process until the bird’s body is filled with a base layer of paint. Finally, make sure the paint around the bird’s eye is dry, and then outline and fill it in.
Step 4: Build Depth and Texture
With a foundational layer of paint on the paper, you can move on to adding details, depth, and texture with the fine tip of your brush. There are many different techniques you can use to create realistic feathers when painting birds in watercolor.
To create body feathers, which are typically shorter and denser, create short vertical brush strokes in repeating crescent shapes. Then, use a clean, damp brush to soften the edges of the paint and create shadow.
For wing feathers, which are longer and more defined, use the tip of your brush to outline the shape of each feather. Then, immediately soften those edges with a clean, damp brush. Paint feather by feather, starting at the top and working your way down the wing.
These two techniques will get you pretty far; however, they aren’t the only two approaches you can use for easy watercolor birds. The beauty of this type of paint is that you can experiment with it to create a wide range of textures. For example, try illustrating areas of thick, tufted feathers with short, thin strokes. For longer feathers, like those commonly in a bird’s tail, try longer, straight lines. Or, create broader feather shapes by pressing your brush down—almost like a stamp—and then lifting it up, creating a petal-like shape.
During this step, also continue adding layers and detail to the bird’s eye and beak. The eye can be especially hard to get just right, so don’t be afraid to revisit and adjust it as you go.
Step 5: Add Final Details
Painting birds with watercolors alone will produce beautiful images, but you can also add finer details with non-watercolor mediums, like ink. White ink, for example, is perfect for adding tiny reflections in the bird’s eye or beak, as well as pastel details in the bird’s feathers.
At this point, you know how to create easy watercolor birds, but you may want to go a step further and add a background—like branches, rocks, foliage, water, or other animals—to your composition. While you probably want your bird to remain the focal point, these backgrounds can give your painting additional visual interest and context.
Let Your Art Take Flight
The beauty of this tutorial is that you can use it to paint any type of bird. All you need is a high-quality reference photo, watercolor paints, and a paintbrush or two. As you begin painting, you’ll find that birds’ bright colors and dimensional textures make them the perfect subject for watercolor paintings, whether you’re just getting started or have painted with watercolors for years.
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