The natural world makes an ideal subject for watercolor painting: Inspiration can be found everywhere, and the endless textures and colors allow you to try out many different watercolor painting techniques. If you’re looking for your new favorite subject, why not try painting a watercolor parrot? They’re bright, colorful, and more than a little flamboyant. 

How to Paint a Watercolor Parrot

watercolor macaw
Student work by Riri Riri for Expressive Birds in Watercolor Class.

There’s a lot of variety in the bird world, and your watercolor parrot doesn’t need to look like anyone else’s. But to get the most out of watercolor paints and to create a parrot you can proudly display, follow these step-by-step instructions.

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Step 1: Gather Your Materials

watercolor set up
The materials you’ll need to paint a watercolor parrot.

To paint a watercolor parrot, you’ll need basic supplies you may already have on hand, including:

  • Watercolor paper
  • Sketching pencils
  • An eraser
  • Watercolor paint brushes in a few different sizes
  • A set of watercolor paints
  • A mixing tray
  • Two jars of water
  • Absorbent paper or sponge

When it comes to paints, you can take a minimalist approach and just use the basics (primary colors plus black and white) to mix your own hues by utilizing color mixing principles. But keep in mind that parrots are colorful, vibrant creatures. Instead of agonizing over mixing the perfect shade of hot pink from a limited set of paints, you may want to pick up a watercolor paint set with a wide range of colors.

You might also consider experimenting with watercolor pens—a less messy and more portable alternative to watercolor paint tubes or pans. 

Step 2: Find a Reference Photo

Source: unsplash
This stock photo of a vibrant green parrot is a perfect starting place.

To get inspired by the colors and textures of the feathers and ensure you get the proportions right, use a reference photo. If you don’t have your own, take a look through magazines or search for stock photos on free sites like Unsplash. Ideally, you’ll want something clear and uncrowded by other items, such as trees. 

Step 3: Start With a Pencil Sketch

Outline the bird in pencil first.

Using a pencil with a light touch, sketch the outline of your parrot. Start with the basic shapes, proportions, and composition rather than the details, which you can add in later with paint. Ideally, the pencil lines won’t be visible in the finished painting—you’re using them only as a guide. Keep your sketch light and minimal, although if you know you’ll be painting darker colors, this is less important.

Step 4: Paint the First Wash

watercolor macaw
Paint a first wash of watercolors.

Mix your paints with plenty of water to get a good foundational color, and paint the base layer, or first wash, from top to bottom. The color doesn’t have to be uniform, so mix different shades as you go along if that works for the colors of the bird in your reference photo. Keep the strokes loose and use plenty of water to get the most out of the experience of painting with this medium.

If your reference photo includes some white around the eye or beak area, be sure to leave those areas clear of paint.

Step 5: Paint the Details

watercolor macaw
Painting in the final details.

Give the first wash time to dry, then add the details. You might add darker or lighter strokes in certain areas to define the feathers or touch up areas where you’re not satisfied with the colors or outlines. Remember that watercolors are fairly easy to rework once they’ve dried—you just need to add water. 

You’ll also need to paint the beak and eyes. At this point, you might want to control your brush a bit more or use a finer one. Although feathers look great when they’re loose and less defined, the facial features can make or break the overall look of your watercolor parrot.

Paint Yourself a Jungle

Why stop at parrots? There’s a whole world of bird and animal life out there that you can draw on for inspiration. Snakes, flamingos, tree frogs, the trees they live in… they can all be recreated through watercolor paints. Let your imagination run free and bring it to life with paints. 

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Written by:

Elen Turner