A chickadee is typically recognized more for its distinctive call rather than its appearance. Unlike other birds, like cardinals or hummingbirds, chickadees typically have neutral coloring, including white, grey, and tan. However, that’s exactly what makes them interesting and challenging subjects for watercolor paintings. To showcase the light and white hues of the bird, you first have to create the background around the outline of the chickadee, and then fill in its coloring and texture. 

If you’re not familiar with this watercolor technique, don’t worry—you can learn how to paint a watercolor chickadee step by step in the tutorial below. 

How to Paint a Watercolor Chickadee 

Creating this watercolor chickadee requires more than the basic supplies of watercolor paint, paper, and brushes. For this tutorial, you will also need a pencil, a pen with waterproof ink, and masking fluid. 

Step 1: Sketch and Ink an Outline of the Chickadee

sketching bird
To create the look of feathers, use short, slightly curved tickmarks around the edges of the sketch. 

Using a reference image, sketch the general shape of the chickadee. Focus on first getting the proportions right, as well as the placement of main features such as the beak and eye, and refine the sketch from there. 

Then, ink the sketch with a waterproof pen. However, don’t simply draw one solid, continuous outline. To create the texture of feathers, use short, slightly curved tick marks along the outline of the sketch. Once you are happy with the ink, use an eraser to remove any remaining pencil marks. 

Step 2: Create the Background Wash

Now, you need to paint the background without coloring the chickadee. If you’re careful, you can simply paint around the bird. Or, you can use a small brush to apply masking fluid to the entire chickadee. (Masking fluid dries quickly and can easily ruin your good brushes, so make sure to use an old brush!) 

bird sketch with watercolor background
The masking fluid covering the chickadee repels the background paint. 

Then, paint your background. With a clean, damp brush, coat the paper with water. Then, layer on bands of cobalt blue, burnt sienna, and pink. You’ll see that the masking fluid repels the paint, so the chickadee remains white. When the paper is 100% dry, remove the masking fluid with a clean eraser, your finger, or a rubber cement pickup. 

Step 3: Paint the Lightest Hues

watercolor bird
Use quick, short brush strokes to create the look of feathers. 

Mix cobalt blue and burnt sienna—and plenty of water—to produce a light grey. Pick up some of that color with a small brush and begin layering in quick, short strokes to mimic the look of feathers. Then, rinse your brush and use the clean, damp brush to blend and soften those lines. This is the lightest layer, and you don’t want too many hard edges yet. Repeat this process a few times, building up layers of color and texture. 

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Step 4: Add the Dark Tones 

For the watercolor chickadee’s black cap, you won’t actually use black paint. Instead, use a mixture of Payne’s grey and burnt sienna to produce a near-black color. With a fine-tipped brush, use short, feathery strokes to fill in the cap area, leaving small white spaces between the lines—these will act as highlights. 

watercolor bird
Use light, feathery strokes to paint the chickadee’s dark grey cap. 

Finally, use the same dark grey color to add shadows to the chickadee’s body—along the nape of its neck and at the base of its tale, for example. Keep in mind that you may need to repeat this process a few times to adequately build up the dark tones. 

Step 5: Finalize the Eye, Feet, and Branch 

watercolor bird
Build layers of pigment in the chickadee’s beak and feet to create realistic features.  

You’ll also use your darkest paint for the chickadee’s eye, feet, and beak. When painting the eye, make sure to keep a small, white highlight in the middle—this is essential to make the eye look lifelike. 

For the bird’s feet, use a few layers of paint to create shadows and contrast. Adding in areas of darker pigment will give the feet a more realistic look.

To paint the branch, start with a wash of light grey. Then, pick up a darker grey with your brush and quickly dot the paint on the lower portion of the branch, creating a stippling effect. 

Let Your Creativity Take Flight

Ink and watercolor paints come together beautifully in this watercolor chickadee portrait. Plus, you’ll gain experience using masking fluid and building layers of pigment to create a realistic bird—lessons you can apply to any other watercolor bird or animal painting! 

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Written by:

Katie Wolf