Birds, animals, and other elements of the natural world are a favorite subject for watercolor artists. But when you think about it, a watercolor swan is a challenging subject to paint: how do you paint a white bird on white paper? 

How to Paint a Watercolor Swan

watercolor swan
Paint a beautiful watercolor swan.

One secret to painting a watercolor swan is painting the water surrounding the swan first. Another is to remember that although swans may be white, they rarely appear totally white when you pay attention to the shadows. Follow this step-by-step guide to painting a watercolor swan

Step 1: Gather Your Materials

watercolor supplies
The supplies you’ll need to paint a watercolor swan.

If you’ve used watercolors before, you probably have most of the things you’ll need to paint a watercolor swan. However, painting white objects requires masking fluid—a special material that you might not already have—so take note of the following list of supplies.

  • Watercolor paper
  • Watercolor paints
  • Watercolor brushes in various sizes
  • Masking tape
  • Pencil and eraser
  • Masking fluid
  • Absorbent paper towels
  • Two jars of water

Some people prefer watercolor pens over tubes or pans of watercolor paints, so feel free to experiment with those if you’d like.

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Step 2: Find a Reference Photo

Source: pexelsA reference photo will help you paint your graceful swan.

No matter how vivid your imagination, it’s always a good idea to follow a reference photo. Check out sites like Pixabay, Pexels, or Unsplash to find a free stock photo to use as your guide.

Step 3: Sketch the Outline of the Swan

drawing swan
Sketch the swan first.

Sketch the main shapes and lines on the page, focusing on the composition and proportions. Sketch lightly as you won’t be able to erase lines that you’ve painted over later. 

Step 4: Mask the White Areas

masking fluid
Apply masking fluid to the swan’s body.

Taking a brush that you won’t use for painting, carefully apply masking fluid to the body of the swan (or swans, if you’re using the reference photo here). The masking fluid will mask the paper underneath and protect it from washes of paint (until you want to remove it, that is).

Step 5: Paint the Water

watercolor blue
Paint the water.

Once the masking fluid is dry, start painting the water surrounding the swan. With a large flat brush, sweep a wash of water over the whole page to dampen it. (Yes, it’s OK to brush right over the masked swan!)

Mix a blue water-like color on your palette, then brush it over the damp paper. Paint the water in the same direction as it flows in your reference photo. And instead of painting a solid blue surface, think about the shadows and movement of the water. You can go over parts of the paper a couple of times or leave white highlights in places to create texture and dimension in the water’s surface. 

Step 6: Paint Reflections

paint reflections to give depth
Paint reflections under the swan.

When the water layer is dry, it’s time to paint the reflection of the swan. Mix a darker color paint, ideally a blue that’s similar to the shade you used for the water with some gray or black added in, and paint a shadow underneath your swan.

Step 7: Paint the Bird

putting the details on your painting
Paint the swan.

When the previous layers are dry, remove the masking layer from the swan. You should be able to use your nail to scratch and peel it off gently.

Mix some light gray tones, then use your reference photo as a guide to paint shadows and other darker areas as needed to define the swan. You’ll find that very little of the swan will remain totally white! Don’t forget to finish with an orange beak.

student work from skillshare
Student work by Eline Stolp for Swan Lake: How to Paint Water with Watercolors.

Complete Your Watercolor Landscape

watercolor landscapes
Paint birds within the landscape.

Now that you’ve learned how to paint a beautiful watercolor swan, you might want to finish off the natural scene with other elements of nature. Water, sky, trees, flowers, and other birds are lovely subjects for watercolor painting and all require slightly different painting techniques and skills. You can practice each of these subjects individually and then bring them together in a landscape scene. Have fun experimenting!

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Written By

Elen Turner

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