How To Paint Bird Portraits In Watercolor - A Loose And Expressive Style | Louise Stigell | Skillshare

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How To Paint Bird Portraits In Watercolor - A Loose And Expressive Style

teacher avatar Louise Stigell, Artist, writer & creative coach

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Taught by industry leaders & working professionals
Topics include illustration, design, photography, and more

Watch this class and thousands more

Get unlimited access to every class
Taught by industry leaders & working professionals
Topics include illustration, design, photography, and more

Lessons in This Class

    • 1.



    • 2.

      Materials You'll Need


    • 3.

      Choosing a (Good) Reference Photo


    • 4.

      Drawing the Sketch


    • 5.

      Painting a Blue Tit


    • 6.

      Adding a Background


    • 7.

      Adding Final Details


    • 8.

      Your Class Project


    • 9.

      Bonus: Owl Speedpaint


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About This Class

In this class, you’ll learn my simple and beginner-friendly process for painting vibrant bird portraits in watercolor. We'll be focusing on just the face and upper body of the bird, and try to capture its likeness and personality.
You'll learn how to select a good reference photo for your painting, how to make an accurate pencil sketch, and finally, how to approach the painting step-by-step. 

You can see some of my watercolor bird portraits on my website: And you'll find more watercolor bird painting tips and inspiration on my Instagram and my YouTube channel. I also recommend browsing Skillshare for for more great watercolor classes.

Meet Your Teacher

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Louise Stigell

Artist, writer & creative coach


Hi! My name is Louise. I'm a Sweden-based artist, writer, and creative solopreneur.

I'm a former freelance writer & web designer who re-discovered and committed to art after a period of burnout. Now, I write and paint full-time, and teach what I've learned on my YouTube channel, in my writings, and here on Skillshare.

I write a newsletter called The Calm Creative, all about making a living on your art, without burning out or going insane. Check it out here.

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Level: Beginner

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1. Introduction: Hi everyone. I'm Louise. I'm a watercolor artist from Sweden. In this class, I will show you my process, for painting bird portraits in watercolor. Birds are a big passion of mine, and my favorite thing to paint. They're fairly easy to portray and it really lets you play with color and brushwork. In this class, we're going to focus only on the face, and the upper body of the bird and really try to capture their likeness and personality. You'll learn how to select a good reference photo, how to make an accurate pencil sketch, and finally how to approach the painting step-by-step. We'll work in a loose and expressive style. I'll show you how I approach the trickier parts, of painting birds like the eyes and the beak, and I'll also give you my favorite tricks for elevating your bird portrait and really make it pop out of the page. Your class project will be to complete a bird portrait in watercolor using one of my reference photos, or a reference photo of your own choosing. So if you're ready, let's paint a bird together. 2. Materials You'll Need: As for materials, I believe in keeping it simple. You'll need watercolor paints of some kind, but you don't need a ton of different colors. Depending on what bird you want to paint, your color needs may vary. I'm going to be using my somewhat customized 12-color set, Winsor & Newton watercolors. You can use whatever you have on hand, as long as you have some red and blue and green and yellow, you're all set. I'll include a PDF in the resource section with the full set of materials and paints that I use and recommend. Next, you'll need some watercolor paper. I'm using this paper right now. This is the cold-pressed one, and it's in A4 size, which I think is a comfortable format to work in. As you can see, it has a little bit of texture to it. If you prefer a smoother surface, you can use hot press paper like this one. This paper is affordable but good quality. I recommend anything above 140 pounds or 300 grams per square meter to make sure that you get a workable paper that can handle some water and not buckle too much. Then we have brushes. I really only use two brushes most of the time, a medium-sized round brush. This one is a size 12 and a smaller round brush for detail work. This is the size 6. I also like to use a slightly larger round brush. This is a size 16 for painting in larger areas in a looser style. If you have something like that, I really recommend using it. Since we'll also be sketching, you'll need a pencil of some kind and an eraser. I like to use a really hard pencil like this 4H one and a kneaded eraser, but use whatever you're most comfortable with. I recommend keeping your pencil really light and easy to erase. Next, we'll need some water containers. I use two. One for rinsing off warm colors and the other for rinsing off cold colors. Another thing that's nice to have on hand is a damp washcloth to dab off excess water and paint, and some paper towels. Something that's optional but fun to use is some type of white to add highlights with. I like to use white gouache or a white gel pen, but you can also use white ink if you have that or white acrylic paint. Just be aware that those last two are more opaque and final, they're a bit harder to modify once they're applied. 3. Choosing a (Good) Reference Photo: I believe in the power and importance of working from references, whether those are live subjects, photos or videos. Birds are notoriously difficult to paint from life. They rarely sit still for more than a few seconds and we can usually only look at them from afar, which makes it difficult to paint them up close. Birds are also tricky to photograph on your own. Bird photographers use special gear and often work under very uncomfortable conditions. As bird painters, we're a little extra dependent on other people's footage and photos. I usually look for reference photos on Pinterest and Instagram because that's where I can find the most good quality photos to choose from. If I post my work online, I always like to credit the photographer whenever I can. But not every photo, regardless of how well shot it is, is appropriate as a reference for a painting. To explain what I mean by that, let's look at some examples of good and maybe not so good reference photos. I have picked the reference photos for this class from, which is a place where you can download and use beautiful stock photography for free. It took me quite a while to find photos that lend themselves to not only a watercolor painting, but to a bird portrait. For starters, we need to be able to clearly see the bird's face which is not always the case. In many photos, the light or colors obscure the bird and we can't really see what species it is or the photo is so zoomed out that we can't really make out any details, or it's cropped and too tight, which limits us too much in our own composition. We also want an accurate representation of colors so that we choose the right colors for our painting. Unless we know a birds' appearance by heart, it can be hard to make out the colors in a lot of photos. They might also be edited in an artistic way, which means that the creative work has already been done and that makes it harder for us to make it our own. Another common thing in photos that make our work more difficult is when there is no clear indication of light and shadow. Light and shadow are what defines form and makes a painting look three-dimensional and interesting. Unless we're comfortable inventing shadows in a believable way, we need to rely on there already being good lighting in our references. Of course, they can also be too much light and shadow contrast which instead makes us really limited and what we can do with our painting. We don't want a copy of photographer's vision, we want to create our own and of course, the same goes for using other people's paintings or illustrations as references. That would be a derivative work. A photo or video is an honest, blank slate for us to project our vision and style on. Let's look at some criteria for a good bird portrait reference photo. Number 1, we can clearly see which bird it is. I look for defining features for that particular bird, such as certain feather patterns or colors or other details and if those aren't visible in the photo, it would make my portrait too vague and anonymous. Number 2, the photo is cropped fairly close, but not too close. Number 3, we can clearly see the eye and the beak, which usually means the photo shows a profile or a three-quarter view. Number 4, the colors are accurate and number 5, there is some light and shadow to work with. We can see from where the light is coming and we have some shadowy areas of the bird. In the resource section of this class, you will find a collection of reference photos that I have pre-selected for you. The photo I'll be painting from is there too, if you want to paint along with me. But of course, you're free to choose whichever bird you're drawn to and want to portray. Just keep these five tips in mind as you're browsing for photos so you don't make it unnecessarily hard for yourself. When you've selected your bird, let's get our sketching tools out. 4. Drawing the Sketch: The first thing I do is place the head. That's going to be our focal point, so it's important that the head is placed nice and center and at the correct scale. I'll usually start by placing the head and working out the size of that and then I go from there. I often don't get the placement and the size right at the first try. I have to erase a lot and start again and that's fine. That's why we sketch really loosely so that we never get to attach to what we have on the page. When we're drawing the sketch, we want to make sure that we're not too focused on tracing the lines because that's when it's really easy to lose the proportions and give away too detailed. Instead, we want to be looking at the overall shape and seeing the geometry underneath. What I look for when I sketch is simple shapes. I try to forget that I'm looking at a bird and instead I see angles and shapes and planes of light and shadow, almost like a geometrical sculpture. If this bird was a blocky paper sculpture, what would it look like? You can even exaggerate it because that makes it easier to get it right and also much easier later when we're trying to figure out how to apply the watercolor onto the sketch. Because then we can clearly see the form of what we're painting. Without a good sense of form in our sketch, it's easier to get that uniform coloring book look to our art where there is no real sense of depth or three-dimensionality. To get the proportions right, I look a lot at the negative space around the bird and the distances between the shapes and lines. I'm comparing the lengths of different areas and that sort of thing. This is a skill, it gets easier with practice and it also gets easier when you're warmed up. I really recommend doing some practice sketches on drawing paper before you sketch it out on your watercolor paper to get that part of your brain warmed up. Another really good thing to remember here is to keep stepping away from your sketch and compare it to the reference a lot because the more we sit with our face close to the sketch, the easier it is to lose track of the big picture. I'm marking out some areas of deep shadow and bright highlights, especially the areas that I'm planning to leave white so that I don't forget that when I'm painting. I usually save whites around the eyes and on the upper half of the eyeball as well as where the light hits the beak. But look at your photo and look where it is the brightest. Finally, the last thing I do is use an eraser to remove as much of the graphite as possible while still being able to see the lines. I don't want any hard pencil lines though or too much detail because I find that distracting when I'm painting. A rigid sketch tends to produce a rigid painting. 5. Painting a Blue Tit: Before I start painting, I take a moment to look at the photo and I try to identify the colors that I see. I try to simplify it, because adding too many colors to a watercolor painting tends to make it look muddy or too messy. We need to simplify what we see. For example, in this owl, I see just three main colors apart from black. There is a light gray beige tone and a warm reddish brown and a dark brown. I see those colors interacting in different intensities in different parts of the bird. In this Macaw, I see green, blue, and yellow. In this song sparrow I see light gray, a cold brown and a warm reddish brown. Most other color nuances you see can be added by mixing the main colors or varying the intensity of each color. In this owl, for instance, I see hints of a warm brown in the plumage of the chest, but I can use the same reddish brown I used around the eyes, only mixed with more water to achieve that. That's how you can simplify both the subject and the painting process for yourself. You don't need to premix your colors if you don't feel like you need to. I usually don't. It depends on how well you know your paints and the way they look on the page. If you're unsure, just take a piece of scrap watercolor paper and try out your colors, compare them to the reference. If I find that a color I put down is way off, I just take a paper towel and soak it up and then I paint it over. Now, I start laying down the lightest value of the colors I see in the image. I look at the brightest areas that are not white and I mix that color. Go a bit darker or more saturated than you think, because water color lightens as it dries. You can always go in with a damp brush and lift some of the color out if it's too much. I try to identify the base color of each area to determine in what order I want to lay down the paints. Looking at this sparrow, for instance, I can see that the base color of the plumage is a bright beige and sometimes white. This makes it easy for me to first put in those colors and then wait a bit for them to dry and then go in with the darker colors. But compare that to this starling. The majority of the base color is a dark blue or violet or even black, with the highlights almost white. This is trickier because with watercolor we can't really go from dark to light. We can go back in and add white without using other mediums like wash. So it demands a different technique and I haven't included any birds like that in this class since it's a bit advanced. With all of the birds in our reference photos, we can safely put in a lighter base color and then add other colors on top. Make sure you leave some areas where the paper can show through. You can see it in the wings here where I've intentionally left out little lines of highlights so that we can imagine the wings. But I've left it really simple, because the wings aren't the focal point of the painting. Choosing a focal point is what will make your subjects stand out on the page, because it draws the eyes into the painting. With a portrait, the focal point is usually the eyes, because that's where our eyes are instinctively drawn. It's the same whether it's a person or an animal. In order to have a focal point, we need to remember to tone down the other parts of the painting to hold back on details there. It's very easy to overwork a watercolor painting, because the process can be quite quick and that can give you a feeling of was that too easy? Am I really done? We want to feel like we really put in the work and so we get carried away or we put in more and more details. When we step back from the painting, it just looks too busy, nothing really stands out. Keep reminding yourself of that as you paint. Stay loose, big strokes in the beginning, leave plenty of white, and then towards the end of the painting we get to focus on some details. For the eye, what I do here, is I fill in the eyeball with a dark color, but I'm leaving a little ring around the eye and also a highlight on the upper part of the eyeball because that's where the light hits the eye. Since I'm planning on adding some white quash for the highlight later, I am actually blending it together here for a more spherical look. If you don't want to use some other medium for the highlight, you can just avoid that and leave a tiny little bit of white of the paper. If you're bird has brighter eyes, do a darker lining of the eyeball to create depth and leave it brighter around the pupil to create contrast. A lot of birds have brown eyes, but we only see that up close and when the light hits them. Even if it's not that visible in the reference photo, I like to hint at that by using a dark brown as the base color for the iris, but only letting it show in the lower part of the eyeball. It brings up more depth in the eye. Beaks are often bright on top and darker underneath, no matter the color of the beak. But of course it depends on how the light falls on your bird. Hopefully you'll clearly see the lights and shadows on your reference photo. For a dark beak like this one, I usually go fairly dark right away, but I lift off some of the colors for the highlight on top. I don't like leaving in whites on the beak because it steals the attention away from the eyes, which is where I want the most contrast. You'll notice that I don't really work in layers in a more structured way. I just shift my focus between different parts of the painting while I'm waiting for other areas to dry. Here, I'm going back into the breast area with a darker, more saturated yellow to start building up some shadows. If you wait for an area to dry, you can make really crisp edges between your areas of color, or in this case, a more blanche appearance where the shadows are layered on top of the base color. But maybe we don't always want that. Sometimes we want the colors to bleed and blend together more. That's where we put the colors down on an already damp or wet paper and we paint wet on wet, as it's called, your colors will intermingle more and you can easier blend them together with your brush. You can see the difference here on the cheek feathers. Around the beak the shadows are more defined, painted onto a dry paper and further back they are more blended together applied wet on wet. Adding my final layers now. This is when I really try to bring up the contrast. I'm going almost black on the backside of the bird and I use darker and more saturated colors on the lower parts of the breast where the shadow is. It can be scary to work with really saturated dark colors, but be brave, it will make your painting pop. Remember that your colors will go more pale and light when they dry, so you can afford to exaggerate a bit. When I feel like I can't really add anything more to the painting without ruining my highlights or mudding my colors, I am done. I would rather leave it looking almost not quite finished than overworked. Again, this takes practice. I've overworked so many watercolor paintings. It's the only way to learn where that magic threshold is. 6. Adding a Background: I often don't paint the background behind my birds. I guess it's a matter of personal taste. I mean, a background can look great and it can really compliment the focal point of the painting if it's done well. But I also think that a background can distract from the focus of the painting, in this case, the bird so I often just leave the background white and you can choose to do that too if you want. But I did choose to add a very milky background to this blue tit by going in with a light gray and applying it really loosely in a gradient. You can see I'm keeping it slightly darker to the left because that's where the bird is the brightest, and so a darker background behind that will enhance that feeling of light. Likewise, on the right where the bird is in shadow, I'm keeping the background almost white to create maximum contrast between light and dark. Some tips here is to use the largest brush you have and to not fiddle too much with the background, which can make it look blotchy and overworked. Be confident, and just let the paint fall where it may. A good rule of thumb here is, the darker your subject, the lighter your background should be, if you don't want it to blend into it, of course. If your bird is very bright, you can get away with a much darker background. In fact, you'll need a darker background to even be able to see the bird. Now that our painting is almost finished, our final step is to add those last finishing touches. 7. Adding Final Details: The very last thing I do, besides adding some last minute saturation to my shadows here, is to bring up my gouache or my white gel pen and add a highlight to the eyes, or eye since you often only see one eye of the bird in a photo. I dip my brush in the gouache, and I apply a tiny little glare to the upper part of the eyeball. Sometimes I'll do one larger dot and a smaller next to it, but you can see I'm keeping it very, very small. If I were to make a larger highlight, it would look kind of cartoonish, but you can experiment. The good thing about gouache is that it's a water-based medium, so if you don't like the placement or the size of your highlight, it's easy to just dab it away with a damp brush, and some paper and just start over. 8. Your Class Project: There we have it. A finished bird portrait. Now, it's your turn. If you want to, you can pick the same reference photo that I've been using here and you can paint alongside me, or you can select one of the other reference photos that I've prepared for you in the Resources section, or you can source your own reference photo, and maybe pick a bird that has personal meaning for you or that you just enjoy looking at. I wish you lots of fun with this project. Remember to stay loose and relaxed. I'd love to see your bird portrait when it's finished, so please consider sharing your project here. If you have any questions at all, feel free to ask them on the Discussion tab. Thank you so much for joining me in this class, and I'll see you in the next one.