Watercolour Crash Course on Birds

Watercolour Crash Course on Birds

Slightly derpy, often majestic, always fantastic - birds come in all shapes and sizes and have been a constant source of human fascination, if only for their ability to fly. There’s even an entire hobby centred on watching birds, and it’s easy to see why. 

But let’s say instead of bird watching, let’s do some bird drawing and painting as an homage to our feathered friends.

Egg-cellent Body

When drawing birds, the first thing to note is their body shape. It could be because they hatch from eggs, but one common trait they share is the egg-shape for the main body. 

They could have funny beaks, long necks, or stilted legs, but the body is pretty much that same oval shape that gets narrower on one end (usually the tail end). 

So before starting your drawing, check your reference picture for that egg shape and its position! All the other body parts will stem from this simple base.

Once that’s in place, carefully add its other features, such as its head, tail, and legs.

If you find this difficult, you can always simplify the shapes into ovals, triangles, and rectangles before refining them further into shapes they’re supposed to be.

Eyes, Wings, Beak, Feet

Next, you can hone in on other features like eyes, wings, beak, and feet (including talons). These tend to differ from bird to bird, so you’ll need to adjust accordingly. Some birds have a hawk-eye look, while others look derpier. 

Some have a gigantic beak or even a spoon-shaped one. Feet can also differ from long skinny legs to feathered legs to tiny legs.

Birds that can swim will have webbed feet to help propel them in water, while birds of prey have wickedly sharp talons and hooked beaks.

Wings are a bit trickier to handle. They’re easiest to draw when folded, as they pretty much mould to the shape of the main body. But when they’re open, whether full or partially, they’re more difficult to get right, especially if you’re drawing from an awkward angle. 

In general, think of them in sections of 3: the humerus (upper part), the forewing (lower part), and the wingtip. These fold in a sideways “Z” shape and can extend quite far away from the body when fully outstretched. 

In any case, if you’re ever in doubt on how to draw the wings, try drawing just the underlying skeleton first (where all the wings’ feathers extend from).

This will give you a better understanding of how open or closed the wings are and how the feathers should fan out from their base.

Whichever bird you pick, try to get the proportions and balance right!

Proportions will affect whether the bird looks bird-like, while the balance will affect whether the bird feels bird-like (in terms of movement and having the right centre of gravity). 

Birds of a Feather

To get that feathered detail, remember that bird feathers work in layers, just like watercolours! Head feathers tend to be shortest and can often be the “fluffiest” part, while wing and tail feathers are the longest. 

Wing feathers also have quite a structured layering to them, so make sure to take a good long look at how they look!

As for legs, they’re often featherless, and if so, you can add a scaly or bumpy texture to them. But sometimes they’re covered with feathers too, especially if the bird lives in colder regions. 

And they’re actually most similar to human arms in skeletal structure, where they bend one way (backwards) towards the tail and can use their clawed feet to pick up things. 

And they usually have 4 toes with 3 facing forward while 1 is positioned at the back to grasp branches or for balance when walking.

Make sure they're positioned properly though, so they don’t look like they’re about to fall over while standing! 

Tail feathers are even more diverse, from a peacock’s extravagant fan to a simply pointed tail on a swan.

If you’re ever in doubt, again, just simplify the feathers to a basic tail shape, before fitting in however many individual (and more detailed) feathers within that shape.

All the Colours of the Rainbow

When you’re satisfied with your drawing, why not pick up your favourite watercolours and paint it? You can leave or erase your pencil lines, but I always find it so delightful to add colour to any painting, and even more so to colourful birds.

Again, work in layers, just as the feathers are layered, and go from light to dark.

White feathers can be brought out with a darker background behind the white, and light blue shadows for some feather details.“Black” feathers can be a very dark blue, and don’t forget the shiny highlights!

For individual feathers that are longer, such as for open wings, taper your brushstrokes so the ends are thicker and slightly rounded, while the part that’s attached is pointed. 

You can follow this rule in general though, even for shorter feathers. And while it’s tempting to paint each feather, you can just leave it at hinting a few feathers here and there. 

But depending on how much time you want to spend on your bird painting, you can attempt both styles of birds and decide which you prefer.

Taking Flight

There are so many different types of birds that it would be impossible to go through each one, but I hope these general tips will help you get started!

Even if you just focused on painting one single bird, there are so many possible positions and angles to paint it in that it would occupy you for quite some time.

At any rate, these lovely creatures are quite a delight to study, so what are you waiting for? Go spread your wings, and let your art take flight! 

Do you have a favourite bird? What is the most challenging bird position or angle you have ever attempted? Let us know in the comments below!


Nicola Tsoi is a practicing graphic designer and illustrator based in Hong Kong. During her downtime, she likes to watch birds do funny things, search for stories, and bake up a storm. She keeps a pet sourdough starter named Doughy.  
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