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How to Paint Birds

Birds are synonymous with freedom, and painting birds can give you the same freedom you need to be a better painter. You’ll find that birds are full of color and character. Being a small subject, you don’t notice most details right away. But if you take a closer look at birds, you’ll notice those little shifts of color that make the bird beautiful.

There are a lot of ways to depict a bird, but oil painting is a great medium since you have the opportunity to create vibrant color and unique textures.

Let’s get right on it!

Step 1: How to Transfer an Image to the Canvas

There’s a common misconception about how drawing isn’t important to painters. More experienced painters, however, would say otherwise. Most painters would say drawing is necessary in painting. In fact painting could even be considered a form of drawing with a paintbrush.

Consequently, a problem arises for beginning painters. You can find yourselves stuck in the drawing process before the painting even begins and it keeps us from painting what we want. To fix that problem, we have two ways on how you can transfer an image to a canvas easily.

To know more about drawing and how it’s important, consider checking out our website:

The first way is to use the grid method. In this method, we’re going to be going through two ways on how you can easily and accurately transfer your subjects from a picture, to your canvas.

The first way is to use the grid method

It’s an approach that breaks down your subject into smaller pieces—eliminating that overwhelming feeling we get when we look at the whole photograph. When the image is divided into smaller, bite-sized pieces, the artist gets a new sense of perspective.

The grid lines will serve as reference points when you want to measure some landmarks, which can definitely be useful if you want to be exact in drawing your subject.

You can use an app like Grid# and apply a grid over any photograph. Once you’ve added the grid to your image, you can print it. We recommend printing it in black and white. Plus, you should make sure that the size of the printout is approximately the same as the size of your canvas. Having the same sizes will help you later on.

Using your gridded black and white photo together with a Gray Scale Value Finder is very handy when you’re first starting off. Having these tools will eliminate the distraction of color and it will force you to focus only on the value itself.

Now that you have the materials you need, you can now draw your subject using the grid method. Check out our website to learn more on how to do it:

You can use the grid lines to establish important landmarks like the end of the beak or the exact location of the eye. When you measure off a center grid line, for example, it is easier to get the exact locations of certain features. It is important to know that once you recognize the shape, you should draw them in very lightly.

Checking the angles of your picture is one of the benefits of the grid method. Angles will help you determine if your drawing is accurate. With that being said, this step can get a little tricky since the grid has 90-degree angles.

However, if we line up our pencils with the grid properly at multiple points, we will be able to get those angles measured.

Once you’ve established how the angles relate to the grid, you will be able to change your shape little by little to make it more accurate. The angles serve as a guide for making some more landmarks. And in turn, the more landmarks you have on your drawing, the easier it will be for you to connect them.

To determine what you’re looking for when determining what details to include, look for those big and drastic value changes. Drawing these changes will definitely give your subject more character later on.

Using the grid technique will encourage you to get more familiar with your subject. If you do this method enough times, you’ll be better at noticing more nuances within your subjects.

There are a lot of ways to be more accurate in drawing, but the grid method is one that teaches the drawer to be better.

Now that we have our drawing, we can now proceed with the next step.

Step 2: Color Mixing

Color mixing is a whole concept in and of itself, and the best way to master it is by simply doing it as much as you can. Furthermore, when mixing colors there are several ways to get a desired result.

What that means in the context of color mixing is that we should experiment with colors as much as we can. This will enable us to find more combinations and be more adept in choosing which colors to use in a certain session.

One example for the context that was mentioned are blacks. In my classes I encourage students not to use black right away. This is because there are multiple ways in which you can get black and you wouldn't want to miss an opportunity to use color temperature in your dark areas.

One way to get black is to mix Transparent-Oxide Brown with Cobalt Blue. When you mix both of these colors, you will have the opportunity to bend your darks’ temperature.

Transparent oxide brown is a strong beautiful transparent color. Using more of it in the mixture can make the dark warmer; If you’ll use more cobalt blue, you’ll make it cooler. Inversely, the more cobalt blue, the blacker and warmer it gets

Having the ability to bend your blacks warmer or cooler makes the color more realistic. Instead of seeing paint as a manufactured tool for art, see it as more of a color—a tool that can be manipulated by the artist.

To know more about color mixing, check out our site:

Step 3: How to Paint Realistic Bird Eyes

When you’ve painted a lot of birds, you’ll find that the eye is the first thing you should paint. This is because it should be the focal point—probably because the eyes naturally draw the viewer’s attention.

Your goal with this is to get the bird on your painting to look at you. Even though in the image the bird isn’t directly looking at you, try to make the painting engage the viewer. The way to do that is to make your subject look at the viewer—by simply changing the direction of the pupil.

First, we need to think about what colors and shapes we want to bring into our canvas. Finding as many shapes and colors as you can will give you the realism within your subject. Don’t think of what you’re painting as an eyeball, rather, think of it as a cluster of shapes and colors. This will help you determine what to paint and how to paint it.

Remember, it’s not advisable to use only one value and shape and always keep in mind to work from thin too thick.

Take a look at the eye again and you’ll find that there are several values and shapes within the highlight itself. Adding those shapes in will make the eye more realistic.

In painting, you'll always want to keep your edges smooth. Not doing so will make the shapes look fabricated or cut out. To remedy that, we blend.

Always remember, keep the edges smooth. You’d want them to blend in together to the point where they just mingle. Don’t go too hard on them so as to defeat the purpose of the color itself.

This blending process not only smoothens your edges, but it also allows you to clean your edges and make them softer. The outer ring really defines the shape of the eye. In a Norther Cardinal you can actually see that there’s purples and dark, light and medium grays within the eye ring.

Keep in mind that the right colors are those that match with your reference photo. With that in mind, since we’ve been trying to start our layers thinly, we can easily change or bend the colors if we need to.

Once you’ve felt like the bird’s eyeball is taking in the right shape and colors, it’s best to, take a few steps back and look at your work from a distance. This will give you the opportunity to have a break and see your work from a different perspective.

To know more about how you can create beautiful textures for the eyes, check out our site:

By looking at your eye at a further point of view, you’ll find some subtle things that may be lacking. Be they other values or shapes etc.

Step 4: How to Paint Realistic Beaks

In this part of the session, we will notice how the beak can be the most difficult part to paint besides the talons (feet). Painting the overall color of the beak in a thin layer will start the process and in turn, it can help us be more efficient when painting it.

The overall color should be the darkest color of the beak. Keep in mind that we reserve space for those areas with whiter values. This is because in the painting process, we start dark and end light, and we don’t want to contaminate the light with some dark colors

To get the overall color, really observe the beak and look for the colors that are lingering within. It depends on how you see the beak. Observation relies on your own personal vision. Color Mixing requires experience. To learn more about color mixing, check out

The next thing we need to do is to define the beak, Defining the beak creates boundaries and the boundaries serve as a guide to where the beak begins and where it ends. With that in mind, you’d still want to get the colors as close as possible and remember when you’re painting, do so lightly and thinly.

The idea of the beak is to put as much color in as you can—since it’s sort of a reflective surface. Again, our job as painters involves adding what we see from the photo to the canvas. To do so, we must not consider what we actually see, but rather, we must consider the subject to be a group of shapes and colors.

Check your reference photo from time to time and be a color hunter. What you’ll find may surprise you. When looking for shapes or colors to paint, compare the value of the area where the light hits. These kinds of areas are what you should be looking for since these areas will have the most drastic changes in value within the beak.

In this step of adding values, you’ll find that you’ll be beginning to use some of the white. This is because these parts of the beak are where the highlights usually linger. But remember, we’d always want to reserve the whites for last—because they’re usually the lightest of lights.

To paint the rest of the beak, follow the same process of starting with the darks first and leaving the highlights for last. Even at this stage we shouldn’t stop looking for changes in value. By this time, you’ll find that there is a subtle change in value nearing the end of the break. Adding the right colors and shapes will help the beak come to life.

When painting the highlight, consider the alternative to using white. The canvas itself should be considered as a color and part of the painting. To do so, you can simply remove some of the paint to an extent, where you can see the whites of the canvas.

Finally, when you think you’ve added enough colors and shapes to the beak, use a fan brush to blend them all together. However, be careful so as to not mix the colors. You’d want them to just mingle together.

Step 5: How to Paint Realistic Bird Feathers

PART 1: The Importance of Painting the Darks First

Painting the darks first will give you the opportunity to make them more vibrant. In other words, you can manipulate them to a more distinctive color—a warmer or cooler black.

At this stage, you will also have the chance for you to clean up the eye-rings. You can get more detailed here but that’s up to you. Rather than getting more paint in, we consider pushing the paint you’ve already put on your canvas; spread it more thinly to other areas.

To know more about color mixing, check out our lessons:

If we take the time applying these subtle shifts of color and temperature, our darks will be more realistic. That’s why we want you to be acquainted with color temperature and how it’s not limited to colors other than black.

Remember: There can be value changes even in the darkest of darks. When painting them, what you should first do here is to thinly spread a dark layer on the area then dab a napkin on the same area to remove the paint. Adding white should be the last resort.

Part 2: Creating feathery textures.

Texture is one of those elements that makes a painting realistic. The texture of the feathers depends on what kind of brush you use. One trick of getting a feathery or grassy texture is to splay edges of a brush before using it.

Splaying out brushes is very useful if you want to get those feathery textures. However, always keep in mind the paint you’re adding on to the canvas and consider what’s already on there.

Before we can make the textures, we should be creating new layers.

What we’ll do first is to essentially lay in the base of the darks. What you’re looking for are subtle differences in colors and add them to the mix accordingly. Because of their sudden changes in values, these dark areas will give your subject’s wings more definition.

At this stage, what you want to do is to come in with a base coat of red, and come over top with lighter coats and more color. What the base coat is is essentially the general color of the area. When you’re looking for this color, consider what the dominant color is and how it is being used.

Color mixing can be really complex. Check out our site to learn more about the concept:

When you’re painting, you should consider the feather patterns. It's not good to add on too much paint at this stage since this is only a base coat. Try spreading what you already have to more areas. Basically, this stage is all about staining the canvas with the red.

By having a nice thin base color, you’ll have the opportunity to make other light and richer colors on top of it, and it will sort of show through. The thing you have to know about this part is that the layers will not only give you variety, but it will make the texture of your feathers have more colors.

From time to time, pick up your reference photo and compare your work. When you’re comparing your work to your photo, squint and compare at the value changes and see how accurate your work is.

Since at this stage it’s all about adding more layers, you will have the opportunity to fix your values by adding lighter or darker paints.

Essentially what you’re looking for is how drastic the value change is in the picture. Once you’ve gotten to know the change, the next thing you should be thinking about is if you’re creating the same thing on your canvas.

Usually, when we think of lightening the values, we’re thinking of adding more paint on the layers. However, a more efficient method is to simply take some of the paint off and use the canvas as part of the painting before adding lighter paints.

When you’re trying to lighten a value, there are two things you should keep in mind: (1) you’d want to add paint that’s already lighter than what your value initially was, and (2) you have to be careful not to make it too light.

Number 2 is very crucial. What you’re doing here is essentially making sure that you’re not lightening it too much so as to make it the same as those areas with the already lighter values.

You can actually see on the picture how the lighter values come through underneath the layers. When you’re adding on more layers, be careful not to destroy the underpaintings—the first layers.

Continuing to add more layers including the highlight will eventually complete the feathers. However, there are some things we should consider before painting the highlight.

Keep in mind that we can always use a smaller brush to paint in those highlights in those smaller crevices.

Always consider the light and how it hits certain areas of the bird. There will be lighter areas than others but they will never be as consistent as you may think. Take a look at the eye of the bird and how there’s a shadow to it’s right. That’s how light can affect the values and colors of your painting.

Painting realistically is more about taking your time and noticing all the little details. The more you pay attention and actually incorporate the little details on your work, the more realistic it will be.

As we know, the highlights are created because the surface of our subject reflects some of the light. We can create the illusion of a highlight by mixing some of the colors of our sky to create a grayish mixture.

We always encourage you to play around your palette until you feel like the colors you are using are more natural-looking. In this case, we will be adding some colors to cater to the value changes—since even the highlights have multiple values.

Keep in mind that adding too many highlights isn’t good. After all, too much of something is never good. With that being said, you can dab on layers on top of what you’ve taken off to give that area more texture.

Finally, after every layer has been incorporated to the area, take your fan brush and blend them with a stroke that resembles feathers. Doing so will create more feathery textures that will make your bird more realistic.

Step 6: How To Make Your Bird More Realistic

This final stage of the process is where you can make your painting more realistic. Here, you can correct all those intricate details you’re not happy with.

For example:

Blending the edges of the beak to the background, can give you the opportunity to find things you don’t like and deciding whether or not to change them. Noticing these subtle changes and adding them to your painting accordingly will make your bird more realistic.

At this stage, you can see how important it is to start with thin layers. Because the layers were thin enough, we didn’t need to entirely wipe any of the paint and do much work. Adding more paint was sufficient in this case.

At this stage, you’ll be noticing some things that need to be reinstated. Meaning you have to add more paint again. That’s okay, and it’s even worth it.

There could be many reasons as to why you need to reinstate some of your colors. One major reason is that you could have missed it before because you didn’t have any other colors to compare it to.

What you’re ultimately looking for are shapes and colors that you may have missed or haven’t applied properly. Once you’ve found them, you should reinstate them. After you added all of your details, don’t forget to blend them in altogether.

There can be a lot more details you can add to your painting and it’s entirely up to you. You’ll find that the dark colors are better thin and the light colors are better thick.

There you have it! Everything you need to make your bird paintings more realistic. The process of painting is very rewarding—especially if you paint with purpose. Painting birds can give you the direction you need to be a better painter. You just have to look at the subject more closely and paint with more conviction.


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