Paint Realistic-Looking Birds With Acrylic Paint

If you love nature, then chances are that you like birds, too. There are so many wonderful species with distinct looks and interesting feathers. Wouldn’t you love to draw and paint them? If you never have before, then it’s time to gather your paints and brushes.

Learn how to paint birds in just a few easy steps!

Bird final detail


For starters, let’s go over the tools I’m using. If you already paint, then you’ll probably have most of what you need. I’ve primed a sheet of paper with acrylic matte medium to paint on. In addition, I have several tubes of acrylic pigment — blue (for the sky), browns, reds, yellows and white — that match the coloration of the bird. I’m also using a few paint brushes including a liner for the fine details.

Bird book

You can use whatever you like for reference. Maybe you’ve photographed a bird, or you have a bird book like I do. I picked up this used Audubon Bird Guide years ago, and I still refer to it. I selected the golden-crowned Kinglet to paint from this book.

1. Draw the bird of your choice.

bird sketch

Before I put paint to paper (or canvas), I always make sure I have a solid drawing. Pencil is a lot more forgiving than paint, so it’s easier to perfect my sketch with an eraser rather than having to cover it with pigment later.

Bird sketch refined

Personally, I found the drawing part the most daunting part of this whole painting. So, I started with simple geometric shapes. This ensures that I get proportions and placement correct. I then went back and refined it until I was satisfied with how it looked.

2. Paint a base coat.

First layer of paint of bird

There are a lot of advantages to working in layers of paint (often called glazing), because it allows you to build a rich color base. I painted a thin coat on my prepared paper. Don’t worry if you didn’t cover all of your graphite. It’ll eventually be masked in subsequent layers.

First layer of paint of bird

3. Add a second, third and maybe fourth coat of paint.

Bird layer 2

Once your base colors are dry, it’s time to really paint in the fine details. Take a close look at your reference photo and figure out where the shadows, highlights and color changes are. My bird has a bright spot of red on its head and some subtle yellow hues on its wings. Using a tiny brush, I applied thin layers of paint to build volume.

Bird layer 3

I didn’t do this all in one coat. With some details, like the wings and head, I went over it multiple times. Other parts, like the chest, didn’t require the same type of work. It’s a good thing, compositionally, to have areas of fine detail mixed with fields of color. This will keep your painting from getting visually overwhelming.

bird layer 3

Tip: Mix Ultramarine Blue with Burnt Umber to create a dark, nearly-black color.

4. Outline the fine details (if necessary).

bird layer outline

If your reference bird has a lot of marks on their feathers, then the last step is to define them. This is where a liner will come in handy. Outline the things that require a fine brush. For me, that’s the dark marks on the feathers.

bird final

Tip: This is the final step. Before starting this process, ask yourself, “Do I need to paint any more areas?” If the answer is yes, then begin the outline process after you do that. Otherwise, you might find it difficult to preserve the fine details.

What type of bird are you going to paint?

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