Skip to Content

How to Paint Birds in Watercolor (tips from a beginner)

If in January you would’ve told me that I would be painting birds in watercolor in no time, I would’ve told you that you were insane. I’ve never been good at drawing, in fact, I draw an elephant like a three-year-old. It’s true. Just some basic shapes and a tail!

I never enjoyed art classes in school. I hated it as all my work was bad. So bad that people laughed at it. 

owl painting in watercolor with a brush and some watercolor pigments
Owl in watercolor

Last February while I was on Facebook, I saw an ad for a watercolor course. I saw a couple of  animal watercolor paintings and I thought to myself: “I’d love to do that”. Right then, I decided to learn watercolor. 

All the photos in this post are of the work I’ve done since. Me. Someone who hated art class. 

*This article may contain affiliate links. We receive a small commission at no extra cost to you.*

Some of the links on this post are affiliates. I’ve linked to Dick Blick Art Materials because that’s where I get my supplies and I like them, they are not paying me to tell you about them, I just like them. They ship really fast, their prices are awesome, and sometimes they have incredible deals on watercolor paper, I always use Arches watercolor paper, so keep an eye on  the website to get deals. 

watercolor raven
One of my favorite paintings, a raven

This is how I learned how to paint birds in watercolor

I joined a class from Domestika. The class Expressive Animal Portraits in Watercolor is by the wonderful Sarah Stokes and it is incredibly helpful. Remember I was a total beginner and didn’t even know about water behavior or color theory or color tones.

In this class, you’ll learn about color theory and tones. You’ll practice with color tones, textures, and backgrounds. Sarah is one of the best watercolor teachers I’ve come across. If you are in the UK she does in-person courses, like her class on painting big cats. 

My favorite tutorial was the study and painting of this leopard cub’s eye. It really made me analyze all the colors and tones and I highly recommend doing this one. 

painting table
My leopard eye from Sarah Stoke’s tutorial

After this course, I took another one of Sarah’s courses, the Artistic Watercolor Techniques for Birds. There’s also a big emphasis on color tones. These art lessons are invaluable! 

This is what I produced while learning about color tone using watercolor. You can already see the improvement from the one on the left to the one on the right. I mean look at that eye…it went from cartoonish eye to a more detailed eye. This is my absolute first watercolor painting. It is real fun to go back and see how much you have improved, so save your first work! 

two birds in watercolor
Learning color tones

Classes from watercolor artists

Another fabulous watercolor artist is Liz Chaderton. She has a great YouTube channel where she shares tons of useful tips and tricks, and I highly recommend it. She is an amazing artist and teacher.

She has some great resources if you want to paint birds in watercolor. For example, she is releasing a book, Painting Birds in Watercolor in march 23′ (in the US). If you don’t want to wait or you’d rather do a class, then you can take her on line course Painting Birds in Watercolor

While I haven’t taken any of her classes (yet), I have her book Painting Watercolor in Canvas. I love this book so much that took her class Painting Watercolor in Canvas. This class opened my eyes to a new world and now all I want to do is to paint in canvas. The vibrancy of colors is incredible.

Patreon watercolor artists

After doing these courses, I discovered a few watercolor artists on Patreon. For a small monthly fee, you can take tutorials, which come with downloadable templates and photographic references to help you. If, like me, you can’t draw this is super helpful!

I like to learn from different artists as each of them has different techniques and I like that way of learning. I still haven’t developed my own style and not sure if I prefer to paint realistic birds or art pieces with finer details or just do a bird silhouette. 

These are the watercolor artists I follow on Patreon:

Louise de Massi:   I am a superfan of Louise. She’s a professional artist with decades of knowledge. Her tutorials are very detailed with all the hows and why’s of everything she does.  Her bird paintings are lovely. This owl below is one of my favorites. 

barn own watercolor painting
Barn owl from Louise de Massi’s tutorial

She is the most generous with her knowledge and she always answers comments in her posts. Some of her tutorials run for two hours and, at first, they might seem too long, but after doing each tutorial of hers I feel I’ve learned months’ worth of watercolor techniques. 

Monthly subscription: $6 

Another thing I love about her is that she likes to do watercolor paintings using just two colors to create different colors. Like this magnolia watercolor. It was one of her tutorials and only used two colors: Permanent Rose, and Winsor Green Blue Shade.

magnolia flowers watercolor painting
Magnolia watercolor painting from Louise de Massi’s tutorial

Maria Raczynska:  I like Maria’s classes as she does most of her painting using the wet-on-wet technique and you can do a painting in one day as opposed to painting a layer and having to let it dry, and then another one, and another one. 

I haven’t made any birds with her tutorials yet, as I signed up not long ago. I’ve only done an orca whale (shown below). As you can see the ocean waves look weird, but this is my first try at an oceanscape so I’m happy with it!

Maria has a few watercolor hummingbird tutorials and other bird portraits so I’m taking those next! 

orca watercolor painting
My watercolor orca from Maria’s tutorial

She also works with watercolor landscape and I’d love to learn how to paint landscapes.

Monthly subscription: $9 

Kiley Busko at Painted Wing: Kiley mainly paints birds and she likes to use a lot of pigment in her work and  It is lovely. Here’s some of the work I’ve done following her tutorials. 

Monthly subscription: $7 a month

watercolor bird
Bird in watercolor from one of Painted Wing tutorials
watercolor painting of a fox
Watercolor fox from a Painted Wing tutorial

How to paint hummingbirds

Choosing colors to use is a lot of fun, especially when you start to get confident in creating new colors from the ones you already have.

When you are starting to learn how to paint hummingbirds you’ll come across another challenge: iridescence. How do you recreate that? Some watercolor artists paint hummingbirds with no iridescence, and that’s perfectly fine since their iridescence is not always visible anyway. I like a good challenge (I always like to make things difficult for me), so I started experimenting. This is what I found. 

If painting a purple color, you can use Daniel Smith Amethyst Genuine. It has a little sparkle to it, which is stronger under direct sunlight. Watercolors fade under direct sunlight, so not sure how useful that is! I still love the color and enjoy it using it in subjects that have black fur or feathers, like this crow below. 

crow watercolor painting
Amethyst genuine sparkles

During my search, I started considering using gold leaf and using it before applying watercolors on top. I have not done it and have no idea if it works, it is just something that I thought of and you might want to try it. Before I decided to go for it, I came across the Gold and Silver color from Holbein. And I’m obsessed! I mixed the Winsor Violet with the Holbein Gold and I love the result. The shimmer doesn’t seem to fade, so I’m going to start mixing it with other colors to create hummingbird and insect watercolor paintings. 

Here’s what the Amethyst Genuine + Gold, and Winsor Violet + Gold (on the right) look like: 

two swatches of colors using violets and gold
Amethyst genuine + gold on the left and Winsor violet + gold on the right

Also, you can try DANIEL SMITH luminescence duo-chrome colors. I haven’t tried them yet, but here’s a short video on how they behave. I will update the article when I try them. 

Maybe in a few months I’ll get the courage and learn to paint with oil paints and acrylic paints! 

Ready to learn how to paint birds with watercolors? 

kingfisher watercolor painting
Kingfisher in watercolors

Cristina Garcia

Zoologist and wildlife photographer. She has worked in the field with jackals, wolves, cheetahs, & leopards. She serves on the Board of Directors of SEE Turtles, a non-profit sea turtle conservation organization.

Read her posts at Travel For Wildlife and see more of her work at Truly Wild, & Our Wild Yard.