Common European Birds – An Ongoing Painting Project

One thing I’ve been working more on in the last few months is drawing and painting birds. I always felt strangely fascinated by birds, and in recent months I have started to paint them. I was particularly interested in what species are common and rare here in Germany (and in Europe), so that was the main focus of my research before starting to paint.

Painting the most common German birds

My studies have turned into an ongoing project of painting the most common and rarest birds of Germany (and Europe, depending on the data that was available for me). Including the rare birds seems of equal importance to me, since there have been dramatic changes in the last few years for some bird populations. A lot of birds rely on insects to feed on, and with more and more insects disappearing from nature, this is an alarming development.
I’m not certain yet where this painting project will lead, but at the moment I’m studying and painting each new bird with enthusiasm. Observing the details I need for my paintings also helps me to learn more about the different species of birds, and will no doubt be helpful knowledge when I encounter birds in the field.

Winter is a great time to study birds because they are less obscured by trees and foliage, and I’m happily spending my time with binoculars and a sketchbook right now whenever I can. At least for the common garden birds I can study the birds directly in nature. For details and all the rare birds I still have to rely on photography – I usually create the detailed paintings after close study of the individual species and drawing from different references.

Sparrows

Common And Rare German Birds – A Selection Of My Paintings So Far

Here are a few of the paintings I have completed so far. Progress on this project happens slowly (as I have the time for it) and I decide spontaneously which bird I’m going to paint next.

Common German/European Birds:

You can see more paintings here and here.

My Painting Process

Let me share a little bit of my process and how I approach the paintings for this project.

Studying The Basics

The first step to a successful painting is to understand your subject and study it thoroughly, at least when you’re going for realism. I only rekindled my love for painting in a realistic manner a short time ago (the last time was in art school over a decade ago), and to start with I knew almost nothing about birds from a painter’s perspective. So first I learned quite a lot about bird anatomy, different feather groups, posture, plumage and behavior. Obviously this can be different for different bird species, but at least the basics like the arrangement of feathers stays roughly the same.

Preliminary Pencil And Color Sketches

I make pencil sketches and studies of each new bird I focus on, trying to get as many different postures down as I can to get a 360° understanding of the bird. Whenever I can I work from observation (with binoculars and a pencil), since this gives the most direct experience and helps to get the colors right.
Some details can only be observed from photographs though, so this is usually the second step for me (a great alternative is to work with prepared animals if you have access to them). Working from photos is a double-edged sword, since it can result in a flat painting with little dimension, and the colors are also dependent on the light in which the photo was taken.
But they’re also a great help when a bird cannot be observed closely otherwise. If possible, make your own observations about posture and color, and fill in the details (feather groups, markings) later with the help of photos.

One word about using photos to paint from: be sure you don’t simply copy the material if the photo isn’t yours. Photos have copyrights too and these need to be respected. There are free resources and photos with creative commons licenses however, so refer to those if you don’t use your own photos.

I often start my rough sketches with a light colored pencil and work on top of that with graphite, this makes the colored lines disappear almost completely (a light blue works well for this). This way I can add more detail when I have already decided on the basic shapes and proportions. I usually add more feather details when I work in graphite to get an understanding for how the bird has arranged his plumage.

The Painting Process

Once I have decided on a posture for the bird, I switch to watercolor paper and make one last careful drawing with a hard pencil, only indicating details lightly. Since pencil lines can not be erased once you put paint over them, and watercolor is transparent, it’s best to lighten the pencil marks even further before you start painting.
I paint in layers with my watercolor, starting with light washes and continuing to add more color and detail with every layer. I often start with light grey to indicate values, and sometimes I will put in a dark color fairly at the beginning (like the eye, or the bill) so I can judge the value range better.
The rest is done by layering different transparent colors over each other until the painting looks well-rounded. It sounds simple, but this is actually the part where most careful decisions have to be made in order to achieve a realistic look. If your drawings and color-studies are accurate this step will be much easier, because you can refer back to them.

Additional Tips For Sketching, Drawing And Painting Birds:

  • Birds move around a lot, so it’s a bit tricky to sketch them in detail. It gets a bit easier with practice, and you will get quicker at making quick posture drawings. Don’t overwork your sketches when you only have a few seconds before a bird moves (or flies away).
  • It’s easy to overwork feathers when you’re drawing once you know what you’re looking for, but if you draw in every little detail your bird can end up looking like a scaly reptile (only a bird’s feet are scaly).
  • Often birds fluff their plumage, especially when it’s cold. The look of fluffed-up feathers can be achieved by making tiny brush strokes in several layers. Changing the color slightly can also help.
  • Use transparent watercolor pigments instead of opaque pigments to achieve a multilayered painting. I also try to avoid most blacks as they can give a dull, dead look and that’s not what I want in a bird painting.
  • Take your time. Creating a realistic drawing or painting needs patience. Patience can definitely be practiced and acquired – I was never a patient painter, but as the subject demanded it, I grew more patient with each painting. Trust the process and have fun with it, and don’t try to rush to the result. The finished painting is only a small part of the entire process.

I hope this little mixture of project case study and tutorial has been helpful to you. I will keep you informed about this project as I complete more bird paintings, and I’m happy to share more of my techniques for drawing and painting birds if that’s something you’re interested in.

Do you have any questions or comments for me about this? Let me know below!

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Absolutely Gorgeous!

Julia

Thank you so much Caitlin! <3

Paz

So many very helpful tips! Thanks so much! I continue to enjoy all your bird sketches!

Julia

Thank you, thank you! I’m happy if you find my tips helpful. 🙂

Terri

This is so great Julia I am a huge birdie fan as you know, living with 3 bossy parrots who mean everything to me. I was completely riveted to this blog post. Completely enthralled by your pencil sketches and very detailed species studies. I could hang those studies on my wall in a frame and call it complete. I am fascinated by your process and really looking forward to keeping up with your efforts.

Julia

Ooh, Terri, that’s so great to hear. I bet they each have their own personality. Parrots are wonderful birds and so bright (and often a bit cheeky), and I love to watch them whenever I can in zoos. Thank you for your wonderful and kind feedback!

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