How to Draw Birds

Drawing birds is a wonderful way to make yourself look more carefully at nature. Here are some resources that I hope will help you draw birds and understand them more deeply. If you understand bird anatomy you will be better at drawing what you see. I have many blog posts giving step-by-step demonstrations and details about drawing birds (see list at right). See the links at the right of your screen. You can find more information in The Laws Guide to Drawing Birds. The most important thing you can do to improve your bird drawing and sketching is to start drawing more frequently. Keep you sketching materials handy. Please leave comments and questions and I will expand these resources based on your input.

Drawing Birds downloadable PDF worksheet

Here is my step by step process to block in the shape of the bird. These steps are handled as lightly as possible (either with minimal pressure with a graphite pencil or a col-erase Non-photo blue pencil (see equipment list). Teachers may use this page to help their class learn to draw birds.  Download high resolution version for printing here: How to draw birds

Step by step guide to drawing birds

Once you have the basic shaped blocked in you are ready to add details on top of that framework. This is the fun part but do not skip the first steps and jump to drawing the beak and eye. Details without structure will get you nowhere.

Start with the basic Shape

The most important part of the drawing is getting the basic shape right at the start. Instead of focusing on details at the start of a picture, make light sketch lines to capture the posture, proportions, and angles of your subject. Start your bird sketch by noting the posture of the bird or the angle at which it sits with a single line. Over this, add an oval for a body and then a circle for the head. Then stop and check your proportions. It is easy to change the size of the head early in the drawing. In the animated drawings below, you will notice that I initially drew the head too large. I redrew the head circle smaller after my proportion check so that the birds will not have a head with the proportions of a chickadee. Indicate the locations of eye-beak, tail, leading edge of wing, and legs. Carve in angles where you find them around the head and tail coverts. These angles around the head and tail help break the imprint of the two circles that you used to initially build the bird. Without this, it is easy for your drawings to resemble a snowman. Many artists speed past these important initial steps but time spent at the start will pay off in the end.  One you capture the posture, proportions and angles of the silhouette,  you can add details in heavier pencil over these initial lines, finishing with color.

SoSp-step-by-step

Look below the surface

Underneath the feathers, a bird looks like a plucked chicken. Note that it’s knee is actually hidden up under its feathers and the joint you sometimes see below the body is actually its ankle! The wing feathers attach to the hand and forearm.

Learn to see feather groups

Studying bird anatomy will help you draw birds more accurately. Feathers grow from specific regions on the bird’s body with bare skin between them. These feather groups define the shape and contours of a bird and the patterns on the feathers relate directly to the underlying feather group. This animation shifts between a drawing of a Song Sparrow,its shape without feather patterns, and a diagram emphasizing the feather groups.

Birds are shape shifters

The feather groups are under individual muscular control and can be fluffed up or moved together. Birds fluff themselves up when they are cold and smooth their feathers when they warm up. Birds also fluff their feathers a part of displays. Watch carefully as the bird’s shape changes as different feather groups are puffed out or relaxed.


Comments

How to Draw Birds — 29 Comments

  1. I came across your site via the iPad Flipboard app. That is a very cool animation about How To Draw A Boid, and I appreciate the effort that went into putting it together.

  2. Your drawings are lovely, and depict the life and attitude of the bird. I also paint birds for a living for field guides. I had the privilege of visiting with Don Eckelberry, one of my favorite bird artists. He is no longer living, but it is worth looking up his work if any of your email participants want to look at some of the best bird art that was produced in the past.

    • Thank you for your kind words about my drawings. Eckelberry’s work is amazing. His manuscript Techniques in Bird Illustration is very helpful. Have you seen it? Please tell us about your visit with him. Where can we see some of your work?

      • Don Eckelberry was both gruff and kind. He did not suffer fools, but was exceedingly generous with advice and constructive criticism. I was illustrating Herb Raffaele’s Birds of the West Indies at the time (under different last name Tracy Pedersen.) Don was approachable as long as you did not have an unrealistic view of your illustrating capabilities. To those who were receptive, he had nice as well as constructive things to say. If your ego was getting in the way, he would tell you that if “all you wanted was praise, you could go home to your mother!” He sent an unsolicited letter to me, one I treasure to this day, about my illustration for the Auk (116, 2(1999) April) of a Cloud-forest Pygmy Owl and said he really liked the composition and lighting and to keep painting bird art (vs. just illustrations for plates.) It’s advice I am now following after too long of a hiatus from painting.

        • That is a wonderful story. May we all move forward in our art without letting our egos block us from critically analyzing our work. It is important to keep that inner critic constructive. It should support us in drawing more, each sketch or paining a lesson for the next.

  3. John, Am looking forward to your book coming out soon! I can’t seem to get the pdf version of this so I can print the entire lesson. The drawing moves too fast to get each step. Is there some way to do this? I had trouble with the other moving subjects in the painting lessons too. Thanks, am drawing every day now, Diane

    • Diane, Look for the new book in September. I am very excited about it. Reviewers have said that it has really helped them draw. If you are having trouble downloading the PDF, try clicking it and dragging it onto your desktop. It should download automatically as a PDF which you can open with a PDF reader. Let me know if that does not work.

  4. Excellent web page – really cleverly done! Nice drawings, too. I’ll look forward to seeing the book.
    You might be interested to know that I have a book on bird anatomy coming out this year also – it’s called ‘The Unfeathered Bird’ and it’s being published by Princeton University Press in November.
    All the very best with yours, John!
    Cheers,
    Katrina

    • Katrina, I have been exploring your website and I am really excited about your new book. I wish I had it for reference when I was working on mine. I encourage my readers to check it out and learn from those drawings. Artistic, creative, playful, accurate and alive. It really helps to be able to see into the subject. You must be able to understand the surface that is below what you are drawing. If you want to draw the feathers, you must understand the skin contours and feather tracts. If you want to visualize the skin, you must understand the skeleton. If you want to pose the skeleton, you must feel the energy, intention and soul of the bird.

      • Many thanks for the kind words, John. And yes, absolutely! – understanding internal structure is vital to drawing just about everything. Not in place of field observation, but to supplement and enhance it. It’s great to find other bird artists who uphold the same principles.

  5. I enjoyed your new book-fabulous sketching techniques. Just like the puffed feathers change the bird’s shape, color is adjusted by the energy(structured light, sunlight…) of the bird. Photos and painting reproductions use a cool palette. A full spectrum, the warm and cool primaries capture a bird’s vibrancy.

    • Thank you Tracy, Your work is amazing I have been enjoying exploring the illustrations on your site. Thank you for your support! I and delighted that you like the book so much. Would you be willing to write a review? I am now working on a new book on nature sketching and journaling. I have having a great time with it. What are your new projects.

  6. Hi John,
    Thank you for your feedback… I can write a review…honored to. As a person who has worked at getting even close to the results I wanted in depicting birds, I can say you really nailed the critical elements needed to achieve a high level of bird illustration. As far as projects, I have two possible bird book projects in the works. Scope being determined as we speak. Might want to talk with you about it….Let me know if you ever want to chat.

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