In this post we shall take a look at sketching birds in ink and watercolour in a variety of styles, using different processes. I also want to touch on a little composition and perspective too. I took my own reference photos (included below) that you can use to practice with.
These are the processes of sketching in ink and watercolour we will talk about:
- Demo #1 – Sketch using shapes
- Demo #2 – Sketch using composition and perspective
- Demo #3 – Sketch with watercolour first
- Demo #4 – Sketch on toned paper
I also highly recommend sketching birds from life, whether it’s in your garden, the park or a sanctuary. Luckily, I live very close to a bird sanctuary so I have practised sketching the birds there. It is an entirely different experience from sketching using photos. Both have their merits though as I will discuss below.
In this sketchbook I have some examples of some birds I sketched from photos of birds we saw at Birds of Eden (which is the world’s largest free-flight aviary by the way). I would have liked to sketch from life but the day we visited, it was tipping down with rain. It was still fun to try and draw them from photos though. I was happy with how they came out.
If you would like a full tour of this sketchbook from my road trip around South Africa, you can check that out in this video.
I also have an ebook with all of the sketches along with some amusing anecdotes which you can check out here.
Sketching from photos vs sketching from real life
Sketching birds from photo reference is easier than from real life. For a start, the bird is still in the photo. And birds move. A lot. But I say once you get comfortable sketching from photos and exploring your art supplies and developing preferences of how you like to sketch and what with, it really is fabulous to get outside and try to sketch from life.
I went to the local bird sanctuary with no preconceived notions. I said to myself, “I’ll give it a go but if it doesn’t turn out well, it’s no problem”. Take that pressure right off. Just go with an aim to have some fun and make some interesting marks that may or may not resemble birds.
I enjoy sketching from photos and from real-life – both have pros and cons. There is no right or wrong, black or white answer to this. Every sketcher (in my humble opinion) really should do a mixture of both for maximum fun.
Sketching birds without knowledge of anatomy
I mainly draw architecture but I have zero academic knowledge of architecture. Even my general common sense knowledge of buildings and how they work is pretty poor. However, I don’t need this information. I use my eyes, observe, draw what I see and interpret that onto my paper.
In a similar way, we do not need academic knowledge (or even passing knowledge) of anatomy to draw a human figure or animal. Sure, it would probably help, especially if you want to be a fine artist or character designer etc. But for us sketchers? It really doesn’t matter.
Stop creating mental barriers for yourself and let’s get stuck in.
For a video demonstration of the styles and techniques I am going to talk about in this post, you can watch the video below. Make sure to watch until the end so you can see my attempts at sketching birds from life at the local bird sanctuary.
Sketching with Shapes
In this demo I am sketching a Northern Shoveller – I think that’s what it’s called, don’t quote me on that. I am going to use my normal sketching process which is to sketch a rough outline in pencil, then go in with more details in ink, erase some of the most obvious pencil marks and then paint with watercolour.
I mainly draw architecture so drawing animals is definitely not within my comfort zone but I try to apply the things I do when drawing buildings or scenes to animals. I am not looking to do a realistic sketch, but an illustration that captures the character of the bird as well as being recognisably that specific bird.
I try to look at the overall shape of the bird but then try and break down the shapes within the bird and how they relate to each other in order to get reasonable proportions. So look for those landmarks – certain areas of colours, where a wing intersects with another section, where the leg starts in relation to the shape it touches etc. If you try to think about these shapes and how they interact, it will really help you to simplify the drawing process.
I use my water brush to add some watercolour paint to the duck. I also felt like there needed to be some ground, so I painted in the paving slabs loosely with my flat brush. I felt they were a tad too loose so I put in some very lines with a grey watercolour pencil just to add a tad of definition.
This is all personal taste along with experimentation. Sometimes you do something like adding the ground in this way and think “damn, I ruined it”.
But that’s ok. You remember that for next time and try something different instead.
I decided to write down my process, to keep a note about what I did. I think that’s a great way to learn, remember and again make the sketchbook page less precious – less finished art, more practice and experimentation log book.
Sketching Ducks Considering Composition and Perspective
In this sketch, I wanted to focus on perspective & composition. Click here to download the reference photo.
There are 3 ducks at various distances to the eye, one close, one in the middle and one further away. It’s fun to exaggerate the perspective of this. A scene like this would be considered to have zero point perspective or non-linear perspective. And that’s because there are no parallel lines in the scene (well, there are in the photo – the paving slabs, but they don’t really help with the perspective of the ducks).
If you would like some more explanation about perspective, please check out my free guide here. I also mention some techniques of how to show non-linear perspective in your sketching. It’s brief and straightforward with lots of visual examples, I promise.
My strategy in this sketch was to utilise a few techniques to show that one duck was closer to me, one was in the middle and one was further away. I drew the duck in the foreground (i.e. closest to me) larger and towards the bottom of the page, the middle duck is a tiny bit higher up on the page and the background duck is much further up the page compared with the closest duck.
The lower an object is on the page vs the higher something is on a page is a way to show the perspective.
Also, size matters.
The closer the duck, the larger it is, and the further the duck the smaller, even though all 3 ducks are more or less the same size in real life. You can see this effect in the photo reference too.
Thirdly, the closest duck will have more details and a stronger colour and the furthest duck will have fewer details and slightly more subdued colours.
Remember, I am exaggerating the perspective so this may not be completely true to the photo of the ducks.
In this way, we have a fun little vignette of the 3 ducks and the viewer gets the sense the ducks are at different distances.
In regards to the sketching process, I tried a slightly different process. I sketched in pencil, then added some watercolour and then just some details in ink on top – more on the closest duck hardly any on the furthest duck.
Sketching with Watercolour First
In the previous two sketches, I was using a heavyweight (200gsm) cartridge paper which worked fine for light washes of watercolour. However, in this sketch, I decided to switch sketchbooks as I wanted to try a different style.
I decided I wanted to try and paint the bird directly in watercolour. I started off with a bit of water but realised I couldn’t see what I was painting, so I added the very tiniest tint of pink that just happened to be in the mixing area of my palette already.
This helped me see the shapes I was making. I knew the bird was going to be a stronger pinky-red colour in the end so it wasn’t a problem to not use clear water.
I then dabbed in some colour to the wet areas, in the style of Andrew Geeson, a loose watercolour artist. He has his own youtube channel which you can check out here. I love the way he paints loose wet in wet flowers.
I tried this method out in my recent video about different styles of painting the same thing, a crane flower, which you can check out below.
I dabbed in some red, then some Payne’s Grey for the blacker parts of the bird, then I used some random concoction of Quinadricone Rose, Naples Yellow and even a touch of Schmincke Tundra Rose, which is from the Tundra Super Granulating set of colours (you can see them on Jacksons Art here).
The bird is quite a dirty pinky-purple colour in areas. Dirty or muddy colours get a bad wrap but when you are looking at real life, a lot of it is dirty and muddy. I feel that statement could take a philosophical turn for the worst so I am going to veer away! You know what I mean.
There’s something to be said for a messy mixing area. You can pick up all kinds of weird and wonderful mixes of colours. That’s why I don’t clean my palette, it’s not because I’m lazy in the slightest.
After letting the initial wet in wet layer dry I decided to apply some details with a sharp Inktense pencil (you can find the set I use here). I am using Indigo, not black, as I think it complements the colours of the bird better.
I then decided to go in with another layer of watercolour to brighten up the red. Part of me wishes I hadn’t. When my husband Duncan saw the footage he preferred the bird when it was the wet in wet stage and you can see the granulation really nicely. I think, on reflection, I agree with him.
I can be heavy-handed when it comes to adding more colour and contrast – I want big and bold…but actually these beautiful subtle mixtures and granulations are where a lot of the magic of watercolour lies. So, try this out for yourself and see how you go…maybe let those watercolours sing and don’t be as heavy-handed like me!
Sketching on Toned Paper with Ink and Watercolour
If you would like weekly demos from me, centred around a theme each month, do head over to Patreon. There is a lot to dig through there and I can guarantee by working through the content there, it will enhance your sketching but mainly give you a huge dose of inspiration. We tend to focus on lots of different styles and hopefully, this will open you up to exploring and investigating lots of different processes.
I have changed my sketchbook again for this sketch! I have so many on the go it’s ridiculous, I need to actually finish some of them. I need to give them all equal attention, this is where my issues lie. I guess I’m just not a one sketchbook woman!
This is the toned Hahnemuhle watercolour sketchbook, A5 size, landscape orientation (which you can find on Amazon here). I love this sketchbook. I really enjoy sketching wide vistas across the two pages.
I recently did just that while sketching at the Johannesburg Holocaust & Genocide Centre last week. It was obviously a sombre and moving visit but also a great opportunity to sketch the outside of the building with some other members of Urban Sketchers Johannesburg. I have a little vlog about that over on my Patreon page too.
I started by drawing the basic shapes of this bird in brown watercolour pencil, followed by watercolour paint. This bird has quite a bit of white in it, so I thought I would experiment with the white I have in my Etchr watercolour set (available here) on top of the toned paper. This is something I weirdly haven’t tried much of. It started to become a bit of a muddy mess on the head so I abandoned ship and move to a different area of the sketch, thinking I will try and rescue that part later on.
I painted the belly (probably not the correct term…bird belly…?) and tail white. I decided to paint the chest and body with Paynes Grey leaving negative spaces for where the white spots should go. I thought this may be more successful than trying to paint white on top of the grey. I think I was correct. Perhaps if I used gouache it would be ok but I realised in this context it wouldn’t.
Notice I am making very rough negative spaces. None of those splotches are round, so if you try this out for yourself, make sure your shapes are rough and organic. That will really help.
I paint in the white splotches, they don’t show up super well but that’s ok. I darken some areas of the Paynes Grey to help with some contrast. I also use my black Inktense pencil with a nice sharp point to add in some details and texture and to also help darken areas. I then thought I would try a white watercolour pencil on top of the white watercolour to see if it may help increase the whiteness of some areas. At the very end, I thought I would just try a white paint marker on top of some areas to really make it more dramatic.
I am actually really happy with how this sketch came out when to start with, I did genuinely think it may be a disaster when applying that first bit of white watercolour on the head!
I think the only thing that’s really dodgy is the right foot. The side of my brain that thinks it can draw things without actually looking barged the side of my brain that deals with observation completely out of the way and just drew a bird foot in a symbolic way that actually looks nothing like the photo reference. By the time any of us (me and the two different sides of my brain) realised I had a mess on my hands. Figuratively speaking. No bird mess was used in the making of this content.
This concludes this post about sketching birds in different styles using ink and watercolour. If you would like to see the full video on this topic, you can watch it here.