BREAK DOWN- “How to draw and paint a bird”

Recently I have documented a painting  I  was working on  by   taking a picture of it every  15-20 minutes  or so. (Or at least  I  TRIED to   remember to do that.)  Anyhow,  I  compiled all my  pics  in  a little video to  see the evolution  of  the painting in  a minute or so.  I find its  helpful  for people to see the progression of  a painting/drawing.  For this particular blog  I  would like to break it  down  to a few steps  and  discuss  what  I did  in  each  step, focusing on   drawing, color, brush handling, and much more.

To start off  here is  the  video  that  I  had initially made…

The “How – To”  Part…..

The painting  is   done on  a  piece of  12″ x 16″  canvas pad. Nothing special, it was   really all i  had  on me  when I  decided to start this piece  at  work. Starts  off white,  since canvas pad  comes  white, primed with a  coat  of gesso (primer   for  paintings).

Next  I  “tone”  my  canvas  with  some  yellow ochre acrylic paint.  I   use a    wet paper towel,  and  plop a  blob  of  paint  right in the middle and   just  spread it  around till its  all  covered.

Why  do  tone? I  tone my  surface  because  I do  not like to work  on  a white  surface  when  i  paint. Think  about   values,  If you want to  have a  light  value  right off the   bat  like  a white or light   color,  it  wont  show  up  on  white initially  until you  put a  color  next to it.  I  like to  instantly have  my  mid-tone  in,  so I just had lights  and darks  as  I  go.  Some artists  prefer  to  work on  white,  and thats  fine,  some  prefer  working  on  other colors,  and thats  fine as well. I  like yellow ochre  for its  neutral  tone,  not too bright  not too  dark.  Its  what  works  for me.   I   will sometimes  use  burnt  sienna   or  an umber  for the   same  reasoning. *Using acrylic  under  what  will  be  an oil painting  is  o.k,   as  long as  it is  thinned   down, and  not  heavy. The gesso  that  comes on  most   canvas  is  acrylic  based  anyhow.


Shapes  and  gesture
Shapes and gesture

Once  it dries  in a  few  minutes  I  am ready  to  sketch. I  first  start  out with a  gesture drawing of the bird.  You  can  see  how  I started by  getting my  basic  shapes  in, based around my  line of  action. The line of  action is a line that  represents the  pose, or  form in one or  two  simple gestural strokes. In this   case it  sweeps   down and  to the  left.  This bird is  broken down into a  oval for the body and  a circle  for the  head.  I  then  started to  add in  shapes  for  the beak and  tail.  Start lightly,  and  build  from there,  If you start with  dark lines it will be harder to  change them.  Only darken  when you  are  sure of  the placement and  shape.


Refining  the  Sketch
Refining the Sketch

Here  I   develop  my sketch  a bit further. You can see  how  I  put a  few plum  lines  in to make  sure  my beak and  tail  are just about  aligned. I also   take this time to measure my bird. In this  case  I measured  the subject by   number of heads. I  made  sure  i had   about  2.5 head  from  top to pole. When  drawing things in  linear  form,   certain proportions and shapes  can be deceiving.  Its when  you start  adding  tone  in that make it look a bit more  three dimensional.  I  usually feel  more comfortable  drawing with lines then  getting my tone  in.  Some  artist  like to  start  with tone.  There is  no  wrong way, just whatever  you feel comfortable doing.  I  try to take in  the  different patterns  in the  blue jay’s  head,  so I know  when I  begin to paint  to  keep the shapes  in tact.


Completed Sketch
Completed Sketch

After  refining the   bird,  I  sketch in  some  quick  leaves,  bush shapes, and  the  diamond pattern on the chain link fence.  I  dont  take the  time to  sketch in the  exact chain link  fence.  Gotta draw the line  somewhere!  That  might have  made me  go a  bit  crazy! Ill tackle that   bit more in my  underpainting.



Here is  my completed  underpainting. I used an umber brown acrylic paint with  water  to thin it  down for  lighter  areas  to  achieve  a tonal painting. This is  where you want to work  out the tones  in your composition.  Notice how I  have  a  lightly darker  tone  next to the birds  left  side. ALso   notice  how  my   pole  for the  fence  stands  out light  against  the  dark  tree on the  left  and  darker  on the  lightness of the background on the right.  This  stage is  important  to  work  out  all  the  values  so  you  don’t have to  really worry about it  when applying color.  I  also  refined my chain link  a  bit  more   with a heavy  dark  line and  made the  twist of the  links  a  bit more  apparent. Remember  to keep the  acrylic  thin, and   build  up to  your darks.


The first  "plop"
The first “plop”

Next stage  is  the  first application of   oil paint.  I  call this  the ‘plopping’  stage.  My students  think Im  a  bit   nuts  when i  say to just ‘plop’  it  down  but  really thats all I do.  I  mixed  up a variety of greens  for the  background,  and  paid  attention  to the  values i had there,  and laid  down color accordingly.  For  the bird I  mixed up   a  light and dark  version of  the  white belly area,  and  some blue and darks  for the head. Once  I get in  the  basic local  colors  I  do  what  I  like to  call ” injecting color’  but just  putting in a  few  brushstrokes of  reflected  light/color  in the shadow  side of the  bird. In this  case  i used  a  variation of the blue from the blue jay’s  head. I  find  when  I  ‘plop’ I  use a  flat  synthetic  brush (not  bristle)  and  just lay the color in.


First Plop Completed
First Plop Completed

I call this   the  ‘brushstrokey’ stage. Can  you  tell how technical  I  am? This is what the  end of the  first  plop  looks like.  I  always tell my  students  if they want to  leave it   looser  like this   with   brushstrokes thats  fine,  but I usually soften  a  bit here and there.


First plop completed

Once  I  get everything where I  want it  I   soften  the  plopping  strokes  just a bit  so   I  have a  various of  soft   edges   in the background  to help it  pull itself out of focus and recede in the background  more. I use a   dry,  soft larger  brush,  a soft  filbert or flat  usually  works  best,  And  by  slightly  featuring and barely touching the canvas I shift the paint  a  bit  here and there to  merge the  colors together.


Focusing on the detail
Focusing on the detail

Once the  first layer  dries,  I  go into  the bird  with  a  few smaller, round  brushes to  get texture of the  features  and crisp  darks and  vibrant blues in the  head.  Here are a  few  close  up images  I  took while  painting that aren’t featured in the  video  I made.


Second round of plopping and some fence
Second round of plopping and some fence

After   details on the bird I go  back into  “plop”  mode and  restate my colors,  values  and  get the background  a  bit more  to my liking. I  used  a variety of   colors  for the  background.  I personally  don’t  use black.  To make  my extreme  darks for the tree on the left, I use a  mixture of  sap green, alizarin crimson, and  ultramarine blue.  Other  variations  I  used  were ultramarine and cadmium yellow,  along with a  bit f  cadmium green , toned  down  with cadmium red. The pop of  red in the  background  was   a  bit of  cadmium red, white, and a  touch of  ultramarine  blue.  In this stage  I  also   began to tackle  the  dreaded chain link fence! It was  actually sort of  fun! I   chose this picture since you can see  half  the  fence on the  left  which is  more  complete  compared to the  section o the  right  which  is  from the  first  plop.


The Final Product
The Final Product

The final product. Here  I have  completed the fence and  suggested  in a   bit of  texture in the  tree on the left  while it was  still wet. Softened a  bit more  where I needed,  adjusted a  few details  here and there on the  bit and  leaves,  and  signed it.  Can you find my signature? 🙂

I hope this break  down  of  my  blue jay progression piece helps  people understand my process.  If you have any  questions  feel free to  post! If you are  more interested  in learning  about how to  draw/paint animals,  or  handling  oil paints,  feel free to check out my  upcoming spring classes!  Classes can  be  found on my classes and workshop page  here on my blog and  also  my website.  Enjoy!


5 thoughts on “BREAK DOWN- “How to draw and paint a bird”

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