How to Draw Birds: Draw Realistic Animals

This article appeared in the July/August 2009 issue of The Artist’s Magazine. Click here to subscribe to The Artist’s Magazine today!

Draw Realistic Animals

Nature artist David N. Kitler shares easy techniques and expert tips on how to draw birds.

By David N. Kitler

How to draw birds | David N. Kitler, ArtistsNetwork.com

Red-Breasted Nuthatch (graphite and acrylic, 12×9)

I’ve always been intrigued by nature’s intricate details. It’s this complexity—combined with the subtleties of mood and environment—that I attempt to capture in my drawings and paintings.

I tend to travel to where my subjects live so I can observe their behaviors and interactions within their natural habitats. While on location, I also gather as much reference as possible, from photographs to actual specimens—fallen feathers, fur, grasses and the like. Back in the studio, I’ll look through all the reference I’ve gathered to decide which of my experiences I want to depict at that particular moment.

I then prepare my initial idea on a separate piece of paper and transfer it to a board so I can preserve my original experience and enjoy developing it once again. These drawings that I make for my paintings I call preliminary sketches, and they have by definition an unfinished look—no background, parts of the subject that fade off and undefined edges.

I’ll show you the techniques I used to create one of my preliminary sketches enhanced with acrylic washes in the following demonstration. My choice of subject—a red-breasted nuthatch—wasn’t dictated by the bird’s pose or an interesting light source. I simply chose it because it reminds me of the experience of being in the woods on a cold winter’s day (the shortest day of the year), when the birds and I were the only creatures around. I should also mention that the nuthatch is a tiny bird (4 inches from beak to tail), but I decided to draw it larger than life to better showcase the species and its beautiful markings.

1. Draw the basic shapes

How to draw birds | David N. Kitler, ArtistsNetwork.com

I view my world as a series of shapes and forms—mainly circles, squares, triangles and cylinders. As an initial exercise (on the lower right of the sheet), I drew the bird in its most basic shapes to show you how I see it.

Tip: If you start to look at things in terms of basic shapes, whether your reference is three-dimensional (an object) or two-dimensional (a photo) or simply in your imagination, you’ll notice that replicating those simple shapes in either a larger or smaller size is an efficient way to begin a drawing.

I develop those basic shapes a little further, as I’ve done with the drawing in the center of this photo. For a painting, this is as far as I’d take the drawing before transferring it to a board, where I’d continue “drawing” with a paintbrush. For this exercise, I’ve finished my piece as a drawing.

2. Focus on the eye

How to draw birds | David N. Kitler, ArtistsNetwork.comIn this instance, I’ve decided to start the drawing with the nuthatch’s eye. This area is usually the most important element in my pieces. It’s the place I aim to have the most detail, contrast and crispness, in an effort to help the viewer connect to the animal in the drawing or painting. After drawing the eye’s basic shape, I blocked in the surrounding areas to ensure proper placement and proportions, using an HB lead in a mechanical pencil.

Keeping in mind that viewers will be drawn to the area with the most contrast, I used a 9B pencil to fill the pupil’s bottom half, which will be the darkest part of the bird. Next, in order to incorporate the reflection of the surrounding trees, I used HB lead in a technical pencil to push some of the graphite from the pupil area in order to suggest tree shapes. Finally, using 4H and HB leads, I pulled out radiating lines to fill in the iris.

3. Complete the eye

How to draw birds | David N. Kitler, ArtistsNetwork.com

Working with a mask—in this case, the holes at the edge of an old computer printout—I used a white eraser to remove the top half of the guideline I’d used for the pupil. I then used a wood dowel, sharpened to a point, to burnish the different grades of graphite.

Next I proceeded to fill in the rest of the iris and reflections by using very sharp pencils in a mixture of pencil grades, applied in tiny circular motions and burnished again with the pointed dowel.

Remember that, in order to get a better feel for what the finished eye might look like, you’ll need to have an approximate value established around the eye. Therefore I started to add the fine lines surrounding the eye to represent the bird’s eye ring and adjacent feathers.

4. Lightly render the body

How to draw birds | David N. Kitler, ArtistsNetwork.com

I started working on the areas around the eye by drawing short lines made with mechanical, technical and wood-cased pencils and using pencil grades in the middle range (3H–3B). I then added an overall coat to the bird’s body using 4H marks—without applying a lot of pressure—to indicate things like feather barbs, markings, toe scales and beak texture.

Tip: At this stage, you should focus on the direction and length of each mark, and you should use curved strokes for the beak, toes and other features to suggest their form. For feathers—and fur and scales— always work from the tail toward the head so these elements appear to overlap as they do in nature.

5. Add a darker layer

How to draw birds | David N. Kitler, ArtistsNetwork.com

Next I switched to a medium-grade pencil (HB) and added a second, darker layer of graphite.

Tip: Drawing over some areas, such as a branch, is less difficult than trying to avoid them or preserve them intact. By doing this, you’ll maintain continuity from one side of an obstacle to the other. As I don’t apply a lot of pressure when drawing, these unnecessary marks can easily be erased later.

6. Complete the finishing touches

How to draw birds | David N. Kitler, ArtistsNetwork.com

Finally I used an eraser to re-establish the branch’s edges and then added more tone to finish the branch, as well as the bird’s toes and claws.
Tip: It’s easier to draw the feet first and then to draw a branch that fits your drawing.

As this is a preliminary sketch, I concentrated only on the most important areas and deliberately faded off parts of the image in my design. I left the tail, which is pointing away from the viewer, lighter and unfinished.

Usually the final thing I do to my preliminary sketch is to add a few washes of acrylic paint to places I feel are important focal areas. These sketches with acrylic washes are a popular way for beginner collectors to upgrade from reproductions to originals. Here’s what you can do.

7. Lighten the eye

How to draw birds | David N. Kitler, ArtistsNetwork.comOne thing I needed to do in preparation for adding color is to lighten the eye. I took a piece of tracing paper, cut out an eye-shaped hole and used a white eraser (you can also use a kneadable one) to remove some of the graphite by dabbing, not rubbing.

8. Apply washes to the pupil

How to draw birds | David N. Kitler, ArtistsNetwork.comThe eye is where I want the main focus, so I started with the pupil. First I mixed a small amount of color—in this case, black. I took some paint with the brush and then touched the brush to a piece of paper towel to wick off most of the paint. This left me with a dryer brush and a small amount of pigment.

Tip: The key here is not to wet the paper excessively, which might warp it. I used this technique throughout, applying thin washes of transparent colors, allowing each layer to dry before applying the next. As the paint in the jars isn’t diluted enough, I thinned it with water to increase its transparency.

I completed the iris by adding thin brown washes, mixed from my primary colors, to the bottom half of the iris, and a bluish purple color to represent the reflected sky. I left the white of the paper showing through to evoke clouds.

9. Apply washes to the body

How to draw birds | David N. Kitler, ArtistsNetwork.comAfter adding some color around the eye to frame it, I turned my attention to the rest of the body. I added an overall “coat” using browns, oranges and blues to indicate feathers and markings.

Tip: At this stage, you should focus on the direction and length of each mark and use transparent/diluted layers, allowing a lot of the paper to show through.

10. Decide how far to develop the piece

How to draw birds | David N. Kitler, ArtistsNetwork.comPart of the fun at this point is deciding how “unfinished” you want the final piece to be. I chose to block in some areas further, while leaving others—the tail, branch and lower foot—without any paint. In a few areas, I also applied more pencil over the paint.

Sign the “finished” work

Many artists have trouble recognizing when a piece is completed and hesitate to carry out the final step: signing the piece. The signature is the only thing that marks the completion of this type of work, so this exercise is a good one for experimenting with different stopping points. When I had accomplished my desired end—what I thought was an interesting look with this sketch—I went ahead and signed it.

In conclusion

I hope that this article prompts you to look at your experiences and sketches in a new light. These tips and techniques are useful whenever you’re drawing any type of wildlife. Maybe you’ll share my two primary objectives: to bring the wild within reach of those who haven’t had the opportunity to experience it for themselves, and to provide a permanent reminder to those who have.


Naturalist and artist David N. Kitler’s work has received many awards, including first place in the Animal Art category for The Artist’s Magazine 2007 Annual Competition. He has taught classes and workshops throughout North America for more than 15 years. To view his online gallery, read more art tips and learn about his DVDs, visit www.davidkitler.com.

This article appeared in the July/August 2009 issue of The Artist’s Magazine. Click here to subscribe to The Artist’s Magazine today!

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