Birds are my favorite creatures to draw and paint, and my most frequent request from students: “I want to draw a bird, but it looks so hard!” Drawing a realistic bird all comes back to seeing our subject closely and paying extra attention to the eyes. When our bird has a spark of life in its eye, the rest falls into place.
How to draw realistic birds
Birds make notoriously poor models — they just don’t sit still long enough! My advice for beginners is to buy a good field guide to your local birds and use the photos for reference as you sketches. Once you have some confidence, you can begin to sketch them from life, or from photographs that you take.
Right now, let’s learn how to capture the most important thing: the spark in the eye.
- HB or No. 2 pencil, well-sharpened
- Sketchbook or drawing paper
- Blending stump or tortillon
- Photo of your favorite bird that clearly shows the head and the eye
Step 1: Draw an outline of the bird’s head
The first step is draw a simple outline of the shape of the bird’s head. No details just yet! Use your eraser to change your lines if you need to, until you arrive at a simple outline that captures the right shape of your reference bird.
Then draw a line depicting where the eye sits, straight through the center of the beak. Pay close attention here. This line captures the tilt of the bird’s head. You will see how this helps us in the next step.
After you have your outline, erase any extra lines that you don’t need.
Step 2: Shape the eye and beak
Draw a circular shape for the eye, paying close attention to the shape of your bird’s eye in your reference. Mine was very round and sat right behind the break on the line that I had drawn.
Then, the line you drew before becomes the center of the beak. Again, pay close attention to your reference and draw the upper and lower beak using your original line as the center.
These are typically very simple shapes, but you need to pay close attention to get the outline just right.
Step 3: Fill in the feathers
Once the eye and beak are outlined, begin to fill in the feathers using short feathery strokes in the direction you see them growing.
The aim is not to draw every feather, but a suggestion of feathery stories that imitate the direction the bird’s real feathers grow in. Study my example to get a sense of how this step might look. Take your time to really see.
Step 4: Fill in the beak
The next step is to fill in the bird’s beak. Using the tip of your pencil, lightly fill in the upper and lower beak, making note on your reference to where it is darkest and lightest. I like to fill in the lightest areas first, and then add the darks. Typically the upper beak becomes light toward the center line, and the lower beak is all dark.
Step 5: Shading the eye
Once the beak is complete, draw a slightly curved line across the center of the eye. Often, in reference images, the bird’s eye is so small that we cannot see anything but black. We can still create a realistic looking eye, regardless of what our reference image shows. The center line in the eye is where to begin.
A bird’s eye is a reflective orb. We need to show the roundness and reflective quality. The line you drew across its center marks where the eye is fullest, most round. Below that line you will fill in the features of the eye, and above it you will draw the illusion of what might be reflected in it.
Following the example, use the tip of your pencil to draw a darker line that rims the entire eye. Leave some white space around the outer edge. Then, fill in the lower section with a light layer of graphite. Next, draw a darker half-circle, in the shape of a U. Leave the upper half of the eye blank for now.
Step 6: Fill in the upper eye
Finally, carefully fill in the upper half of the eye with tiny strokes, leaving little flecks of white paper. These flecks give the illusion of reflection and are what give your bird’s eye that spark it needs to look real. It’s so tiny, but take your time.
A few final tips for drawing a realistic bird
Before you use a blending stick to put the final touches on your bird, take a few moments to add in some of the darker areas you notice on your reference image. For me, it was darkness right around the eye area and in the pupil.
When you're happy with your shading, lightly smooth over the drawing — except for the beak and the eye — with a blending stump or tortillon. Always use your blending tool in the same direction of form as you did your initial pencils marks. Use a very light touch to avoid embedding the graphite into the paper, and so that you can still see the feathery strokes through the blended graphite.