We often hear about the benefits of learning human anatomy to draw people more accurately, so why not apply the same principle to drawing animals?

Jun Pierre Shiozawa has a thorough 90-minute Etchr Studio class where he explains the anatomy of birds. Birds are more simply shaped than other animals, so this is a great place to learn animal anatomy. Let's follow his advice and see what we make! 

Basic Shapes  

Bird anatomy can be reduced to an egg shape, a sphere for the head, little circles where the feet wrap around the perch, and approximate lines for everything else. It helps to define the "centre line" - the very middle of the bird, and see what direction that flows in so that you can build the rest of the structure around it. 

The great thing about these simple forms is that you can adjust the proportions based on what type of bird you're drawing while keeping the same elements every time.  

Building a Bird  

Now that you're familiar with the shapes, try drawing some birds using this method. Any markings the bird has will follow the contour of those simple geometric forms, and the eyes will be closely aligned with the beak.  

A note on wings: Wings are probably the most challenging part of bird anatomy to understand, but once you think of it as an elongated hand, it's not that complicated.

As shown in the picture, the first joint is the bird's elbow, while the second joint is actually its wrist, even though it looks rather elbow-like. Draw a few skeletons until this makes sense to you. It helps to look at a model.

Once you're familiar with those building blocks, it's time to do some watercolor paintings!  

American Goldfinch  

If you draw the beginning shapes faintly, developing the finished line art will be easier. Also, the shapes may not be perfect spheres or eggs. This goldfinch has a more tapered head and body, so keep that in mind when building the forms.

Jean-Pierre's favourite technique is to shade the picture with black ink before adding watercolour, and I've found that black watercolour works just as well for this purpose as long as you don't overwork it. So let's start painting with a light wash over the background to establish some contrast. 

Next, you'll use some mid-tone greys to add dimension to the branch and shade the bird's underside. Since this is a goldfinch, there are plenty of areas along the wings, tail, and crest where you'll use pure black paint. Follow your reference picture carefully. 

With the shading already done, adding colour is so easy. Goldfinch summer plumage is relatively simple; the only thing to be careful of is making sure to leave enough white around the wing and tail feathers.  

For the backdrop colour, I mixed some green, brown, and ultramarine to make a subdued forest green. You don't want the background to be too busy in a closeup portrait-style painting. 

Baltimore Oriole  

Our next bird, the Baltimore oriole, starts with more rounded shapes. Orioles are a type of blackbird and a bit bulkier than the smaller finches. When you're happy with the line art, you can darken it slightly so that it's easier to paint from. 

This time we'll leave the background alone for now. Subtly shade the bird while adding more black to its head, wings, and perch. An excellent way to know whether you're done with the shading step or not is to ask yourself, "would this look like a realistic black-and-white painting if I decided not to colour it?".  

The oriole's plumage is quite a striking orange, but still, it is a naturally occurring orange, so don't use full-strength neon orange. I used the oranges in the Etchr Lab 24 Half Pan Set, which were perfectly accurate! A hint of red in the shaded areas will add some life.

Add the subtlest browns and greens to the perch to finish the painting. Then, add some soft orange to the background. As I mentioned, the backdrop in paintings like this looks best with a soft glow of colour rather than a bunch of detailed objects. Think about what you want the "camera" to focus on, and let the rest remain blurry. 

Chances are you'll want more practice to master these techniques, so I recommend applying the method to different sizes and shapes of birds until it's second nature. And of course, be sure to watch Jun-Pierre's class on the subject! 

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Elsa Wahlstrom is an illustrator/writer living in the southern Idaho hill country. She loves to create cozy, homey pictures and populate them with funny little creatures  having surreal little adventures. Her biggest inspiration is the music and comedy that came out of England in the late 60s. When she’s not busy making art, she goes for long hikes, plays a few instruments, and collects vinyl. 

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