Techniques and Tips

How to Paint Bird Feathers in Acrylic

How to Paint Bird Feathers in Acrylic

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The long, coarse hair of the American elk … the distinctive makings of the peregrine falcon … the colorful glint of trout … the burning glow in the eyes of the wolf. These are only a hint of the rich variety of textures that exist in wildlife. By capturing these tactile details in your paintings, you give your wildlife subjects that certain “spark” they need to come to life.

The 50 easy-to-follow demonstrations in Painting Wildlife Step by Step show you how to achieve that spark. Discover the secrets to making fur look thick, giving feathers sheen, creating the roughness of antlers and many other wildlife effects in watercolor, oil and acrylic. In this free demo, learn how to paint bird feathers in acrylic.

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Below, get a taste of Rod Lawrence’s expert instruction with an acrylic demonstration on how to paint a white-throated sparrow’s feathers.

How to Paint Songbird Feathers in Acrylic

color palette
Burnt Umber, Burnt Sienna, Cadmium-Barium Orange, Cadmium-Barium Red Medium,Cadmium-Barium Yellow Medium, Cerulean Blue, Payne’s Gray, Permanent Green Light, Raw Sienna, Titanium White, Ultra-marine Blue, Yellow Ochre Light, Cobalt Blue

no. 2 and no. 3 rounds
a variety of flats and brights from no. 4 to no. 8 and 3/8” to 3/4”

Step 1: For the basic gray-and-brown pattern of this bird, break its form into areas of these two colors. Start with three base colors that you can build on. One color is a tan for the area of the back and wing feathers. The other two colors are grays, one for the head and then a warmer gray for the rest of the body. It takes several thin coats of paint to build these areas to an opaque base. When this is done, use your transfer sheet to re-establish the feather patterns that had worked out on your layout drawing. Pencil in some head details to show that area better.

Step 2: Mix a darker color paint for each area, but not so dark that it appears shocking. The greatest contrast is at the top of the head because that area will be black against white. Use this step to “draw” with your paint, applying thin washes and building up some areas for a more opaque look. The light is coming from above the bird, so make your shadows on the wing feathers thicker as they curve around and down the body. You can easily make corrections over this, as the contrast is not too bold. Later, you can deepen the areas necessary for darker shadows and add lighter values to accent the suggested forms.

Step 3: Use some slightly darker values in this step, but these are still far from what will be your final dark. Emphasize the form with darker shadows and indicate darker markings on the feathers. Also use some lighter values to begin the indication of light striking the birds’ form. At this point you have a somewhat detailed but faded-looking bird.

Step 4: Some dramatic changes take place in this step as a result of the addition of the final dark and light paint values, and the brighter colors. Use washes, primarily of Burnt Sienna, to build up color in the shoulder area of the wing. The yellow spots take several washes. Try to convince your eye that the wing curves from the top to the side by using color and value. Both are lighter on top and darker on the bottom. Use a thin wash of almost white to make a subtle sheen on the very top of the wing where the light would reflect off these feathers. With a few dark lines, suggest feather breaks to complete the look of this beautiful songbird.

About the artist: Rod Lawrence

Rod Lawrence graduated with a fine arts degree, magna cum laude, from the University of Michigan in 1973. Since then he has been working full time as a professional artist. His credits include being named the Michigan Ducks Unlimited Artist of the Year in 1979 and the Michigan United Conservation Club’s Michigan Wildlife Artist of the Year in 1981.He also has the winning designs for the 1983 and 1990 Michigan Duck Stamps, and the 1981, 1987, and 1992 Michigan Trout Stamps.He had an unprecedented double win for both the 1995 Michigan Duck Stamp and 1995 Michigan Trout Stamp. His win for the 2000 2002 Michigan Duck Stamp makes him the only artists to have won nine Michigan stamp designs. He is the only artist to win five Michigan Duck Stamps and one of only two artists to win four Michigan Trout Stamps.

Lawrence has exhibited in many group and one-man shows and has been featured in national tours for the prestigious Leigh Yawkey Woodson Art Museum. He is also an active instructor of artists’ workshops. Lawrence and his family reside in a log cabin in the hardwoods of northern Michigan, overlooking the north branch of the Manistee River. Visit his website at

Watch the video: The Beauty of Oil Painting, Series 3, Episode 7: Majestic Eagle (August 2022).