How to Draw Birds

Drawing birds is a wonderful way to make yourself look more carefully at nature. Here are some resources that I hope will help you draw birds and understand them more deeply. If you understand bird anatomy you will be better at drawing what you see. I have many blog posts giving step-by-step demonstrations and details about drawing birds (see list at right). See the links at the right of your screen. You can find more information in The Laws Guide to Drawing Birds. The most important thing you can do to improve your bird drawing and sketching is to start drawing more frequently. Keep your sketching materials handy. Please leave comments and questions and I will expand these resources based on your input.

Using Photographs to help you Understand Birds

I use high-resolution photographs to help me study bird plumage. The photographers who run the following websites have given me and my students (including you) their permission to use their photographs as drawing reference. If you publish a drawing that is significantly based on one of these photographs, please acknowledge the photographer in the credits. I thank these photographers for there wonderful bird photography and their generosity supporting us and our work.

Drawing Birds downloadable PDF worksheet

Here is my step by step process to block in the shape of the bird. These steps are handled as lightly as possible (either with minimal pressure with a graphite pencil or a col-erase Non-photo blue pencil (see equipment list). Teachers may use this page to help their class learn to draw birds.  Download high resolution version for printing here: How to draw birds

Step by step guide to drawing birds

Once you have the basic shaped blocked in you are ready to add details on top of that framework. This is the fun part but do not skip the first steps and jump to drawing the beak and eye. Details without structure will get you nowhere.

Start with the basic Shape

The most important part of the drawing is getting the basic shape right at the start. Instead of focusing on details at the start of a picture, make light sketch lines to capture the posture, proportions, and angles of your subject. Start your bird sketch by noting the posture of the bird or the angle at which it sits with a single line. Over this, add an oval for a body and then a circle for the head. Then stop and check your proportions. It is easy to change the size of the head early in the drawing. In the animated drawings below, you will notice that I initially drew the head too large. I redrew the head circle smaller after my proportion check so that the birds will not have a head with the proportions of a chickadee. Indicate the locations of eye-beak, tail, leading edge of wing, and legs. Carve in angles where you find them around the head and tail coverts. These angles around the head and tail help break the imprint of the two circles that you used to initially build the bird. Without this, it is easy for your drawings to resemble a snowman. Many artists speed past these important initial steps but time spent at the start will pay off in the end.  One you capture the posture, proportions and angles of the silhouette,  you can add details in heavier pencil over these initial lines, finishing with color.


Look below the surface

Underneath the feathers, a bird looks like a plucked chicken. Note that it’s knee is actually hidden up under its feathers and the joint you sometimes see below the body is actually its ankle! The wing feathers attach to the hand and forearm.

Learn to see feather groups

Studying bird anatomy will help you draw birds more accurately. Feathers grow from specific regions on the bird’s body with bare skin between them. These feather groups define the shape and contours of a bird and the patterns on the feathers relate directly to the underlying feather group. This animation shifts between a drawing of a Song Sparrow,its shape without feather patterns, and a diagram emphasizing the feather groups.

Birds are shape shifters

The feather groups are under individual muscular control and can be fluffed up or moved together. Birds fluff themselves up when they are cold and smooth their feathers when they warm up. Birds also fluff their feathers a part of displays. Watch carefully as the bird’s shape changes as different feather groups are puffed out or relaxed.

102 thoughts on “How to Draw Birds

  1. Erin Anderson says:

    I am in 6th grade, I love nature, I live in Arizona, and I am almost 12. I would like to know how to make my drawings more realistic. No matter how hard I try to make my structure more realistic they always look like stick figures. can you help me?

    • John Muir Laws says:

      Yes! please give me a call with your parent’s permission. We will come up with a plan to make you a great nature observer and sketcher.

  2. dessin chat facile says:

    Hi there!

    I just had to stop by and say how incredibly helpful and inspiring your website is. As a bird enthusiast, I’ve always wanted to accurately capture these magnificent creatures in my drawings, and your step-by-step guide on drawing birds is an absolute game-changer! The tips and techniques are explained so clearly that even as a beginner, I feel confident in giving it a try. Thank you for sharing your expertise and passion with the world, it truly shows in the quality of the content you provide.

    Best regards,

  3. Coloring Pages says:

    Wow, what an incredible resource for bird lovers like myself! I have always been fascinated by the beauty of birds, and this website has truly enhanced my understanding and appreciation for them. The step-by-step drawing tutorials are amazing and have helped me capture the essence of these magnificent creatures on paper. Thank you for providing such invaluable guidance and inspiration. Keep up the fantastic work! Martin Williamson

  4. Paula a Hagar says:

    Am going to the Whooping Crane Festival in Pt Aransas, Texas in Feb. So of course in brushed up on my bird drawing with JML.

  5. Jeanna says:

    Hi, I recently bought your book on how to draw birds and I love it! I have been drawing all my life and animals are my favorite subject. Your book and videos are so detailed and helpful! I am now drawing birds much more accurately.

    • John Muir Laws says:

      Hi there Fin. I look forward to talking to you. Please get your parent’s or guardian’s permission and we will set up a time to talk about your work.

  6. Karly says:

    Hey Jack! Been a while. So cool to stumble upon your website while looking for a field guide to the PNW and will be joining in, with my kids, on one of your upcoming zoom drawing classes. Your work is as beautiful as I remember it! Hope you and your family are doing well and look forward to seeing your work online in the coming weeks.

  7. Christine Barnes says:

    I love to observe, write about and draw flowers and other static items of nature And am progressing nicely in learning individual bird songs. But I just don’t know how to even begin drawing birds from life. I totally love your tutorials to get familiar with the basics but how on earth can you draw a bird in the wild when it only appears fleetingly or is hidden by leaves up in a tree. Most birds, especially perching birds, really don’t stay visible for more than an instant. A bird table is not an option as I have a cat. Drawing from printed or internet images seems a bit of a cheat… not the same at all. Do you have any tips or advice please?

    By the way I have only just ‘met’ you through Nature Journalling week. Thank you so much for your generosity in providing such excellent video tutorials. Just watching the leaf one now… really excellent. You have a great teaching style. I might just have to buy your book!

    • John Muir Laws says:

      Yes, I agree, I don’t make the automatic forwarding pictures anymore for exactly that reason. Most of those you can also find as blogs where you can find the step-by-steps. There you can pause as you wish.

  8. Danielle Thys says:

    I had so much fun last week, I got 7 additional people to sign up! What more could anyone want as a tool to help them through quarantine? Learning to translate what you see in the field to the page in front of you forces you to look at the world with renewed curiosity and discernment. When the daily news is enough to make even the most intrepid soul want to curl up and shut down, honing skills that help you record and joyfully connect to the living, wild, natural world is more important than ever.
    Thank you!

  9. T Jones says:

    I would like to thank you for all that you do to teach people like me.I have a question, I’m not sure if this is the right place, but here I go.
    I have your book on how to draw birds, like the post above, but I watched one of your videos where you said that you have found a way that you think is better. I was wondering if you have some printed material on that technique for drawing birds?

    • John Muir Laws says:

      not yet. It is only a change to about 7 pages in the book. Most of the book is still what I do. My new approach is only in blocking in the basic shape with the first lines.

  10. Aristakhos says:

    Very useful tips, thank you. Details without structure never lead you anywhere. So very true. The beak and eyes are the first thing I dive into and it usually turns into a disaster. I tried sketching the yellow bird and ended up doing my own version. The result was still better than what I normally get. I’m still learning to draw, sketch, shade and all. So I seem to be able to copy what’s in a book or on a website. But struggle with real objects. 🙂
    Here it is:
    Your honest opinion, please.

      • John Muir Laws says:

        You will see amazing changes if you start drawing on a regular basis. You can learn to do this. It is not a gift. It is a skill that we develop from practice. Try it. Send me your sketches and I can help coach you.

  11. Terrie Spillers says:

    Hi, just found the laws Guide to Drawing Birds and am going to buy it. I’m a birder and this is something I want to add to my enjoyment of birds in 2020. Don’t know if I can draw birds but am willing to try. I enjoy sketching wild flowers. Thank you, this is just what I need. I also found you in Maryjane Farms.

  12. Karen Decker-Brown says:

    Greetings: I found your website via my subscription to “MaryJane’s Farm” magazine. How delightful, Thank you for your generosity, this would be similar to the biblical 2 loaves and fishes feeding the masses. I will use your instruction to attempt to draw the myriad of birds in my front yard, that happens to be The Anchorage Coastal Wildlife Refuge. There is a plethora of birds daily especially in spring and summer.. From Great Horned Owls & Bald Eagles perched on the deck railings, Sandhill Cranes nesting below the bluff to the usual robins, chickadees, sparrows and hummingbirds after the yard’s white fireweed and insects this is just a few of the species of birds seen from my windows. I would love to draw them accurately..

  13. Cybil Kho says:

    Hi John,
    Thanks so much for your generosity. Just want to say thank you for imparting the most basics of drawing — the most essential! Being a watercolour artist I am always dreading the drawing bit, but I really enjoyed the tutorial and your invaluable experience. Thanks!!

  14. Jason Rodriguez says:

    John I must say I’m amazed by your generosity! What I mean is how your always freely giving step by step tutorials on many different nature subjects, Pdf’s etc.! I recently bought your newest nature journaling E-book from Amazon to view on the android kindle app! Of course you did not disappoint! Well worth the money for the amount of information and subject matter! I hope to one day attend one of your workshops fingers crossed!

  15. Marilyn Houston says:

    Thank you for this. I love it and am setting off to learn how to draw birds. Your presentation makes sense to me.
    Marilyn Houston

  16. Stephanie Puckett says:

    Many thanks for taking the time to put this all together and have it available to anyone that is interested. Having the step by step images there on a loop were a huge help!
    I’ve been quite intimidated at the thought of trying to draw these darling creatures but your lesson here has made this task achievable! Thanks again!

  17. Casey says:

    Thank you so much for this write up.

    I have never considered myself artistic. My mum ways encouraged it as a child… but even as a small child I was reading anatomy books and learning about gems and minerals.
    So always more into “hard sciences”.

    Now I’m in my 20s and wanting a hobby to relax and help my anxiety.

    I love birds, so much. One day I’d also like to feel skilled enough to draw my darling cockatoo who was taken from this world too soon.
    I feel this would be a hobby that nicely mixes a love of general anatomy as well as birds.

    Your guides make it feel achievable and I love that they are species accurate vs just making up a random animal (which is also fine, just not to my tastes).

    I look forward to buying your book and hopefully improving my 3 year old level drawing skills.

    Thank you so much

  18. Alberto says:

    Thank you very much Mr. Laws. I write from Spain, I am a bird enthusiast and have recently started drawing birds. I found your page and I think it is a wonderful resource for bird illustration.
    I wonder if you have any post or video on drawing black-feathered birds with coloured pencils…

      • Alberto says:

        Thanks!! I am now reading your book on nature drawing and journaling. This book is a real gift for anyone that loves nature… it is helping me to better understand the environment and feel more connected to nature, which is a source of inspiration and joy.

    • Elizabeth Posada says:

      I saw yesterday your 2018 “tube” video in which you explain your new method to draw birds avoiding the “snow bird” and the “sausage bird”. I wonder if you can make an updated version in this blog and in your fantastic book correcting the old ways that you point out in your video. I would really like to buy the updated book.

      From someone very new in the field, many thanks to inspire so much enthusiasm for this activity.


      • John Muir Laws says:

        99% of the book is unchanged. I am developing other new material that I will also publish some day. perhaps as a second bird drawing book, perhaps as a second edition. For now the big changes are on those first step by step pages where I am working on blocking in the bird shapes.

  19. Tanima says:

    Thank you for this wonderful and scientific tutorial. Thank you for your time. Do you have a book or tutorial on the basics of color pencil drawing? It could be much help for me if you have one. Thanks in advance.

    • John Laws says:

      Hi Tanima, I have a little on colored pencil in my Guide to Nature Drawing and Journaling, also a few colored pencil posts and a video workshop on this site.

    • John Laws says:

      I am so happy that this is of help to you and your homeschool group. Let me know if you have any specific needs that I might be able to fill.

  20. Sheryl Bailey says:

    I’m very excited to have discovered you, this site and your work! I was at the MLK library’s California room, almost by accident last week as a recipient for a Habitat Restoration grant, and saw your new book highlighted there. I spoke to Aaron the librarian about it, as I was quite impressed with it. Aaron shared that you have this website and that you also do “Meet-Ups” at parks around the bay area, where you provide group instructions?! I would love to join you!

    I love to go birding and am really looking forward to getting back into drawing in nature.

    Where can I find out more information?

    Thank you!

  21. Conifer Morze says:

    just found your site and just began drawing later in my life-live in very rural area and difficult to find art instructor -it was very exciting for me to find your wonderful drawing instructions-thank you!

  22. Adina says:

    I love birds and drawing them…which of your books would you recommend for drawing birds seen in the wild…on the go, if you have one that is? Also, do you have instructions on how to use color pencils for drawing nature?

    One more thing…Did you ever study the tree bark and leaves that go with them? If so, did you write about it?

  23. sune says:

    Excellent..The Best of the Best..!
    Thank you so much for being such a curious and endlessly patient Observer and creating a easy step by step method to draw complex patterns of birds[Symbols of Freedom & beauty] for all of us, Bird Lovers..!
    I can’t thank you enough for your most inspiring Life Work that ignite the creative freedom-loving spirit within us..Thank you indeed!

  24. Martin says:

    Wow! I love how the clock is used in the drawing to create the body of the bird. Great idea! Very good drawing lesson, I love it! 🙂

  25. Natty says:

    In my drawing class we are learning to draw Sulfur Crested Cuckatoos ( local birds) your tutorial has really helped. Thank Goodness my Search engine showed me this site. It has really helped. Thanks again

  26. this comment says:

    This is a fantastic tutorial 😀 , thanks a million times over for making this!!
    taking the time to do this is amazing and I’m seriously grateful for it; so many little tricks i was completely oblivious to (although I’m fairly oblivious everything anyway)
    YOU ARE A TRUE MASTER OF THE BIRDS, I’M FOREVER GRATEFUL, Excuse me, then! you know my heart;
    But dearest friends, alas! must part.

  27. Kitchen Worktops Dude says:

    It’s really interesting to see the process of this drawing, seeing it change from a mere pen mark on a page to an actual bird that seems to jump out of the page at you – gorgeous!

  28. Tracy Taylor says:

    Hi John,
    Thank you for your feedback… I can write a review…honored to. As a person who has worked at getting even close to the results I wanted in depicting birds, I can say you really nailed the critical elements needed to achieve a high level of bird illustration. As far as projects, I have two possible bird book projects in the works. Scope being determined as we speak. Might want to talk with you about it….Let me know if you ever want to chat.

    • John Muir Laws says:

      Thank you Tracy, Your work is amazing I have been enjoying exploring the illustrations on your site. Thank you for your support! I and delighted that you like the book so much. Would you be willing to write a review? I am now working on a new book on nature sketching and journaling. I have having a great time with it. What are your new projects.

  29. Sam Brunson says:

    Bookmarking this page! The Learning the Feather Groups diagram of the sparrow is extremely helpful. Thanks!

  30. Joan Hoffmann says:

    I enjoyed your new book-fabulous sketching techniques. Just like the puffed feathers change the bird’s shape, color is adjusted by the energy(structured light, sunlight…) of the bird. Photos and painting reproductions use a cool palette. A full spectrum, the warm and cool primaries capture a bird’s vibrancy.

  31. Katrina van Grouw says:

    Excellent web page – really cleverly done! Nice drawings, too. I’ll look forward to seeing the book.
    You might be interested to know that I have a book on bird anatomy coming out this year also – it’s called ‘The Unfeathered Bird’ and it’s being published by Princeton University Press in November.
    All the very best with yours, John!

    • John Muir Laws says:

      Katrina, I have been exploring your website and I am really excited about your new book. I wish I had it for reference when I was working on mine. I encourage my readers to check it out and learn from those drawings. Artistic, creative, playful, accurate and alive. It really helps to be able to see into the subject. You must be able to understand the surface that is below what you are drawing. If you want to draw the feathers, you must understand the skin contours and feather tracts. If you want to visualize the skin, you must understand the skeleton. If you want to pose the skeleton, you must feel the energy, intention and soul of the bird.

      • Katrina van Grouw says:

        Many thanks for the kind words, John. And yes, absolutely! – understanding internal structure is vital to drawing just about everything. Not in place of field observation, but to supplement and enhance it. It’s great to find other bird artists who uphold the same principles.

  32. Diane says:

    John, Am looking forward to your book coming out soon! I can’t seem to get the pdf version of this so I can print the entire lesson. The drawing moves too fast to get each step. Is there some way to do this? I had trouble with the other moving subjects in the painting lessons too. Thanks, am drawing every day now, Diane

    • John Muir Laws says:

      Diane, Look for the new book in September. I am very excited about it. Reviewers have said that it has really helped them draw. If you are having trouble downloading the PDF, try clicking it and dragging it onto your desktop. It should download automatically as a PDF which you can open with a PDF reader. Let me know if that does not work.

  33. Tracy Taylor says:

    Your drawings are lovely, and depict the life and attitude of the bird. I also paint birds for a living for field guides. I had the privilege of visiting with Don Eckelberry, one of my favorite bird artists. He is no longer living, but it is worth looking up his work if any of your email participants want to look at some of the best bird art that was produced in the past.

    • John Muir Laws says:

      Thank you for your kind words about my drawings. Eckelberry’s work is amazing. His manuscript Techniques in Bird Illustration is very helpful. Have you seen it? Please tell us about your visit with him. Where can we see some of your work?

      • Tracy Taylor says:

        Don Eckelberry was both gruff and kind. He did not suffer fools, but was exceedingly generous with advice and constructive criticism. I was illustrating Herb Raffaele’s Birds of the West Indies at the time (under different last name Tracy Pedersen.) Don was approachable as long as you did not have an unrealistic view of your illustrating capabilities. To those who were receptive, he had nice as well as constructive things to say. If your ego was getting in the way, he would tell you that if “all you wanted was praise, you could go home to your mother!” He sent an unsolicited letter to me, one I treasure to this day, about my illustration for the Auk (116, 2(1999) April) of a Cloud-forest Pygmy Owl and said he really liked the composition and lighting and to keep painting bird art (vs. just illustrations for plates.) It’s advice I am now following after too long of a hiatus from painting.

        • John Muir Laws says:

          That is a wonderful story. May we all move forward in our art without letting our egos block us from critically analyzing our work. It is important to keep that inner critic constructive. It should support us in drawing more, each sketch or paining a lesson for the next.

          • Leah Kohlenberg says:

            Keeping the inner critic constructive. That’s fabulous! I will be talking to my art students about that concept.

  34. Dave B. says:

    I came across your site via the iPad Flipboard app. That is a very cool animation about How To Draw A Boid, and I appreciate the effort that went into putting it together.

    • John Muir Laws says:

      Thank you Dave, I hope it is of help to you. I scanned my drawing as I drew it and pasted them together.

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