How to draw birds: 18 tips for both hand-drawn and vector illustration

Leading illustrators reveal their favourite techniques for drawing birds by hand or using vectors.


Illustration can capture a bird, and its peculiarities in ways that a still photographic image is unable to do. For my hummingbird illustration, I was given the brief of creating an image with bold shapes, and lots of colour. I began by watching many videos of hummingbirds, as well and pouring through library books and Google image search for pictures of the bird. Almost immediately I realised that I wanted to illustrate the bird in flight, due to its way of flying being quite unique.

Andrew Lyons (UK)

I think that a piece of illustration needs to be bold to communicate quickly and be striking. Not necessarily bold in colour choices, but in the shapes that it uses, in its composition. At least, that’s my goal when setting out to make an illustration.

I like contrasts too, contrast of bold shapes with subtle textural details, that draw the eye into the work.

Andrew Lyons (UK)


My first page of roughs was very loose. They were more of an exercise for myself, finding an angle on the bird and getting a general feel for its body shape.

Andrew Lyons (UK)

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In my second page of roughs I’ve found my pose and I’m starting to build the bird from simple shapes.

Andrew Lyons (UK)


In this case I’ve whittle the bird’s shape down to an ellipse cut in half. I wanted to emphasise the curve of it’s body, the way it seems to be leaning backwards in flight.

Andrew Lyons (UK)


Essential to my work are the use of textures. I use many layers of paper and charcoal textures, and can spend hours tweaking the colours of my final piece, adding filters and gradients.

For a step-by-step guide to how Andrew created this piece, see our Photoshop tutorial: Create a beautiful bird artwork.

Andrew Lyons (UK)

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My recent bird illustrations were printed quite small on the sides of small bottles, so they needed to work at a reduced size. Working with strong, bold shapes can prevent details from getting lost when printed small. I recommend spending a lot of time in the initial rough stage to become familiar with the animal you’re drawing – for example birds. I think this careful study to search for a pose that emphasises the bird’s unique features pays off.

Andrew Lyons (UK)


Give each bird you create its own personality, without neglecting the characteristics of the species you want to illustrate. Highlight some of the typical features of the species, and then focus on creating a one of a kind character by giving the bird a strong expression and explicit posture.

Marijke Buurlage (NL)


You can also give the bird a little bit of attitude, for instance by turning the head facing up and by moving one of its claws pointing forwards.

Marijke Buurlage (NL)

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For inspiration I like to get out into nature, go for a bike ride, go for a walk in the woods and have a sketch. For this particular illustration I was stuck so I went out on my bike into the nearby countryside in The Shire and had a flash spotting of a linnet in a flowering dog rose. A linnet is a beautiful, small beige and pink meadow bird - I love them.

To spot one on a flowering dog rose was the key though, the plant being a gorgeous wild British plant found in our hedgerows and woodland, the pink chiming perfectly with the linnet. And perfect for my brief too.

Matt Sewell (UK)


I always sketch up first by quickly drawing a few thumbnails and then work up a larger version that is sent to the clients for approval.

Matt Sewell (UK)


I will look at bird books to make sure I have the shape right and the markings in the right place but after that its mainly just what I think looks good.

I don’t go for drawing feathers or anything to anatomical. I want it to be instantly recognisable - with everything in its right place and more over i want it to be charming.

Matt Sewell (UK)

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After I got the thumbs up the drawing was inked using my faithful Pilot V7, scanned, opened in Photoshop and coloured. Layers are then created for each individual colour so the image is ready for print.

Matt Sewell (UK)


I want the clients to go “yes that ticked all the boxes and looks ace” and on the shop floor i want people to pick the shirt up and go “ahhh” and buy it and wear it with pride. This simple style works really well with birds, in particular when they are getting screen printed, like this Barbour T-shirt.

Matt Sewell (UK)


I'll start with a few quick reference sketches from life if possible.. Using google images to study the detail I'll then compose a more formal piece bringing in elements from my reference sketches to add life and character to the final piece.

Michelle Turton (UK)

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Blind contour drawings are a great way to free up the hand as well as capture movement and personality.

Michelle Turton (UK)


My process began by making lots of drawings of different garden birds. I then pared them down to very simple shapes. These drawings were then scanned in and re-drawn using the pen tool in Illustrator. I added simple shading using dots and also added some leaves and branches. 

I then spent time playing with colour and composition and tried to fit everything together in a pleasing way. With screenprinting, the more colours you have the harder the registration is - so I tried to limit my palette, make the most of out of negative space and use the white of the paper as much as possible.

Nadia Taylor (UK)


I love drawing birds because they have a classic, timeless quality and you can abstract them down and then concentrate on making the colours and shapes at beautiful as possible. 

The advice that I would give to anyone wanting to draw birds is to have fun! You can really go wild with colour and pattern. Birds are easy to stylise and great to fill with patterns – all those feathers! 

Nadia Taylor (UK)

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