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How to Draw Animals: Birds, Their Anatomy and How to Draw Them

This post is part of a series called How to Draw Animals.
How to Draw Animals: Deer - Species and Anatomy
How to Draw Animals: Bears and Pandas, and Their Anatomy

Birds are a very complex topic for an artist. They have wings (a real nightmare for beginners), all these feathers and they differ a lot among various species. In this tutorial my goal is to convince you that birds aren't that hard to draw if only you get to know them better. If you're interested, keep on reading!

1. Basic Anatomy of Birds

Step 1

Although it may seem unnecessary, learning about anatomy of an animal is crucial to understand it. If you want to draw a bird in every pose and situation, first you need to know how it's built.

Let's start with the skeleton. There's no labels below, no weird bone names, because you don't really need it. Actually, you, as an artist, don't even need bones as they are - you need the construction they make. So, take a look at the skeleton - can you see how different it is from a humans?

It's important to notice that although birds do have a chest and hips, they all work like one body part because of fused spine. This way wings can pick up the whole body rigidly. An interesting fact: that's why six-limbed dragons, griffins and Pegasus will never be realistic. On the other hand, wyverns (four-limbed dragons) are the only dragons that could find their way to the sky!


Step 2

With the skeleton being settled in our minds we can create a more memorable structure for it. You can draw the chest and hips parts or merge them - it's up to you, since there's not really going to be much movement in the spine between them.


Step 3

The simplified skeleton from the previous step can be used to build a pose easily. To create a realistic pose, imagine yourself flying. Where would you keep your feet in that particular pose? What would you do with your hands to catch as much air as possible? Keep in mind your knees aren't really useful here - they're always kept close to the body.

When creating a pose for the legs, it's good to use your arms to imagine them - see your elbows as ankles and shoulders as knees.

Step 4

All the species will use the same skeleton structure, only the length or size of particular elements will change. Before drawing any species, spare a moment to take a look at a few pictures of it. Don't dive into details yet, just check how long the legs and neck are, or how big of a percentage of the body feathers are.


Step 5

With all that information in mind, you can now sketch a pose for your bird. I'm going to draw two small, seed-eating birds (not any particular species).


Step 6

Now it's time for muscles. I won't show you a full musculature of a bird, since there's no use for it. You'd need it if you wanted to learn advanced flight physics, or check how much of dinosaur there has left in a modern bird, but for drawing purpose we only need a simplified model like below.


Step 7

There's one more thing we need to notice - that's mostly feathers what gives shape to a bird's body. Birds, from a elegant swan to a proud eagle look all like a naked chicken without their feather-coat on. We'll discuss the rules of building feather layers later, but for that moment just keep it in mind when building a pose and adding muscles.


Step 8

Now add a body to your bird.


2. How to Draw Bird Feet

Birds have different feet depending on their lifestyle. When you know what a given bird does for a living, you'll know what feet to draw without looking for references!

Step 1

Let's start with raptors:

  • Raptors' feet (talons) are very strong, thick, with hooked claws;
  • Front middle finger and back finger can touch each other like jaws when talons are closing.

Step 2

Small birds, like sparrows or jays, have perching feet:

  • The fingers are long and thin;
  • The claws are thin and sharp;
  • When closing, the feet take a prefect shape to embrace a branch.

Step 3

Water birds have usually webbed feet:

  • The fingers are long, very thin and unruffled;
  • The claws are short and not very sharp;
  • There's a short, additional claw in the back;
  • A membrane connects all the fingers on their bottom.

Step 4

Running birds, like ostrich or emu, have feet constructed for running:

  • The fingers are thick and very strong;
  • The claws are more like nails, short, rounded and thick;
  • When drawing an ostrich, remove one finger.

Step 5

Chicken and turkeys have scratching feet:

  • The fingers are thick and strong, distanced from each other for better support;
  • The claws are sharp, thick and hard.

Step 6

Woodpeckers have feet made for climbing:

  • Front and back fingers are symmetrical;
  • The fingers are very long and thin;
  • The claws are strong, sharp and hooked.

Step 7

Birds, like real dinosaur descendants, have scaly feet. The general rule is, the bigger the bird, the more distinctive the scales. Draw a row of big, rectangular scales on every finger and then blend them into feet with small circular ones.


Step 8

This is how I added the feet for one of my birds:


3. Beaks - Types and Shapes

Step 1

We need to take a look at the beak anatomy first. If you look closely, you can notice beak isn't attached directly to the front of the skull - its structure is much more complicated.


Step 2

Just like with feet, every species has its specialized beak. A beak needs to be light and very functional at the same time - hence no teeth and variety of shapes.

You can draw every beak using simple steps:

  • Start with a circle that's roughly the size of the head. Add a line driving from the circle to the tip of the beak (the spot where both parts meet);
  • Draw a line cutting the "beak" at two thirds. Use this line to draw a rough shape of the beak. You need to take a look at a reference before doing it, but one time should be enough;
  • Refine the shape now, adding head at the same time.

Step 3

Time to add a beak to your bird. The rules above apply to any perspective - you just need to draw two sides of the beak and add some width between them.


4. How to Draw a Bird's Eye

Step 1

Bird eyes are probably one of the easiest to draw. Since they're very simply built (for example, they can't move on their own), there isn't much to learn about them. Start with a circle, add a dark outline, then add the ring around and the pupil.


Step 2

Before drawing a particular bird, you should take a good look at its pictures first. Generally, raptors have a distinctive eyebrow giving them an intelligent look, night birds have big, yellow or orange eyes with wide pupils, and small birds have simple, round eyes, usually with dark iris (so their eyes look like tiny black beads). But there's much more to learn!


Step 3

See? Two tiny beads!


5. Feather Groups

Step 1

As we noticed before, feathers are what gives the shape to a bird body. The feathers aren't placed evenly - they grow in layers of different size and shape. The contours of layers are equivalent of muscles contours - draw them and the body will look real.

Also, every layer can have different pattern or color. Use the layers when drawing patterns to create a believable, 3D look.


Step 2

The other thing is the size and distribution of feathers withing the layers. It's strongly suggested to look at references of a particular bird before drawing it, but the picture below can help you too:


Step 3

Add feathers to to your bird. If you need help with wings, I have written a tutorial all about drawing wings.


Step 4

A bird's tail works like a fan made of feathers. As you could notice on the skeleton scheme, the tail itself is very short, and the feathers are attached to it.


Step 5

The different shapes of a bird's tail comes from variety of feathers' length. When creating your own bird, feel free to choose any shape you want, obeying only one rule - the tail must be symmetrical.


Step 6

Attach a tail to your bird. It's now finished, so you can now polish it, erase redundant lines, add patterns, colors and so on.


That's All Folks!

you've just taken first step into amazing world of birds! If you're wanting to know more about drawing other animals, check out our session on How to Draw Animals. Until next time, happy drawing!

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