Saw-Whet Owl Watercolor Tutorial

A saw-whet owl watercolor is a great subject for painting. Big eyes, fluffy feathers – what’s not to like!

So let’s paint an owl I said. I love painting owls I said. They’re really fun! Oh boy, oh boy what a toughie. I’d forgotten how hard all those delicate markings were and this almost ended up in the bin. But I continued on he finally came together. Just have faith and all will be well!

Introduction and Materials for your Saw-Whet Owl Watercolor

I’m working on a quarter-sheet (11×15) piece Fabriano Artistico paper. It’s 140lb cold press which is the most common type of watercolor paper. It’s great for painting on, takes paint well and allows you to easily soften edges and work wet into wet.

Colors used:

  • Ultramarine blue
  • Burnt Sienna
  • Yellow Ochre
  • Vermillion
  • Cadmium lemon

Quite a limited palette for this painting. But there’s a lot of contrast in the reference photo so we don’t need to overdo it with the color palette.

Start With an Outline Drawing

owl watercolor drawing
owl watercolor drawing

I start with an outline drawing. I use a mechanical pencil with HB lead. Not too soft as we don’t want the graphite to smudge. The drawing has just enough detail that we know where to put the paint but not so much that it doesn’t give us some leeway.

Guess and Check the Values using a Value Scale

Using a value scale (I like this one from Paul Centore) I first estimate the values for different parts of the reference. The light is coming from the right so we know that the darkest values are on the left.

First paint the shadow side of the owl

We’ve measured the values so we know what value the shadow side should be. I mix up a mix of ultramarine and burnt sienna to the right value and put it over the whole of the shadow (i.e. left) side of the bird. Yes it looks dark!!!! Keep the faith – we’ve measured it and we know it’s right! It just looks dark next to the white paper. You’ll start questioning yourself at this point but trust the process and it will work out.

Start to Put the Dark Markings In

Preferably while the shadow color is still wet start to put in the darker feathers on your owl watercolor. Using a fairly thick mix of burnt sienna drop in color into the shadow side. Also take the markings out into the light side. Try and keep some of the edges soft. You can soften them by taking a clean damp brush and wetting the paper right next to the wet color. The wet color will slowly seep into the paper you just dampened and make a beautiful soft edge. One of the best things about watercolor!

We can now see that our original gray wash wasn’t too much at all! Now the dark brown feathers are in it all starts to make sense.

Vermont farm watercolor landscape by Michele Clamp

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Take the Dark Markings into the Head

Put in the Wings with a Few Flicks

Paint on dry paper to get flicks
Paint on dry paper to get flicks

Owl Watercolor – Use a Darker Mix for the Eyes

Now comes the best part! When we put in the eyes our owl watercolor will really come alive. We use a darker (and less runny) mix for this using burnt sienna and ultramarine. You may also want to use a slightly smaller brush for this slightly more fiddly work. Although if your round brush has a good point to it that will work well too.

We put in the pupil using the dark and make sure to leave a small piece of white paper showing. This will be our highlight. We leave the iris white (we can put that in later) and outline the eye in the same dark mix. As we don’t want a hard edge around the eye we quickly take a damp brush and soften the area around the eye. This makes it look like the eye is in shadow.

Wow what a difference yes! I always love this part!

When the dark part is dry mix up a lighter yellowy orange color (a red and a yellow or some cadmium orange) and put in the iris.

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Paint in the Beak for your Owl Watercolor

Owl Watercolor Beak
Owl Watercolor Beak

The beak is a slightly bluer mix of the ultramarine and burnt sienna. Make it darker on the left (where it is in shadow) than it is on the right. If you can soften the join where it meets the white feathers so much the better.

Owl Feet Have Subtle Shading

owl watercolor feet
owl watercolor feet

Now I have to admit something here. Bird feet are not my strong point and I always dread getting to this part. The way I’ve found to deal with them is to try and treat them as one big shape. If I don’t get too involved in the detail of talons and claws and such they come out much better. Just a wash of burnt sienna as a base color and a slightly darker mix to add in some shadows should get us most of the way there. A slightly darker mix still for the talons and we’re done. Phew!!!

We’re Almost Done!!!

Painting the Rock is Much Less Stressful!

Painting the rock is another favorite bit of mine. Start by just a flat wash over the whole rock. While it’s still wet spray some water and splatter some paint in. It will give the wash a mottled texture that really does look like an old rock. And it’s fun!

Finally – Some Flicky Wings to Give Some Character

Drybrush gives the wings some character
Drybrush gives the wings some character

I decided to depart slightly from the reference and liven up the wings a bit. Using a fairly dark mix of our trusty ultramarine and burnt sienna (slightly more burnt sienna to make it on the brown side) I used a flicky action with the brush to emphasize the wings. You have to take the plunge and have confidence with this technique. There are no second chances. But I think it definitely looks better this way.

Full Video of the Whole Process

You can see a video of the full painting below. I also have more videos on my youtube channel and you can also access them here.


I hope you enjoyed this painting and thank you for reading/watching. After a slightly shaking start I really liked the way he turned out. I run online zoom classes regularly and if you would like to be notified of upcoming classes or new videos please sign up for my mailing list.

Oh the Puffins! Puffin Watercolor Painting

Puffin original watercolor painting: watercolor on 100% cotton cold press Fabriano Artistico.

A few years ago I sold a lovely painting of 5 puffins and, to be honest, I’ve never managed to quite capture again the looseness and lightness of touch with this subject. So today was the day to kill this once and for all.

For me this was quite a long painting. Even though the style is loose and sploshy it was very carefully planned and painted in several layers. I think I’m happy although I could possibly pushed it a little more to the sploshy side.

Here we go with the stages:


First stage after the drawing was to put light washes of color roughly where the darks and colors were going to go. I’m pushing through the edges as much as possible just being careful to keep away from areas of detail like the faces. Blossoms, drips and sploshes are welcomes at this stage. It will al add interest to the final painting.


Next layer is to start just indicating some of the darks and bringing some of the edges in. Nothing too defined at this point so we can keep that lovely shimmering image.


We’re sharpening up the image here. Going darker where it needs it on the black parts of the birds and being quite crisp on the face and beak.


The final thing. I beefed up the background a little to bring out the whites of the birds but without making it a subject in itself. A few more darks on the black feathers, a little shading on the faces and we’re done!

Standing Blue Heron Watercolor Painting

Time for another heron. These are always popular but they are very tricky to do and never seem to get easier. Very happy with this one right now. Some nice detail in the feathers and the background brings out the lighter colors without overwhelming the bird. Let’s see if it still passes muster tomorrow morning.

If it does there’s also video which I’ll upload later.

Rooster Watercolor

A rooster watercolor is a great subject for a beginner. Lots of color and fabulous shapes can make a wonderful bird painting.

Vermont farm watercolor landscape by Michele Clamp

Online Zoom Classes

I run online zoom courses regularly for both beginners and more advanced students. Please check out my workshop page.

However, this watercolor rooster is deceptively tricky. A lot of color but not a lot of value changes so I had to introduce more to get the form of the body. Fun though – the colors came out well and the final result has a lot of life and character. This artist is quite happy with this watercolor painting. I’ve done a number of watercolor roosters and this one is my favorite. Would be quite happy with this rooster art on the wall.

Watercolor Rooster Tutorial

I describe the painting process below. In summary I first make some carefully matched color swatches to the reference. I then draw out the outline of the bird and put in some light washes of color. The next layer puts in darker areas and then I finally put in some detail and slight changes to pull the whole thing together.

Mixing some color swatches help with the final painting

Rooster color swatches
Rooster color swatches

I first mixed up some swatches after matching to Munsell chips. Everything is pretty low in value – highest is a 4 which was surprising. The colors looked good together though which is a good sign. I find that if the main color swatches have harmony the final painting will as well. Watercolor rooster paintings don’t often have this many colors in them so it’s good to get the mixes and values planned out ahead of time.

Draw out the rooster watercolor with a mechanical pencil.

Rooster drawing Michele Clamp
Rooster drawing Michele Clamp

Next the drawing. Careful comparisons across the body both horizontally and vertically to make sure everything lined up. Where possible I use negative shapes to get the right angles. I always use a mechanical pencil for drawing. My favorite is this Faber-Castell one although any other one works just as well. I tend to use a 0.7mm HB lead. Any softer and the graphite smudges which we don’t want with transparent watercolor. Any harder and the lead will leave grooves in the paper. The paint will tend to flow into the grooves and show up darker than the surrounds.

First washes on the rooster watercolor – light and loose around the edges

First washes
Rooster watercolor first washes

The first washes. I toyed with the idea of just painting the whole thing in one layer but finally plumped for putting in a light under wash of the main colors and intentionally went outside the lines into the background. When finished this layer is barely visible but gives some visual interest and some depth to the final picture.

Second layer – putting in the mid-tones and darks

Second layer watercolor darks
Second layer watercolor darks

Half way through the second layer here. I’ve kept the eye and beak areas clear as they go in at the end. The tail feathers have to go in pretty much in one go – if it goes wrong you have to live with it. Worked out this time thankfully. In general I find with bird watercolors that you don’t need to put too much detail into the feet. In fact too much detail and contrast in this area can draw the eye and detract from the rest of the bird. In rooster watercolor paintings this isn’t so much of a problem. There’s so much going on in the rest of the picture that it’s not as important. But I stuck to keeping them simple and I think it worked out. The shadow on the ground was put in with a mix of ultramarine blue and burnt sienna. This also helped to define the legs and place the bird in space.

Final shot on the easel

 Easel shot
Rooster watercolor easel shot

The final thing. Pretty handsome I think. I hope this has showed you a little of how to paint a rooster in watercolor and, if you try it yourself, I hope you have as much fun as I did.

And Finally….

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