Watercolor Toucan

Watercolor toucan painting by Michele Clamp

Painting a watercolor toucan was the subject today. Exotic tropical birds are often highly colorful which is very attractive but can pose some problems in paint. Each color needs to be modified as the from turns from the light into the shadow. This means a lot of close observation and a lot of mixing. However, for this reference I decided to simplify the colors a little. There was a lot of pretty bright green and yellow in the reference. I chose to tone down the green and also move the greenish yellow more towards orange. The aim was to have more unified color scheme. I also decided to ditch the jungle of foliage. For another painting this could have been fun to do but I wanted to focus in on the toucan bird and not have anything competing with it.

First make a plan

The plan for this bird watercolor was to proceed along the same lines as a previous cardinal watercolor painting. I wanted to start by putting down lots of regions of soft edged misty color and not pay too much attention to the edges. As the painting progresses more and more edges are put in until the bird magically appears from the mist. It’s a fun way to paint and I really like the resulting effect. It’s a technique very well suited to bird art and you can end up with an almost abstract painting at the end.

Materials for your Watercolor Toucan

It’s pretty much essential to work on good 100% cotton watercolor paper for this. The paper can take a lot of working and also keeps damp for a fair while. This allows us to work into the paint wet-in-wet and soften edges as we go. It is possible to use cheaper paper but I wouldn’t recommend it unless you have a lot of experience under your belt. Trust me – I’ve learned this the hard way. My favored paper is Fabriano Artistico 140lb cold press but any cold press 100% cotton paper is fine. Arches can be a good choice for this. It is slightly more absorbent than the Fabriano and so stays damp for longer. This gives us more time to think as we’re painting without that panic that we have to get everything done at top speed.

A couple of good brushes are needed. I use Escoda reserva sizes 12,10 and 8. They point well and hold a lot of water. However a good synthetic (Princeton Aqua Elite, Black Velvet or Escoda Versatil) is fine and there isn’t so much sticker shock.

For paint I use mainly Da Vinci with a sprinkling of Holbein, Winsor and Newton, Daniel Smith and a couple of others. Any artists quality paint is good and some student paint is also fine (Cotman or Lukas Studio work well). My colors are lemon yellow, cadmium orange, vermillion, permanent rose, burnt sienna, cerulean blue, ultramarine and lamp black.

We can work without stress on preliminary sketches

These two sketches were just to get the brushes warmed up and to play with the colors and the shapes. I mostly wanted to see how much detail I could lose but still keep the essence of the bird. It turned out that the chinstrap was a big focal point. A surprise was that keeping the beak too sharp really detracted from the rest so I made a note to be careful about keeping a lot of that beak soft.

Keep the Drawing simple

loose watercolor toucan drawing
loose watercolor toucan drawing

As we’re going to be working loosely on this watercolor bird I don’t want too much graphite showing through. So the drawing was kept light and only the most essential lines put in. I lightly outlines the beak, the eye, the rough shape of the body and the legs and feet. For the feet I just drew in the main shape and didn’t bother noodling around drawing individual claws. They’re not the main focus and will just distract the viewer.

First washes – go nuts with those edges

This first bit is lots of fun and is really hard to go wrong here. I took the main colors (mostly lemon yellow for the chest and beak and a mix of ultramarine/burnt sienna for the body) and just sploshed some paint in the rough area they should be. Use a big brush for this – we don’t want little dibby dabby lines at this point.

Once the paint dabs were down I thoroughly cleaned my brush, loaded it up with water and softened all the hard edges of the paint. Don’t be afraid of painting through the edges here. In fact really try and pull that paint through the outline of the bird into the background. Keep loading up with water and soften anything that looks like a hard edge – it should look nothing like a bird at this point!!

Careful of the eye area

The only thing to be careful of is the eye area. We want to keep that area nice and crisp so try and keep dark paint away from that area. If, by chance, you do paint over it by mistake you can probably take a piece of paper towel and lift the paint off while it’s wet.

Slosh in some dark mixes for the body area

With my mix of ultramarine and burnt sienna I started putting in marks rough where the body was going to be. Again I pulled that color out through the edges of the bird into the background. Even pull it through the feet – these are fairly dark anyway and we can paint over them later. If you want to splatter some darks inot the wet paint go ahead. It will add some texture and visual interest. Just keep those edges soft! There shouldn’t be a hard line to be seen.

Wait a bit

Now is a good time to take a quick break and let the paper dry a little. It’s probably quite wet from all that sloshing and we need it to be almost dry for the next step.

Now the edges of Your Watercolor Toucan!

This to me is the magical part. We’re going to go in with some thicker paint (ultramarine and burnt sienna) and start putting in some edges. My aim is to put in as few edges as possible but still have it read as a toucan. I’m always surprised how few you really need.

I start by identifying what I think are the main areas of contrast to put in. The chin-strap around the beak is an obvious one as is the edge of the black feathers next to the yellow chest feathers. But you don’t need to outline the whole thing. Try just putting some paint in a couple of areas (soften the other side) and see how it reads. Our brains will often fill in the gaps. And if you feel it’s too harsh use a clean brush and soften it back again. We can always add hard edges but it’s tough to remove them once they’re down and dry.

More edges – but just enough

The body and face take shape.  Keep the eye crisp
The body and face take shape. Keep the eye crisp

I go around the bird adding in edges where I need them. It turned out in this one that it really didn’t need many at all. It can be hard to stop but better to stop too early rather than too late.

Details and Form in your Watercolor Toucan

painting a watercolor toucan
Add in some detail for the feet and beak

This final bit is where it all comes alive. We can put in the eye (with a little shadow around it), some color and shadow on the beak and some shadow on the yellow chest feathers. A little color and shadow for the feet and we’re pretty much done. This bit looks like the fancy bit but, as with a lot of painting, the main work is done ahead of time. These pieces are just icing and no amount of fiddling at this stage will fix mistakes made earlier.

Stand back and assess

When the details are in then take a breather, stand back and see if the whole thing hangs together. There may be odd bits that stand out too much or don’t stand out enough. But don’t noodle too long. It’s tempting to fiddle for ages but less is definitely more here. It’s so easy to ruin something that’s working with unnecessary detail.

Watercolor Toucan – the Verdict

I’m pretty happy with this toucan watercolor. I like the shapes, there’s just the right amount of definition, and the bird has some dignity to him. It’s very different from my previous work and doesn’t look like a slightly cartoonish illustration.

Watercolor Toucan Video

The full recording is viewable below.

While you’re here

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