Loose Watercolor Cardinal Bird Painting

A watercolor cardinal bird is a fantastic way to paint loosely and expressively. In fact any bird watercolor lends itself to this technique and is great fun to boot. In this post I will take you through painting this easy watercolor cardinal and I hope you’ll be able to follow the process. If you’re looking for cardinal painting ideas this is a great technique to try.

Draw only the necessary parts

Red cardinal drawing
Red cardinal watercolor drawing

Working on 140lb cold press Fabriano Artistico paper (here is my full materials list) I first drew out just the essentials. Some detail in the head and light marks where the wings and breast feathers would be. The feet and perch were just outlined and I was careful not to draw in every claw and wrinkle. In particular in this cardinal watercolor painting I left the belly and the back drawn in very lightly. These are areas that won’t need much definition and we’ll likely leave these loosely defined.

Michele Clamp Studio Wall

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Go nuts and paint through the edges.

Bird art gives us watercolor painters a great opportunity to exploit the sploshiness of watercolor. Whether you’re just painting a study or for fun, or trying to produce an original watercolor painting as a gift it’s a great technique. For the first washes I kept the paint fairly light and made sure I didn’t leave any hard edges. This meant putting down some dabs of paint and then using a clean damp brush I softened those edges and really pulled that paint through the outline of the bird.

We’re painting a red cardinal and I just adore this color. I mixed my two reds together to get this – some vermillion and some permanent rose. If you don’t have vermillion then another orangey red like cad red light or naphthol red will do. Similarly another pinkish red like quinacridone red can be substituted for permanent rose.

Fight the instinct to keep within the lines

It’s really hard once you have a drawing down to paint through those lines. Try and fight that! Pull that paint out into the background. You should be using fairly light value paint and softening all the edges with water so it will dry back far lighter. In later stages we’ll go back in and define some of those lines but for now you have a lot of leeway. In the end our cardinal watercolor will benefit from this layer as it softens the effect of the edges we will put in next.

Vermont farm watercolor landscape by Michele Clamp

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But keep away from the face

The only part of the drawing I keep an eye on is the face. I want the contrast to be nice and crisp in here so I’m careful to not put paint in this area. If it does happen don’t panic! If the paint is still wet a few dabs with a paper towel will lift most of it off.

Put in some face detail

When doing a bird painting I often leave the face detail to quite late along in the process. For a loose watercolor, however I want to put in some detail quite early. This gives me a chance to assess how much detail I want in the rest of the painting. I want everything to be suggested and soft unless absolutely necessary. If we don’t have some detail to compare to there’s a risk of tightening up everything too much

Some darks to start to define the form

Finishing the face on the cardinal water color
Finishing the face

Now we get to put in some darks on the rest of the bird and define some edges. I want to put in the bare minimum here so I’m not outlining the whole bird. I pick and choose where some contrast is needed and am constantly squinting and standing back to assess each mark. Less is definitely more here! As soon as the form of that bird appears you’ve probably done enough. If you’re experimenting however you can push it as far as you want. In some ways you have to overstep that mark to learn how little you can get away with. Yes, you’ll mess up a painting or two but it’s a great learning experience.

Redefine the body shape

Adjusting the edges to improve the cardinal watercolor body shape
Adjusting the edges to improve the body shape

I wasn’t too happy with the shape of the bird at this point. A cardinal bird has an almost triangular shape to the head so I went back in with some of the darker red and extended the head and shoulder regions. Much better! I also made a slight adjustment to the tail and bottom area so he actually looked like he was perched. Yes we’re doing loose watercolor but it doesn’t mean everything is forgiving. Sometimes those small marks make a difference.

Watercolor Cardinal Final details

We’re almost done now. A little more definition went in the head and around the eye. Also a little more shadow under his wing and on the perch. I left the feet pretty loosely defined. I’ve been bitten before on many occasions by putting too much detail on the feet in a bird painting. The feet are almost never the focal point for birds and today is no exception. A final few flourishes on his head with a little splatter for interest and he was done.

The verdict

As always there were a few sticky moments but we pulled through. I almost always enjoy a watercolor cardinal painting. The shapes are so great and the colors wonderful. It had just the right amount of looseness but enough detail in the right areas. Pretty happy! In fact every year I keep meaning to print some Christmas cards from some of my back catalog. Cardinals are perfect for this and, as it’s only February, I might have a fighting chance of doing it before next winter.

If you like this style of painting I have another real-time walkthrough and video of a toucan. Also some more examples of my loose watercolor birds are this kestrel and these bee-eaters.

Watercolor Cardinal Painting Video Recording

I recorded the whole process on my youtube channel and you can also view it below. If you would like to see more demos please subscribe or see all of the videos on the website here. I hope you enjoyed this watercolor bird painting tutorial. If you try it I would love to hear from you.