How to Draw Recognizable Birds’ Heads.

Hi there, and welcome to the class.

Today we’re going to looking at––and drawing––some bird’s heads.

Barn Owl

Why draw bird’s heads?

I’ve been drawing and painting birds for over 50 years, and I think that you can identify pretty much all species of birds from their heads alone.

If you get the bird’s head correct, then the rest of the bird won’t necessarily be easy, but at least you’ve tackled the problem of making your drawing look like a specific species.

Today we’re going to look at the heads of a dozen very different birds:

1: Toucan

2: Peregrine Falcon

3: Blue Macaw

4: Flamingo

5: Cormorant

6: Great Blue Heron

7: Pelican

8: Hornbill

9: Blue Jay

10: Cardinal

11: Hummingbird

12: Spoonbill

And we’re going to look at what makes the heads distinctive.

1: The beak.

2: The overall shape of the head.

3: Markings, patterns, and coloration.

4: The eyes.

5: In some cases, the neck.

First we’re going to look, then we will draw. It’s often been said that drawing is a way of looking, because you have to look carefully in order to draw.

So, you might even say that drawing is looking with a pencil.

This is one way in which a drawing is better than a photograph: you don’t need to look to snap a photo, but you have to really study your subject in order to draw it accurately.

Clearly we have a couple of problems with drawing birds.

A: They don’t stay still.

B: We can’t always go and study a specific bird in its natural environment.

When I began drawing birds I was lucky enough to live near a museum that had a big collection of stuffed birds. I was separated from the birds by glass, which sometimes made it difficult to see them, but on the other hand I could move around the birds and choose tangle I wanted to draw them from.

A couple of years ago I went to an aviary where I could just walk abut among the birds––most of whom were tame and would sit in front of me while I drew them. One of them––a tropical crow called a mynah––packed my hand and drew blood.

Another bird––a big crane––chased my wife.

The great bird artists like John James Audubon and Roger Tory Peterson worked from preserved skins, which are stored in museums and Universities.

Even so, some artists tried to use dead birds, and the birds in their pictures still looked dead.

Today, we can build our knowledge of what birds look like from photos and scientific illustrations. If we want to––for example––draw a blue jay we can google hundreds of images both photos and illustrations.

For me, I always try to use illustrations as well as photos.

Photographers can only capture what they see.

Good bird artists can combine what they see with what they know, and so, illustrations usually have more information than photos.

So, let’s start looking and drawing.

1: The Toucan: What can you say about a toucan’s head? The beak? The overall shape of the head? Markings, patterns, and coloration? The eyes? And finally the neck?


To start you off I’ll give you some answers, and then you can study the others as you draw them.

The beak is way bigger than the head, and almost as large as the rest of the bird.

The head is rounded at the back (no crest).

There is no ‘forehead.’ The upper part of the beak covers the entire front of the head.

The eyes are are on the side of the head. The pupil is small and black, and the iris looks bluish green.

The dramatic coloration is very obvious.

2: The peregrine falcon is very different: The beak is small, and sharply hooked with a notch, known as a ‘tooth.’ It’s not a real tooth; birds don’t have teeth.

Peregrine Falcon

The section of skin at the base of the beak is known as the cere and has the bird’s nostrils.

The forehead is square and pronounced.

The feathers at the back of the head are thick, and almost make a crest.

Now, look at the eyes. The eyes of most raptors point forwards, so they have binocular vision and can judge distances––useful when you’re diving at 200 mph, as you really don’t want to crash into the ground at that speed.

Finally peregrines have dramatic black markings under the eyes, known as a mustache.

Lets look at some other birds.

Eurasian Jay.


Finally, here’s a secret to drawing a bird’s head: the eyes.

In this photo of an owl we can see some of the structure of the eye––mainly three things: the lens, the pupil, and the iris. Notice how the orange iris is darker at the top. This is because the light is coming from above and the owl’s ‘eyebrows’ are casting a shadow over the top of the iris.

The pupil is completely round and black. It’s actually a hole in the iris than can get bigger or smaller depending on the light.

The lens is a clear dome over the iris and pupil, it’s catching the overhead light, and creating a bright spot, known as a catchlight. Unlike humans, birds can’t rotate their eyes in the eye socket, so the cornea (the white) is never visible.

So let’s draw some birds. You can use these images, or google your own.

Remember the best approach is to look at both photos and illustrations by the master bird artists.

Here’s a brief list of great bird artists. A word of caution, the paintings and drawings by these artists are all well known, so use them for reference, but try not to copy them:
John James Audubon
Karen Latham
Roger Tory Peterson
David Allen Sibley
Arthur B. Singer.
Louis Agassiz Fuertes
Julie Zickefoose