Tips for Drawing Realistic Feathers

Tips for Drawing Realistic Feathers

Today, I’d like to share a few basic tips for drawing realistic feathers.

As with many subjects, there seems to be the perception that the process is complex. So complex that it’s difficult to know where or how to begin.

That complexity causes many of us to shy away from subjects like birds, flowers, and the other things we want to draw that are too complicated.

Tips for Drawing Realistic Feathers

Complexity need not keep you from drawing birds if that’s what you really want to draw. Not if you remember the following simple and easy principles.

Tips for Drawing Realistic Feathers

Tip #1: Make Sure the Your Line Drawing is Accurate

The first step in the process is an accurate line drawing. I’m not talking about drawing every feather.

I’m talking about drawing the big shapes. The bird itself, the edges between colors, as well as shadows and highlights.

Something like this.

This is a simple line drawing for me, but it is accurate. I’ve clearly drawn the hard edges of the hummingbird, and suggested the softer edges with dotted or dashed lines. I didn’t draw every detail, but I drew enough detail to provide a good road map for layering color.

Every good piece starts with an accurate drawing, so it’s worth the time and effort to get this step as correct as you can make it.

Tip #2: Make Sure the Values Are Accurate

We love colored pencils because of all those wonderful colors.

But when it comes to actually making drawings, color is not the most important thing. Value is.

“Value” refers to the lightness or darkness of a color. It applies to all colors, even black and white.

No matter what you draw, the subject has form. It takes up space. That means that part of it is in shadow and part of it is in light.

This hummingbird is lighted from the upper right. Take note of the highlight in the eye and on the bill.

The hummingbird’s belly is in shadow and it’s back is lighted.

To make things look real when you draw this bird, you have to show those variations in value.

Just to show you how important value is, I’ve converted the sample image to black-and-white. The hummingbird still looks real, even without color.

It’s well worth your time to get values right, beginning with the first application of colored pencil.

What does that have to do with feathers?

The principles that apply to large shapes like hummingbirds also apply to smaller shapes, like hummingbird feathers. Some feathers are in shadow and some in light.

Notice also that there are shadows under and between some of the feathers.

Tips for Drawing Realistic Feathers

How to Draw This

First of all, shade the big shape as you see it in your reference photo. Work around the brightest areas, and use short directional strokes to begin creating the texture of the feathers.

Start with the lightest value of the color you need. For example, in the chest, I started with a very light gray because the hummingbird’s chest and belly are white.

Gradually darken the values. Use multiple layers (all applied with light pressure and using directional strokes,) then add the next darkest gray. Refer to your reference photo often.

You don’t have to draw every feather. Instead, add details where values change or where color changes. Those edges will be the places that attract your attention most, so you should put more detail there.

Unless your drawing is very large, you won’t need to add very much detail in the places in deep shadow or in the brightest highlights.

Notice in my sample drawing that I haven’t created even color. I’ve used two colors (Faber-Castell Cold Grey II and III) and several layers to begin drawing the hummingbird.

I also used light pressure and very sharp pencils. Keep your pressure light so you can adjust values as you go.

Tip #3: Layer, Layer, Layer

Most of the time, you can’t get by with just one or two layers of color. It is possible, of course, and lot depends on your preferred drawing style. If you want flat color with just few different values, then you can very effectively do good work with just a few layers of color applied with medium pressure or heavier.

But most of us like a more realistic look for our finished drawings, so that means lots of layers. Using light to medium pressure through several layers allows you to blend colors and create the transitions in value that make your subject look more real.

Tip #4: Match Strokes to the Texture You Want to Draw

Let’s look at that detail photo again, this time in color.

Notice that the feathers on the bird’s chest look almost like hair. They’re very fine.

Now look again at my sample drawing.

I didn’t draw individual feathers. The marks I made are not exact to the marks in the reference photo. But by the time I finish, I will have a drawing that looks like a hummingbird covered with feathers.

Even though the lightest gray was only a shade darker than the paper and difficult to see, I used short, hair-like strokes. You see some of those in the area between the base of the wing and the shadowed belly.

Again, unless the drawing is very large, you shouldn’t need any more detail than that to make the hummingbird look like it has feathers.

Do the same thing for all the other feathers using the colors you see in the reference photo.

Those are My Tips for Drawing Realistic Feathers

All complex subjects can be broken down into smaller, simpler shapes. You don’t have to be drawing birds to benefit from these tips. They help me draw horses and landscapes, and they help you draw whatever you want to draw.

You’ll never outgrow them, either.

Master these principles, and you can draw even the most complex of subjects.


  1. Gail Jones

    This is so helpful Carrie! I love birds and feathers do intimidate me. Thank you for helping me to see them in a simpler way and to break them down into easier sections to work with.

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