A Realistic owl in watercolour – learn how to paint one!

Learn to paint a realistic owl in watercolour in easy to follow stages.  This blog is a bit different to the norm, something I thought I would try out.  In other words I’m winging it!!  When you have taken a look do leave me a comment below.  I will be interested to see what you think and consequently I may put up more posts like this.

Tawny Owl painted realistically in watercolour by Paul Hopkinson

Tawny Owls are essentially a brown bird but in this painting you will be working with red, blue, yellow and green!  (Anyone would think we were painting a parrot!) The video is filmed in real time and I show you every stage of the painting.  I guide you step by step as I paint the project myself.  Painting a wildlife subject so that it looks realistic is about building layers, depth and shape.  It is also about mixing and working with the right colours. So you will learn how to do this and much more besides!
Take a look at the video it will give you an idea of how the painting builds up and starts to come to life.  In addition it will give you a flavour of my teaching style, at least I hope it does!  Do remember that the full video is nearly 4 hours long so has much more detail and guidance.

Should you have enjoyed watching this video, do leave me a comment as I would really like to know what you think.  If you want to see more videos – check out this page!

The full Tawny Owl tutorial is on my Patreon channel and I look forward to perhaps working with you there.  It would be great to see you create your own realistic owl in watercolour!

As always, remember to keep them brushes wet!

How to paint a Robin


A little start to finish on how I painted this robin.  To begin with I needed a photo to work from, and this was a few years back when I had time to sit with my camera in bird hides and take some of my own reference photos!  We were at one of the Devon Wildlife Trust’s Nature Reserves at Halsdon, near Dolton in North Devon.  There is a super bird hide there, nestled beside the River Torridge.  We were hoping to spot kingfisher and otter when this little robin happened to land right in front of us on the branch of an over hanging horse chestnut tree.  A few snap-shots later and I had a photo that I was pleased enough with to use for a painting.

The first stage of any painting is to get the reference photo down on the paper surface as an outline drawing.  I picked out the main sections of the picture – for instance, the wing edge, the line above the eye a few individual feathers etc.  You may notice I made a few changes to the twig the bird was standing on as I decided to add a bit of interest with a little twine of ivy wrapped around it.  There are many different ways of transferring your drawing to the watercolour paper, I’ve covered this in other blog posts so I won’t go into them here.  Choose a method which works for you and away you go!

You know me well enough by now and will not be surprised that I started with the robin’s eye.  I carefully painted around the highlight, but if you prefer you could apply a little touch of masking fluid to preserve the white of the paper.  With any bird or animal subject it is really important to get the shine in the eye right – it gives the subject that much needed life and is the essence of creating a realistic piece.  Again, go with what works for you and if a little dab of white acrylic or gouache is your preferred way of doing this that is fine.  Having completed the eye I move on to the foundation washes for the bird itself.  I start with the lightest colour that I can see within the feathers and apply this as a wet in wet wash, ensuring to vary the depth of colour by applying more paint to areas that need to look darker in the finished piece.  These under layers are essential if you wish to create a bird painting that looks right and has depth rather than appearing as a cartoon like flat image.

The bright orange chest feathers are the really characteristic part of any robin.  The shade of orange will vary depending on the light that your photo was taken in, I always have little bits of scrap watercolour paper near by and I frequently test my mixes to ensure that they are a good match to the photo I am working from.  If you would like a bit more information on this, I have just put up a video on my YouTube channel that you might find useful and interesting.  One of the advantages of working with ever darkening layers is that there is room for tweaking and alterations as you go along.  So if you find your robin is sporting a very vivid, almost florescent chest and you are working on a good quality paper, you should be able to lift off some paint to tone the layer down and ensure that your subsequent layers are toned back and a more appropriate colour before you apply them!

You will see now I work around the bird in a systematic and methodical way.  This is certainly not the only way of painting, but it works for me and it ensures that sections are fully dry and do not bleed into one another.  This would be fine if I was working on a loose, suggestive style of painting, but for a detailed, realistic piece of art it just wouldn’t work.  Having completed the back and chest, the next logical place to go is the tummy.  I’m left handed, so this way of working down and across the picture ensures I’m not constantly resting my hand on areas I’ve already worked on, and also means I can look at what I’ve already done without fear of dropping paint onto it as I move to the next section. 
Incidentally, a good way of protecting your finished sections is to have a piece of clean scrap paper underneath your painting hand.  This will ensure you don’t transfer any natural oils from your hand onto the paper, this can act as a resist to any paint you subsequently apply to the surface. 
Now, back to the painting…..the tummy area has a dark under colour, this is laid down first.  As this is one of my older pieces I applied the white using acrylic, now days I would use opaque watercolour white just to keep the piece more consistent.  Acrylic is an easier white medium to work with so a great way for beginners or those less confident with watercolour white to access paintings like this and build on their skill levels.  

The little legs and feet were created in a similar way, with very carefully placed background washes applied with a small brush to ensure the fine lines and features are retained.  The shape and form of the legs and feet are then created with darker tones lightly blended to give a rounded, realistic feel.  Finally I turn my attention to the twig, applying some appropriate base tones but not being quite so tight and specific as with the bird.  Twigs, branches and trees all vary, they are all different, so anything goes and you can relax a little and not obsess over detail quite so much in this section.  Likewise for the ivy leaves which I added in, I looked at a few photos of ivy leaves and just went with the flow, adding veins in them here and there and some variation in colour to suggest the light hitting the tree from a certain direction casting shadow on one side.

There you go, a little insight into this painting which hopefully you have enjoyed.  I couldn’t finish these ramblings without adding that back in 2013 I was absolutely thrilled when the full tutorial on how to paint this robin appeared in Leisure Painter magazine, and not only that, but the finished painting was on the front cover!

This blog is obviously just a quick overview of the whole process should you be interested in having a go at this project I have it available on my website as a PDF downloadable lesson.   And, as a thank you for reading all the way through to the end of the blog here’s a coupon code for you to get 50% off the price too.  Just type in RobinBlog at the checkout. 

Until the next time, keep them brushes wet.  Paul

How do I get started with watercolours?

🎨 Are you new to painting and don’t know where to start?
🎨 Are you wanting to try a new medium?
🎨 Are you interested in learning a new style?
Have you answered yes to any of these questions? Then this may be the post for you….read on and see if it helps. 🤓

First of all you will obviously need some equipment, and until you know whether you are going to like painting detailed watercolour, you may not want to splash out lots and lots of your hard earned cash! Above I’ve put together an overview of a basic kit which should get you started.
1. Winsor and Newton Student Cotman Pans
2. Masking Fluid
3. Pipette
4. Lamp black tube paint
5. Old brushes and a ruling pen for applying masking fluid
6. Mechanical pencil
7. Cotman Winsor & Newton Brush Series 111 (Size 00)
8. Rosemary & Co Series 93, size 1
9. Winsor and Newton Size 5 or 6 Acrylic brush for mixing
10. Opaque white tube paint
11. Putty rubber
12. Ceramic palette
This page on my website may help you too: Materials I use

So, you’ve got your basic kit and now you would like to start painting. I would suggest you start by watching some of my tips and tricks videos on YouTube or Patreon. You need to become familiar with the watercolour medium; get used to mixing your paints, build your confidence with how much water to add and work out which brushes work for you. Explore the different ways in which you can use your brushes. Have fun, play with your paints and really get to know them. Find out how your different colours behave – are they opaque, transparent or semi-transparent. What depth of colour can you achieve by layering your paint/glazing? Practice painting thin lines and detailed shapes.

Working on applying washes and painting just an outline and then filling it in, is a really good starter project. These projects give you colour mixing practice, they help build your confidence on applying washes but then you are challenged to paint a detailed outline with a very small brush. This really builds your brush control and will be very good preparation for painting future more detailed projects. I have a couple available on Patreon based on silhouettes, but you can easily make up your own versions of these – have fun and enjoy the process. Make your little projects into cards, bookmarks or little framed pictures, I am sure your friends and family would be pleased to receive them.

When you feel ready to move on to something a little more challenging – I would suggest starting with the robin tutorial. This is a completely free tutorial on Patreon – the video takes you step by step through every stage of painting this little chirpy chappy! I talk as I paint so you see every stage, I try not to use jargon and I explain everything I am doing. You will learn how to work wet in wet, to apply washes, how to layer your paint and achieve fine detail. I even take you through painting the wood and using watercolour white.
Alternatively this lesson is available as a DVD or a download. Or, should you prefer reading how to do something, check out the PDF version of the tutorial instead.

The most important thing is to make sure you have a good block of time to sit, relax and enjoy the painting process, preferably undisturbed for a good hour or two. Before I went professional a few years ago I used to try and paint for two or three hours a week, it helped me switch off from the normal humdrum of life. I worked on maintenance for many years so a means of relaxing after a physical week was important.
Always take your time and never rush a painting, you know I always say put the kettle on or take a few minutes away every hour. This way you will come back with fresh eyes and spot things which may need adjusting. Sitting close to a painting and working on detail does sometimes prevent you from seeing the full picture. Other than that have fun and ‘smile’, I even sing to myself………….preferably not on camera!
Your next challenge will of course be choosing what to work on next…..well that is another story altogether.
Paul 🤓