Birds are a joy to see in their natural environment, and they’re equally a joy to include in your artwork, especially when it comes to small, delicate birds like hummingbirds. With their light frame, hovering flight, and beautiful colours, a watercolour hummingbird can be used to symbolise vitality or high energy, and their fearsome personality despite their small size makes them especially charismatic, alongside their bright colouration and iconic beak shape.
That being said, birds have always been difficult to draw for beginners, in part because of the way that feathers create a pattern entirely unique to birds, with the texture and translucence being not quite hair and certainly not fur – they pose a particular challenge to beginners and experienced artists alike.
If that’s the case with all birds, it is especially the case with hummingbirds, which double down on the challenges of drawing birds by being small, having large eyes in proportion to their body, and possessing wings that flap in ways that no other bird can achieve, allowing them to hover perfectly.
Even their colours, which are bright and iridescent, especially when it comes to the males, can prove tricky to depict faithfully. This all being said, there’s no reason not to learn how to draw hummingbirds, and with practice, and the correct instruction, they should be perfectly achievable, and can even be an interesting artistic challenge to take on in order to hone one’s artistic skill.
To begin painting a watercolour hummingbird, you should first look at photo references, and, after becoming acquainted with the unique features of the animal, attempt several preliminary sketches until you are comfortable with the basic shape, at which point you can create a basic line art to gradually add detail to.
Attempt to distill the shape of the bird to basic geometric figures – the body of most hummingbirds can be depicted in basic figures using a tubular oval for the body, a pair of triangular wings coming straight of the the middle of the back, a nearly perfectly round head that is relatively large to the rest of the body, and a wedge-shaped fan of feathers for the tail.
Once you have this basic shape down, include a fine, very slightly curved line for the beak, which should be about one and a half times the width of the head, and small legs where the body meets the wedge-shaped tail. When in flight, hummingbird legs are nearly completely unnoticeable, but, in still images, it is possible to see that they tuck their legs close to their body while flying, almost like a kangaroo mid-hop.
Using your reference material of choice, begin adding details to your sketch, starting by drawing the eyes at the centre of the head, and then moving on to the wings and body, gradually adding lines to suggest feathering. You can draw on most of the detailing by repeating basic oval shapes at certain areas of the body, in particular the wings and the tail, in order to imply the majority of the feathers rather than drawing each individually.
Because hummingbirds are so small, it is difficult to make out the fine structures of their feathers even when looking closely, and so you only have to really worry about trying to add feathers to the back of the head, the tail, and the wings. Make sure that, as you draw the wings, you make a line across the back of each wing to separate the thicker, more downy covert feathers, which make up the part of the wing closest to the body, and the longer, stiffed primary and secondary feathers.
Once the main feathers are completed, you can broaden the beak somewhat, keeping it still narrow and curved to fit the profile of the bird. Remember that the nostrils of hummingbirds are not located at the narrow end of the beak, as is the case with some larger species of birds, but rather, more like budgies and finches, towards the base of the beak, closer to the connection point with the head. Lastly, try to add detail to the talons of the hummingbird’s feet; this part can be sparse, as the feet are quite small and generally simplistic compared to the rest of the body.
Now that you have the main body of the hummingbird completed, you can begin gradually erasing the sketchier lines in preparation for painting. Using a pen, or a darker pencil, mark out geometric shapes around the wings and tail, adding lines laterally across each tail feather, and then start erasing the finer details as you go. Make sure to use a delicate, easily manipulable eraser for this part, if you’re drawing by hand, or, if you’re drawing digitally, outline the body and most noticeable shapes using a different layer and remove the sketch layer underneath.
Now that you have the body outlined, you can begin to paint!
Hummingbirds are unique in that many of their most dazzling colours are not due to pigments, but rather due to the structures of their iridescent feathers catching the light and reflecting back colours using microscopic structures.
What this means for you while painting a watercolour hummingbird is that the brightest colours on the body of the natural hummingbird tend to not be at the back, or the wings, but rather at the chin, chest, and throat, where they can choose to tilt their body mid-hover towards the sun and reflect their beautiful colouration for display purposes.
So, when selecting paints, try to use lustre and metallic paints towards the throat and chest of the bird, using darker colours to reinforce them, as is the case in nature.
As for the wings, back, and tail, using a variety of shades can best achieve the natural look of a hummingbird, even if you choose not to depict them entirely faithfully, employing artistic lens. You can use any shade of green, blue, or even yellow, to depict the back and wings, but you may also include reds and even light shades of orange or violet. Whatever pallet you choose, just make sure that the inner body is darker than the outer body, and you should end up with an amazing watercolour hummingbird painting with a beautiful hint of pearlescent shimmer!