How to Paint a Cardinal Bird

By Patti Perry ; Updated April 12, 2017
A male cardinal's strong beak and red plumage make a distinctive painting subject.

Just as a striking red cardinal catches your eye in nature, so too, a painting of a brilliant cardinal is radiant in its intense redness. Any part of the cardinal makes an eye-catching painting subject, as its concentrated coloring makes it stand out from the background. Plan your composition because you may decide to paint only a portion of the bird. Branches and the sky blue or green of foliage enhance the many shades of red that are highlighted in a painted cardinal showpiece.

Place reference photos of cardinals near your painting station. Scrutinize their overall shape and details. Decide on a composition plan.

Sketch lightly the cardinal outline and branches around him on a canvas. You may decide to paint only a portion of the cardinal shape.

Examine and draw the dark mask area around the eyes and the crest on the top of the head. These are distinct cardinal features.

Paint a light diluted wash on the background with a large brush. The solvent for watercolor and acrylic paintys is water. Dilute oil paint with turpentine. The background needs to remain simple without a lot of details. This will make the bird the focal point.

Portray some background, using cobalt blue and cadmium yellow to create hues that suggest the sky and foliage.

Apply cadmium red light to highlight the head, breast, bill and top of the crest. Depending on the perspective of your avian subject, you may see some of this ighter red on the bird's flanks. Notice what side the light source comes from in your planning; this will help with highlighting.

Paint cadmium red on all other areas except for the legs and feet.

Mingle the edges of the color changes together to give form to the bird body and show dimension.

Place small dabs of payne's gray on the eye and the mask area that surrounds it.

Mix burnt umber with cadmium red light and use this mixture to paint the legs and feet. Accentuate the leg scales with pure cadmium red.

Blend payne's gray with burnt umber to highlight the toes and determine if there are any areas around the beak that might use this same color.

Portray details with a fine tipped brush. Mix white and payne's gray to outline the edges of observable plumage. Many of the cardinal feathers are indistinct individually but appear as a definitive area of color.

Add tufted small feathers that appear at the top of each leg. Put a small dot in the eye as a highlight.

Things Needed

  • Canvas
  • Brushes, various sizes
  • Turpentine
  • Cobalt blue
  • Cadmium yellow
  • Cadmium red, light
  • Cadmium red
  • Payne's gray
  • Burnt umber
  • White

About the Author

Patti Perry is currently attending West Virginia University and expanding her knowledge base. She has worked as a freelance visual artist for 30 years, with specialties in watercolor and scherenschnitte. Originality of creation is her motivation and she continues to pursue this avenue in her writing. Perry is currently contributing articles to eHow.