I have a more than small bird obsession. I find their variety of shapes, sizes and colours to be of endless fascination to me, and as such birds become something I very much enjoy to draw, so I thought I might share some tips to make an bold, lineless bird piece, although the tips can be applied to other subjects just as easily.
1. Start with a reference
I will be drawing this darling peacock who came up to me in a park begging for food. (Do ignore the presence of my shiny summer knees!)
Any time I see a cool bird (or cool anything) I always try to snap a photo of it to draw later! I have about 30 photos of this bird alone, but this is the particular angle I felt would be best to draw. You can also draw the head from one reference and body from another etc should your reference be not quite right. I regularly combine multiple references, but for the ease of showing technique I will just be using one reference.
2. Set up your Canvas and Workspace
I like to work A4 with 300dpi. Then set up your workspace so you can see both the reference and your canvas by dragging the reference photo tab to the left of the screen
3. Image composition.
Arguably the most important part of making an image and the thing people spend least time on.
Before doing any serious sketching I thumbnail the tones. Because this is lineless I make sure my tones, (how dark or light a colour is) allow the composition to pop before I even think about what colours to use. I do as many quick sketches or variants as I need til I get the right idea! If you plan to add a background details etc this is where to think about it, not as an afterthought at the end!
As a rule if your composition touches one or ideally two edges of the page it will settle and feel a lot more decisive than if it just floats in the middle of the canvas. I rarely add background elements to my bird art, it just adds unnecessary detail for the sake of it. Take a gander at how other artists who make art you love handle their composition. I’m heavily inspired by japanese woodblock prints of birds as well as botanical illustration.
4. Actually draw the bird!
I usually begin by enlarging my thumbnail to cover my canvas, and then blocking in the shapes in more detail. At this point I worry very little about being super accurate, just about blocking down the shapes, here of the head, and different patches of feathers on the body. I use a fairly large size brush and loose movement. The beauty of digital art is I can adjust issues later, so just keep your movements loose. Birds are flowing and graceful and stiff panicked marks where you worry over how "accurate" it is to the reference aren't always that helpful.
My second layer of sketching is where I add more of the details, I recognised some of the chest shape was too round (he began to look like a turkey!) so I just adjusted accordingly. Again I'm not at all worried about the placement of every feather but if the shape and flow is right.
By this point I am starting to let go of the reference. I added the greytone to really highlight the shape of the bird, and selected and adjusted the proportions to suit the image more. This is a concious choice to make a nice illustration as opposed to a photocopy. I'm not interested in doing photorealistic representations of wildlife, but instead capturing their spirit in a beautiful image. At the end of the day no one will see the reference so it's more important you make a good illustration than a good copy.
The reference will still be important, to give us colour ideas, and to go looking for details, but I relax into the shape drawing to complete my sketch.
The final sketch, I have a lot of styalised shapes I use for feathers that I have learned by looking at other bird artists, or just developed on my own. I very rarely try to keep the feathers identical to the reference, I'd drive myself batty) instead I try to keep the general feel, but let myself compose the best feather shape patterns across the bird.
Here's a selection of line marks I use to build feathers.
Of course these are the feather shapes that work for me, that I learned by drawing a lot of birds. You may develop your own mental library of shapes.
4.5 The Polyline select tool (My favourite tool.)
I don't use lineart, though I will apply lines later, I jump straight in with colour.
The tool I use the most is the polyline select tool, I'm going to go into some details of the functions I use the most, but feel free to skip ahead if you already know about this tool!
The polyline select tool allows you to select large, or small areas, in both straight, and curved shapes, depending on what you need. I tend to prefer the straight line, but cubic bezier can be useful too.
Cubic Bezier works like adding nodes for vector art, I won't go into detail about this but if it's something you're interested in do consider checking out tutorials on the subject.
Select Additionally allows you to add to your selection area piece by piece. I find this most useful to build a shape bit by bit, but you could also select all the areas of a single colour across an image at once.
Deselect partially turns your addition into subtraction and removes part of your selection. Great for adding holes into large areas or removing something you don't need anymore.
Underneath your selection this little floating meny appears. These are the 4 functions I use.
Deselect to remove the selection.
Invert does what it says on the tin (Invert selection)
Clear deletes everything on that layer inside the selection.
Fill will flood fill the whole selection. If you have the layer transparency lock on it will only fill the opaque pixels.
Now we're ready to select some bird!
Based on the reference and my own artistic choices this is the starting colour set I will be using. It will grown and adjust as the piece goes on, but I like to stick to some core colours, here blue, green and warm beige to offset the cool blue tones. I keep in mind the tones I wanted from my thumbnail and have tones in dark, light and mid ranges.
On a new layer, using polyline, I select the silhoette of the whole bird. I prefer to use straight edges and loosely follow the shape. I don't worry too much about being 100% exact. I enjoy the slight element of chance this gives my pictures.
Fill the selection to give you the silhoette where we will build up every other shape.
Lock the transparency of the layer.
Block in the colours for the main shapes.
Start to block in shading. You can pick your own shades, or I love to use low opacity (about 20) with the flood fill to add subtle colour blends.
Build up the colour blocks with the shading, and I also added a gradient into the green feather section to mimic how the lighting changes down the back of the bird.
Slowly add more details. I like to keep to the colour tones I already picked in the illustration while the tail feather detail might realistically be more ochre in tone I stuck to the red tones.
Finished flat tones. There reaches a point where I have to move on to linework buy the colours and composition should feel pretty complete to look at, just lacking in details.
I add in linework on top of the colours, using whatever colour I need. I don't outline the shapes as the colour already does it for me, I just build up where I need lines to define something, feather shapes, eyes, etc.
This is where the whole piece is pulled together.
I still use the feather shapes I mentioned earlier keeping to the stylisation, and my brush of choice is an edited version of the Real G-Pen.
Added some final colour tone gradients and done!
I think I got a little carried away with the length of this, but I hope you learned something from it!