Kingfisher, Winsor & Newton Professional Water Colour on Arches 300gsm paper, (41x31cm)

Learn how to paint a vibrant kingfisher in a natural setting using wet-in-wet watercolour techniques with Chris Pendleton.

I love painting kingfishers and, although they’re quite common along our rivers and canals and sometimes by lakes and ponds, they’re usually pretty shy and difficult to sketch. Often all you see is a dab of electric blue on whirring wings as it whizzes past, low over dark water.

They are vocal birds though, so listen out for their shrill whistles, or you might hear a little splash as one dives for a fish from an overhanging branch.

If you can get close, they are sometimes good subjects, posing beautifully as they gaze down into the water, their gorgeous colours often set off by dark foliage behind. It is this extraordinary tropical colour combination of hot orange and exquisite blue and turquoise that makes them unique amongst all our native birds.

Reference material

Your reference photograph for this project: a kingfisher, found on www.pixabay

For years I used a Victorian stuffed specimen for detailed reference, together with gestural sketches made in the field, but there are lots of free sources of photographs for artists now and I’d recommend Pixabay, where images are free to use for domestic or commercial.


Making thumbnail sketches

  1. A thumbnail with the kingfisher looking to the left.
  2. Experiment placing the bird on a branch.
  3. Most unlikely choice of shading and the bird is placed too far to the left.
  4. Here the bird is still too far to the left.
  5. I like the idea of the tips of the twigs becoming buds just coming into leaf and showing well against a darker background. The position of the bird is better too.

I began by making loose thumbnail sketches, see above, using cheap drawing paper and a 7B pencil. A soft dark lead like this lets me place basic areas of light and shade quickly.

At this point, I wasn’t bothered about making accurate drawings, but I did sketch the borders of the thumbnails to help fix elements of the composition within its frame.

Preferred choice of compositional sketch

My final decision. Notice how the bird's head is nicely aligned one third from the top

Although I experimented with the idea of a branch extending from the bottom of the composition, I decided that the plum tree twigs sweeping from behind the bird and turning up towards the tips would make a more flowing composition.

Landscape or portrait?

From a commercial point of view I prefer portrait-shaped designs, because, if I decide to publish them as greetings cards, this is the shape that displays best in card racking in shops. For the same reason, I usually place the bird’s head, the most interesting part of the design, towards the top of the painting, as that is often the only part of a greetings card visible in the racking.

Although I made one thumbnail of the bird pointing from right to left as seen in the original photo, for no reason other than personal preference, I decided to flip the image horizontally so the bird now faced right.

Using the rule of thirds

Many of you will be familiar with the ‘rule of thirds’, which, like all rules in art, is made to be broken, but there’s no doubt that placing the focal point of a painting roughly a third of the way into an image often leads to a successful composition. We are so used to seeing images designed with this rule in mind it goes unnoticed, but it’s worth looking around to see how ubiquitous it is in our visual culture, from advertising to television and films.

Getting the right size and position for your subject

I wanted my subject to be quite large in the composition so, when I placed it in the middle of the painting, the focal point of its head would be about a third from the top. I also positioned the bird somewhat to the left-hand side so the strong line of its beak wouldn’t lead the eye out of the composition.

Background matters

To help with the composition, here are photos of twigs on a plum tree

Next, I needed to think about the background of the painting. It’s good to provide some habitat context and I wanted the bird to be perched on something more interesting than a simple stick, but equally I didn’t want it to be dominated by lots of distracting foliage. For this reason I took a couple of photos of nicely lichened on a little plum tree in my garden, see above.

Demonstration: Kingfisher