'Since I was a child I have loved painting owls and now enjoy holding demonstrations and running workshops showcasing the techniques I use,' says Kerry Bennett. 'I even run a live owl drawing and painting workshop. I chose this image mainly because of the expressive look of the owl’s eyes, and the vibrant and striking colours of both the eyes and feathers'.

Reference photo

Top tips on drawing before you begin

The initial drawing

Drawing the owl and setting out the right proportions are important but ensuring the eyes are right is key.

For me to achieve a drawing with the correct proportions I always imagine a grid (or fold the paper in small squares); this helps me to see, for example, that the eye on the right-hand side is right in the middle of the owl’s face.

Look at everything as shapes, angles and measurements, mapping the main parts that you want correct then, when you are happy, add the detail, such as the pupils and dark feather shapes.

The layout varies depending on the size of paper you are using. If you are using A4, just make sure it fits comfortably, giving a little more space on the left. If A3, you might think of putting the bird more to one side, to the right, which will give you plenty of room for an exciting background on the left.

How to draw the eyes

When drawing the eyes, draw or imagine a line through the eyes, a parallel line linking the top of the pupils and another for the bottom.

It is important to draw the angle correctly; the pupils have to be vertically aligned correctly or it just will not work. The eyeline angle will also give the angle of the top of the head and the feather line below the beak.

The next line, drawn or imaginary, is from the middle of the eyes vertically down to the tip of the beak. Position the beak along this line, noting how it curves along its left side. This will also determine where the feathers below the beak come together.

I use these techniques on all the owls I paint; it makes it easier to see the slight tilt of the head, which adds to the character of the painting.

Next, locate the shapes within the face, always measuring and checking angles and looking at the negative spaces, adjusting as you go.

It can sometimes help to turn both the drawing and the picture upside-down; this way you might see shapes and angles you didn’t see before.

The finished initial drawing

Top tips on painting before you begin

Once you are happy with your drawing, tape the paper on to a board.

As this will be a very wet-into-wet painting it is important to prevent the paper from buckling.

This painting is all about finding the right balance between the amount of water on the paper and the amount of water and paint on the brush.

How to paint the eyes

When painting the eyes, paint the highlights (the sky’s reflection) first using diluted cerulean. This fixes the position of the highlight so it’s not lost when you paint the rest of the eye. Highlights on black are also made using cerulean blue. At this stage you can paint the black beak and eyelids with this blue highlight.

How to paint the feathers

I would recommend a little practice before painting the feathers, as all of them will be painted wet into wet then wet into damp.

Try wetting a spare piece of paper and add a wash of colour, perhaps diluted raw sienna.

Next make up a strong, quite thick dark brown mix of burnt umber and black. As your wash is still very wet, paint with an upwards stroke – a flicking motion – using the dark brown you have just created; observe how it spreads.

If it blooms out too much, the paper is too wet; if it does not go fuzzy and fluffy around the edges, the paper is too dry. If the colour is a faded brown, you have not mixed up the paint thick enough.

You might need to give the feathers a second coat depending on how dark they are; note that some of them are quite black. Never use black on its own, as it gives it a flat appearance; use the burnt umber and black mix instead.

I try not to look at each detail of every feather instead I scrunch up my eyes a little so the picture becomes blurry. In this way the details seem to disappear a little and I can paint an impression of feathers rather than focusing on every little detail, I don’t try to recreate each feather. When painting feathers in this way it is important to pay particular attention to the shading by layering the darks, making the depth of the feathers appear deeper and deeper. This is particularly the case with the feathers at the bottom of our subject’s beak. You can see that you could almost put your fingers in between them

Demonstration – Eagle Owl

Step 1

Starting with your initial drawing, paint a cerulean blue highlight (the reflection of the sky) on the eyes. This will make it look more realistic and not so stark as it would do if left white. Not only is cerulean blue used for the reflection of the sky, it is also more generally used on any black shiny surface, as a shine on black tends to have a blue tint. To this end also paint a little of the blue on the beak and around the bottom black eyelid, as this is also black, and when it reflects the light it will show as blue.

Step 2

1. While the highlights are drying, move on to wetting the rest of the owl, except the eyes and beak. You are now ready to give the body of the owl its first wash of colour. Take your time and look at the photo, making a mental plan of where you will be putting which colours.

2. Working quite quickly, loosely paint burnt sienna, raw umber and a lamp black and burnt umber mix. Allow them to blend on the paper.

3. While still wet, begin to place some of the darker feathers around the face and the body. The body feathers are a thicker mixture of burnt umber and black. Paint them with an upward flick of the No. 10 Round, letting the darks bleed slightly. If the colour runs away too much, the paper is too wet. Wait for ten seconds and try again.

Top tip

Practise this technique on a separate piece of paper first, taking note of how wet the paper is and how wet your paint-loaded brush is.

otice if your mixture is strong enough or if it needs a little more pigment. Observe how far the paint travels. If the surface is too dry, the paint will have a hard edge. When this happens, dry the painting completely and either spray or wet it again with a soft mop brush (or any soft brush) and gentle strokes so not to move paint already on the surface.

Step 3

Back to the eyes of the owl. Colours used here are new gamboge, cadmium orange, burnt sienna, Payne’s grey and black for the pupil (always).

1. First give the eye a wash of new gamboge, this is a lovely colour when diluted, alternatively use cadmium yellow. New gamboge is very transparent giving that yellow glow at the bottom of the eye.

2. While still wet paint cadmium orange on the top half, and at the very top add burnt sienna.

3. When it is dry, paint the black pupil, taking care to keep that lovely highlight you painted previously in cerulean blue.

Top tip

Look at the shape of the highlight on the picture of the owl; it is not just a rectangle but it has almost another painting just within the highlight. The highlights are very important to give the eye a realistic effect. If that looks right, the rest just comes together effortlessly.

4. Now paint the bottom eyelid black, using the fine Round No. 1. Paint above and under the blue line you made earlier, leaving a little blue showing on the bottom eyelid.

Step 4

1. While all of this is drying, move back to the body. Re-wet the entire body and darken the body feathers and some of the fine feathers around the owl’s face, each time darkening the tips, giving them depth.

2. Paint the beak with Payne’s grey and black, trying to keep the cerulean blue you used earlier. Try feathering (blending) the colours so you do not have any hard lines.

Step 5

Stand back, look at the darks in your painting then in the photo, pick them out in your mind’s eye and compare them. Do they need darkening a little? The dark almost-black feathers: do they need darkening?

Always wet the areas where you are darkening the feathers so you can keep the soft feathery look. It will look stark and harsh if you paint feathers once it is dry. Keep it wet to stay soft.

Step 6

Look at the eye now. Do you see how dark it is just under the top eyelid? You may need to give more shadow by applying a glaze of Payne’s grey then softening with clean water.

Step 7

Now is time to finish the face.

Make a thicker mixture of burnt umber and black for the area beside the eye and the forehead. With the No. 4 brush, pick up some of the thick paint.

Your brush does not want to be wet; tap it on a tissue until it stops blotting and is almost dry, but still has some paint on it. Holding the brush horizontally, just skim the top of the paper with the side of the brush. Painting dry on dry in this way helps you to work with the texture of the paper.

Apply the strokes in the same direction of the face feathers. Do the same on the top of the head, but the brushstrokes should be moving upwards.

Step 8

1. To paint the background, begin by mixing your colours then wet the entire area. While still very wet, paint a little cerulean blue at the top, to give the indication of sky then drop in the other greens randomly. It has to be all very wet – if the paints are not mingling on the paper, dry it off completely and re-wet to drop in more colours. It is important to keep the darks at the bottom to give an impression of depth.

2. While still wet, flick the colours here and there for random foliage effect.

3. When it is dry, try flicking again. These will be crisp in-focus flicks, adding texture and interest to the background.

The finished painting

Eagle Owl, watercolour, 12x81⁄2in. (30x22cm)

Now follow Kerry to paint an elephant in watercolour with added gold leaf!

Kerry Bennett

Kerry is a professional artist and art tutor living in Battle, East Sussex. She demonstrates and runs workshops throughout East Sussex and Kent. Visit www.kerrybennett.co.uk; Facebook: kerrybennett.artist; Twitter: @kerryb_artist and Instagram: #kerrybennett.artist

Kerry writes regularly for Leisure Painter


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