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How to Design and Create Bird Illustrations in Photoshop

Updated on September 16, 2015
Lemon-rumped Tanagers
Lemon-rumped Tanagers | Source

Regardless of how many years photographers may practice their trade; a true artist will always look for avenues of expanding their photographic vision. This experimentation may transport the adventurous into new disciplines or spheres of endeavor. Image post-processors have unleashed a whole new world of discovery for luminaries who possess dauntless creativity.

About a year ago I read “Photoshop Studio with Bert Monroy: Digital Painting” and I became fascinated by his ability to create cityscapes with astounding accuracy by using the tools available in Photo Shop. While reading I had visions of bygone opportunities that were lost because I could not capture the precise moment. Unrecorded is the exchange as a Sparkling Violetear reproached a Vermillion Flycatcher when it wandered too near the hummingbird’s secured territory. The image of a pair of Lemon-rumped Tanagers feeding leisurely in the trees was now only a memory. I wondered if I could adapt some of the methods employed by Mr. Monroy and reproduce those reflections of nature. My mind reeled with the possibilities.

The Process

My first project was to recreate that scene of the pair of Lemon-rumped Tanagers. This particular species has a significant contrast in color and form between the sexes. I wanted to highlight these differences by placing the birds on a branch in a natural setting. I had photos of both the male and female, so it was a matter of creating illustrations of each and then assembling the images, their relationship confirmed through a common bough.

Eye and Beak
Eye and Beak | Source

Although it would have been more prudent to begin with the simpler male tanager, I decided to tackle the subtle yellows and browns of the female. Using the photo as a template, I began with the beak, utilizing the pen tool to outline the entire bill area and filling it with a solid, complimentary color. This was to serve as a background for the additional color variations that would be added. I then began modifying the image by applying more tones similar to the original photo that represented the various shadings of the beak.

Once the bill was deemed acceptable, I then concentrated on the eyes. These were drawn in a similar manner, paying close attention to the delicate changes in hues around the subject. Catch-lights were added by employing the dodge tool to brighten the areas representing the reflections of the sun. Once I was satisfied with the results it was time to move on to the body.

Head | Source

After using the pen tool to outline the area where I would be working and filling this region with an appropriate color, the brush tool was chosen to produce the feathers. Photoshop offers a phenomenal selection of brush sizes and shapes. However, if a suitable form cannot be found there is the option of creating new brushes. I selected a figure that best represented the downy feathers of the tanagers head and adjusted the size, angle, and scatter to provide the desired results. A tint for the background color of the brush was chosen different from the foreground color. This helped to blend the feathers and look more natural. I then proceeded to create the head of the bird, choosing the various hues and blending them as I moved down the body.

The remainder of the bird was completed, taking special note of the variations of color produced by light and shadow. The dodge and burn tools were employed to assist in this process. The legs and feet were finally added, returning to the pen tool for this application. Once the female had been completed it was a significantly easier procedure to create the male due to his reduced tonal range. After both birds had been finalized to my satisfaction it was time to place them in a suitable environment.

The outline of the branch was drawn using the pen tool and filled with a proper color to represent the natural habitat of the birds. Moss and fungus was added utilizing the brush tool and an appropriate style that fit the patter desired. Embossing and shadow adjustments were made to the moss to give it depth and separation. After the branch was completed, the birds were added to finish the image. Finally, a suitable but non-distracting background was incorporated concluding the process.

Black-breasted Buzzard-Eagle
Black-breasted Buzzard-Eagle | Source

This first effort encouraged me to continue on to more elaborate images. Larger birds required new processes because of their sizable and more detailed feathers. Each feather was created on a separate layer and the dodge tool was used to show depth and shadow between the individual plumes. New brushes had to be created to accommodate the differences in the feathers, depending on the stiffness of the quill. A more curved brush would produce a softer result. However, the challenge was worth the resultant image, reproducing a memory and capturing the scene, as it was later recalled.

This is a long and tedious process, not recommended for the impatient worker. An image such as shown can take ten or more hours to create. However, for those who want to expand their abilities and vision, this is an avenue to express oneself like no other. It is only limited by the imagination of the artist.


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    • ColibriPhoto profile imageAUTHOR


      6 years ago from Quito, Ecuador

      Thanks Craftdrawer, I appreciate the comment. You can do so many exciting things with Photoshop. It just takes a little time to get familiar with it.

      Thank you Stephanie. Drawing these illustrations is no different than using pens or paintbrushes, you just don't have the extra materials and the mess. And it is easy to correct a mistake or change an item that you don't like. Once you get familiar with the pen tool you can let the creative juices flow.

      Appreciate the comment BlissfulWriter. It just takes a little time, practice and imagination.

    • BlissfulWriter profile image


      6 years ago

      That is some great Photoshop work.

    • Stephanie Henkel profile image

      Stephanie Henkel 

      6 years ago from USA

      These digital illustrations are beautiful! I can see that they would take almost as long to do digitally as they would take with pen and paints or colored pencils, but the results are fantastic! Voted up and useful!

    • craftdrawer profile image


      6 years ago

      Very creative! I enjoy taking photos but never used this program now I will need even more time for another hobby! Great read!

    • ColibriPhoto profile imageAUTHOR


      7 years ago from Quito, Ecuador

      Thank you JSP. I am happy that you enjoyed it and I appreciated the comments.

    • JSParker profile image


      7 years ago from Detroit, Michigan

      This hub was simply amazing to me. You did a great job illustrating AND writing it. I checked several of your referenced hubs, and your work is truly impressive. Your photography is beautiful. You raise the quality level of Hub Pages. Glad to be part of the same community. Keep up the good work! ~JSP

    • ColibriPhoto profile imageAUTHOR


      7 years ago from Quito, Ecuador

      Thanks Jeff. It is remarkable what you can do in Photoshop. I am always discovering new things.

    • profile image


      7 years ago

      That's a gorgeous picture. It's so cool that work like that can be created in Photoshop.

    • ColibriPhoto profile imageAUTHOR


      7 years ago from Quito, Ecuador

      Thank you Surale. I appreciate your comments.

    • surale profile image


      7 years ago from pakistan

      hi friend i like your work so mush .

    • ColibriPhoto profile imageAUTHOR


      7 years ago from Quito, Ecuador

      Hi Peggy, Photoshop has so much to offer it is overwhelming at times. It is fun to discover all its capabilities.

    • Peggy W profile image

      Peggy Woods 

      7 years ago from Houston, Texas

      I have purchased Photoshop but have yet to play with it and discover what can be done with it outside of simple editing. Looks like it will be fun!

    • ColibriPhoto profile imageAUTHOR


      7 years ago from Quito, Ecuador

      Thanks for the comment Pradeep

    • pradeepnagevadiya profile image


      7 years ago from rajkot

      art is part of life

    • ColibriPhoto profile imageAUTHOR


      7 years ago from Quito, Ecuador

      Thanks Pamela, It has been fun working with this. I guess it fulfills that hidden dream of wanting to paint. If you don't have a "Pen Tablet" I would recommend getting one. It makes working with these kinds of illustrations much easier than using a mouse.

    • Pamela Kinnaird W profile image

      Pamela Kinnaird W 

      7 years ago from Maui and Arizona

      Oh, my goodness, this is like the missing piece for everything I try to do. I cannot do one-tenth of what I imagine. I never knew Photoshop could do this kind of thing. I am going to look for the book you mentioned, too--Digital Painting by Bert Monroy. Thank you! I wish the local college wasn't about to start their new session on Monday. It's too late for me this semester, but next semester, I hope to learn all this. I don't know if I could learn it without a course on it. P.S. I've posted this to my Facebook page. It's very exciting to me.


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