How to

Watercolor Toucan


In this article, we will explore the process of painting a stunning watercolor toucan. Exotic tropical birds, with their vibrant colors, can present some challenges when it comes to replicating their beauty on paper. However, by observing closely and making careful color choices, we can simplify the process and create a harmonious and captivating artwork. So, let’s dive in and bring this magnificent toucan to life!

Planning the Painting

To achieve the desired effect, we’ll follow a similar approach to a previous cardinal watercolor painting. The key is to start by loosely layering misty colors, gradually adding more defined edges until the bird magically emerges from the paint. This technique is particularly effective for bird art, and it can even result in an almost abstract representation of the subject.

Essential Materials

Working on high-quality 100% cotton watercolor paper is crucial for this project. This type of paper allows us to work wet-in-wet, blend colors, and soften edges. While there are various options available, I recommend using Fabriano Artistico 140lb cold press paper or any other cold press 100% cotton paper, such as Arches. Additionally, you will need a couple of good brushes. I prefer Escoda reserva sizes 12, 10, and 8, but any high-quality synthetic brush will suffice. As for the paint, I primarily use Da Vinci, with occasional additions from Holbein, Winsor and Newton, Daniel Smith, and others. Stick to artist-quality paint, although some student-grade options like Cotman or Lukas Studio can work well too. The essential colors for this project include lemon yellow, cadmium orange, vermillion, permanent rose, burnt sienna, cerulean blue, ultramarine, and lamp black.

Preliminary Sketches

Before diving into the main painting, it’s always helpful to warm up by creating loose preliminary sketches. These sketches serve as experimentation grounds, allowing us to play with colors and shapes while retaining the essence of the bird. During this process, I discovered that the chinstrap played a significant role in capturing the toucan’s character. Surprisingly, maintaining a softer beak added to the overall aesthetic. These insights will guide us in the subsequent painting stages.

Simplifying the Drawing

Since we aim for a loose painting style, it’s important to keep the initial drawing simple. Avoid using excessive graphite, as we don’t want it to show through the watercolor. Lightly outline the beak, eye, body shape, and feet, focusing on the main form rather than intricate details. Drawing individual claws on the feet is unnecessary, as they would divert attention from the main subject.

First Washes – Embrace Soft Edges

This initial phase is both enjoyable and forgiving. Take the dominant colors, such as lemon yellow for the chest and beak, and a mix of ultramarine and burnt sienna for the body, then apply them roughly in their respective areas. Use a larger brush to avoid creating small, detailed lines at this stage. Once the paint is applied, clean the brush and load it with water to soften the hard edges. Feel free to paint through the outlined areas, blending the colors into the background. The painting should not resemble a bird at this point, as softness and blending take precedence.

Attention to the Eyes

While softening the edges, be cautious around the eye area, aiming to maintain crispness. Avoid introducing dark paint into this area, but if you accidentally paint over it, gently lift the wet paint using a piece of paper towel.

Introducing Dark Mixes

Using a mix of ultramarine and burnt sienna, roughly establish the body’s dark areas. Again, draw the color out through the bird’s edges and into the background. You can even extend the paint onto the feet, as they are naturally darker and can be refined later. For added texture and visual interest, consider splattering some dark paint into the wet background. Remember, soft edges are essential, so avoid creating harsh lines.

Patience is Key

Now, take a short break and allow the painting to partially dry. Since we’ve applied a considerable amount of wet paint, it’s important to let it settle before proceeding to the next step.

Building Edges

This is the enchanting part where the painting starts to take shape. Using thicker paint, such as ultramarine and burnt sienna, carefully introduce edges to define the toucan. Aim to use as few edges as possible while still conveying the bird’s form. Surprisingly, you’ll find that only a minimal number of edges are necessary. By strategically placing paint in certain areas and softening it elsewhere, our brains fill in the missing information. If you feel that an edge appears too harsh, gently soften it with a clean brush. Remember, it’s easier to add hard edges later than to remove them once they’re dry.

Refining the Edges

Continue adding edges where needed, but exercise restraint. In this particular painting, minimal additional edges were required. It’s essential to resist the temptation to overdo this step. Remember, less is more when it comes to defining the form.

Capturing Details and Form

At this stage, the painting truly comes to life. By adding the eye with a subtle shadow, enhancing the beak with color and shadow, and introducing some shading to the yellow chest feathers and feet, we bring depth and dimension to the artwork. However, keep in mind that these details are the finishing touches, and they cannot fix mistakes made earlier.

Stepping Back and Evaluating

Once all the details are in place, take a moment to step back and assess the overall composition. You may notice certain areas that grab too much attention or lack the desired impact. However, avoid dwelling on these aspects for too long. It’s easy to fall into the trap of adding unnecessary detail, risking the harmony achieved thus far.

The Verdict: A Beautiful Watercolor Toucan

I’m delighted with the outcome of this watercolor toucan painting. The shapes are captivating, the level of definition is just right, and the bird exudes a sense of dignity. This artwork distinguishes itself from my previous pieces, evading a slightly cartoonish illustration style.


I hope you enjoyed this step-by-step guide to painting a watercolor toucan. Remember, practice and experimentation are key to improving your skills as an artist. If you’re interested in viewing the full video of this process, it is available below.

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Alexia Young

Hello and welcome to the world of Alexia. I am a passionate and dedicated artist who loves to create beautiful, mesmerizing art for everyone's walls. I believe in the importance of encouraging people to express their creativity and be happy.

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