Audubon Bird Portraits


John James Audubon is an inspiring painter. His stunning Birds of America paintings are legendary and for good reason. I love telling the story of this man’s journey across America with nothing but his paints and some survival amenities, on a quest to paint every bird in our country. The thought of it gives me chills, just thinking about the years he spent in the great outdoors painting the most beautiful details, all captured by his naked eye and transferred to his canvas.

After gushing about Audubon’s magnificent paintings and skill, I introduce our lesson. Birds. Lots of big, awesome birds.

I have laid out about 40 laminated photos of birds on a table. I invite each student to chose a bird that intrigues them, one that they won’t get sick of looking at as this project takes a few weeks… I have chosen a Great Blue Heron. Often when I teach a project I will begin by demonstrating the lesson and will go through each step on my own example. My students love to see me work and I love to remind them why I am an art teacher 😉


What you need:

Let’s get started!


I begin by showing how I map out my drawing. Sometimes it is hard to take a small picture and draw it big so I suggest making a mark where I want the head to be, where the head will meet the neck and where I want the bottom of the bird to be. Then I break to body down into shapes I draw a circle for the head. A rounded triangle for the beak, and so on, working my way down the bird, as slowly and as lightly as possible. Once the outline is done I move on to outlining where colors change and add details like feathers that stand out. Once the bird is drawn, I ask everyone to add a background. Audubon tends to paint very simple backgrounds. Because we are painting in his style I only request that the they at least add a branch for their bird to perch on.


To teach painting, I do a short demonstration at a table and begin with one part of my bird. I start with the beak. I explain how I am constantly mixing new colors, I NEVER use the color straight out of the tube. The more colors you mix the better your painting. I remind everyone to constantly look back and forth from their photo to their painting looking for subtle color changes and to try and figure out what color could be added to achieve the difference, maybe black? blue? yellow?

I show how to make different brushstrokes for different textures. For a beak my strokes are smooth and steady and heavy on the paint. When painting a feathery bird, I show how to flick my brush in the direction of each feather.

It is especially important to remind students that shadows and highlights are what make your painting have depth and look more 3-D.

I was so impressed at how quiet and content my 7th graders were while painting their birds. My students were so proud of their work and many commented on how relaxing painting is.

I hope you enjoy the lesson!