Learn how to paint a cardinal in this easy step by step tutorial with acrylic paints.
This easy cardinal painting is made with only 3 simple paint colors: red, black and white and a few basic paint brushes. You’ll also learn how to paint a cardinal without a sketch and zero drawing skills. This tutorial is complete with some some fun and easy snowy branches, and a custom inspirational quote at the bottom.
This painting makes a great Christmas/winter painting project or craft and the colors also work well for Valentines day too (since you can also customize the wording at the bottom).
If you’re looking for more Christmas inspired paintings check out this christmas tree painting tutorial.
Alright, let’s paint a cardinal!
How To Paint a Cardinal Step By Step
For the step by step tutorial for the full painting (including background and snowy branches) please see the tutorial at the end of this post. The steps below cover just the red cardinal bird.
Step 1- Bird Body Shape
Using red paint (cadmium red) paint and fill in a half-circle shape with a 1/4″ angled brush.
Step 2- Bird Tail and Head Feathers
Paint in the tail and the feathers on the cardinals head with the same red paint and 1/4″ angled brush. The tail is thicker at the body then tapers towards the end.
The feathers at the top of the birds head are straight and angle out at a 45 degree angle. And each feather gets smaller as you work your way down to the neck. Use the angled brushes chiseled edge to do the feather strokes.
Step 3- Add Cardinal’s Wings
Paint in the birds wing as an oval shape inside the body using dark red paint (mix red + tiny amount of black).
Step 4- Paint Bird Legs
Paint in the birds legs with the same dark red paint from step 4 and your angled brush. The legs of the cardinal start at the bottom of the body (more towards the tail than the centre of his belly). They are also angled forwards.
Step 5- Add Shadows
Add some shadow to the birds belly, the back of his neck, and the top part of his tail using the same dark red paint. Use small quick strokes with your angled brush to get feathered like paint strokes
Step 6- Paint in Black Markings On Face
Paint in the black marking on the cardinals face using black paint and your size 1 round brush
Step 7- Add Feather Details On The Wing
Add some lighter colored feathers to the birds wings with light red paint (3 parts red + 1 part white) with size 1 round brush. There are 2 parts to the cardinal wings, short feathers and the top part of the wing (4-5 thick swoops of paint), and long thin feathers at the bottom (long thin lines of paint that curve with the wing).
Step 8- Paint Highlights (neck, head and belly)
Add some highlighted feathers on the neck, head and belly of the cardinal with the same light red paint from step 6 and size 1 round brush. If the light red paint blends too much into the color on the body, lighten it up a bit more with some more white.
Step 9- Paint Eye
Once black marking on the cardinals face is dried to the touch, paint in the eye of the cardinal bird. I used a white gel pen, but you can also use some thinned down white paint and your detail brush. The eye of the cardinal starts at the border of the black marking and is more round than oval. You can also add 1 or 2 dots inside the eye which are the reflections in the eye.
Step 10- Paint Bird’s Beak
Paint in the beak of the cardinal using the same light red paint from step 7 and size 1 round brush. The top of the cardinals beak starts in the middle of the eye. Cardinals beaks are quite short but wide and sharp. The entire beak when painted in will look like a sideways diamond, with the inner beak having shorter lines.
Step 11- Red Feathers Details
Take some pure red paint and paint in some more more feather strokes on the birds body and head feathers, using your size 1 round brush. Try not to cover all the the layers of red paint below. Having all 3 shades of red in the end bird will give your bird more dimension.
Step 12- Line Through Beak
Once the beak of your bird is dried, paint in a thin line in the middle of the beak using a dark red paint (3 parts red, 1 part black) and size 1 round
Step 13- Bird’s Claws /Feet
Paint in the birds claws using your size 1 round and dark red paint (from step 13). Cardinals have 4 claws, 3 are usually seen clutching around branches at the front, while the 4th claw is grasped around the branch at the back.
Step 14 – Final Highlights
Use some light red paint and your detail brush (size 1 round) to paint in thin feathered lines on birds chest and top of head feathers.
Cardinal Painting YouTube Video
Below is the full length YouTube painting tutorial on how to paint a cardinal.
How To Paint a Cardinal Step by Step Instructions
- Titanium White
- Mars Black
- Cadmium Red Medium
- 3/4" flat brush
- 1/4" angled
- Size 4 round brush
- Size 1 round brush (or detailing brush)
- 9x12 canvas
- rag/paper towel
- jar of clean water
- Watch the full YouTube tutorial here
- Paint in your background using black and white paint. Use 3/4" flat brush and use horizontal back and forth strokes to blend paint out.
- Use stencil and trace in cardinal shape on canvas or follow step by step instructions below. (stencil can be downloaded below )
- Paint birds body.
- Add the tail and head feathers.
- Paint the birds wing.
- Paint in the birds legs.
- Add shadows to birds belly, back of neck and tail.
- Paint in the black marking on the cardinals face.
- Paint in detailed feathers on bird's wing.
- Highlight feathers on neck, head and belly of the cardinal.
- Paint the bird's eye.
- Add the beak.
- Add pure red on body .
- Paint a line through the middle of the beak.
- Paint cardinal's claws.
- Paint 2 large branches with black paint and your 1/4" angled brush. The bottom branch is where the cardinal is resting on and the the top branch has a heart shaped branch.
- Paint a few more branches in the background using a lighter grey color (4 parts white 1 part black), I switched over to my size 4 round brush because these branches are more detailed and smaller
- Paint some snow on your branches (make sure black branches are fully dried). Use your size 4 round and a tiny amount of white paint at the tip of the brush. Using small circular strokes to mimic fluffy snow sitting on the branches.
- Paint in some red winterberries in the foreground and grey winterberries in the background, using pure red and grey paints and your size 1 round.
- Add some snowflakes falling form the sky with white paint. You can either free hand the tiny snowflakes or you can use a splatter technique (see YouTube video) . For the larger 3 snowflakes you can use your size 1 round brush and thinned down white paint and paint in the fractal snowflake patterns of your choice.
- Optional: Hand letter your favorite quote, saying or inspirational words on the bottom empty portion of the canvas. I used my black Posca paint pen to make it easier to letter.
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Sakura 57454 Gelly Roll Classic Ass't (05/08/10) 3pk Pen, White
All Purpose Synthetic Paintbrush Set by Artist's Loft, White, 10 Count
FIXSMITH Stretched White Blank Canvas - 9x12 Inch, Bulk Pack of 8, Primed,100% Cotton, 5/8 Inch Profile of Super Value Pack for Acrylics,Oils & Other Painting Media.
Liquitex BASICS Acrylic Paint, 8.45-Oz Tube, Titanium White
Liquitex BASICS Acrylic Paint, 4-oz tube, Mars Black
Liquitex 1046151 BASICS Acrylic Paint, 4-oz tube, Cadmium Red Medium Hue
Posca Acrylic Paint Marker, Medium, Black
Cardinal Painting Ideas
If you’re looking for some fun ways to paint cardinals check out the ideas below:
- Add a cardinal on an ornament
- Paint a winter scene with a group of cardinal birds, like this tutorial from Art sherpa
- Paint some cardinals on a water bottle and gift it to someone
- Do some Rock Painting and add a cardinal
- Add a cardinal to handmade greeting cards
- Sketch out a cardinal in an art journal spread
- Paint a cardinal on glass jars/ wine glasses
- Paint a cardinal on wooden sign for some fun DIY farmhouse decor
Cardinal Drawing Stencil DOWNLOAD
Right click the image below and click “save” to save and download the cardinal stencil. Transfer the sketch to your canvas using these 2 stencil transfer techniques