Watercolor Bird Tutorial – Wren with Out of Focus Background

This all brown wren makes it easy to focus on getting your values right. The fine details like the beak and feet can be done with an ink pen if you want it even easier. The first half of the lesson features an Out of Focus background. With only two cattails, this is a doable painting, even for beginners. Working small with the card size is even easier, as you can eliminate most of the details and focus on value.

(Reference photo from USFWS Mountain Prairie)

Downloads for How to Paint a Wren in Watercolor

Notes and Photos from In Person Wren Class

The background works best if it is not too light (the white grasses and stems don’t show up) and not too dark (competes with the bird.

Be sure to get the dark on the upper beak and inside the mouth or that part gets lost in the finished painting.

Suggested Colors For Watercolor Bird Tutorial

Suggested Color palette for how to paint a watercolor wren tutorial

Steps for How to Paint a Wren – Watercolor Bird Tutorial

Wren head study reference photo for how to paint watercolor wren tutorial

Step 1 – Draw or trace your outline onto your watercolor paper using graphite paper.

Be careful with the eye and beak.

Step 2 – Paint the brown cattails wet on wet for soft, fuzzy edges.

The key is to have the paper just damp. Then paint on with fairly thick paint on a small brush. Practice on scrap paper until you get the best water to paint proportions.

Wet the cattail area with clean water.

Mix a small puddle of brown and a small puddle of dark brown (brown + blue).

Paint the cattails wet on wet. If it spreads too much, let the paper dry a few minutes and try again.

Dry well.

Step 3 – Paint the blue watercolor background behind the wren.

Painting background of watercolor wren tutorial

Paint the left side first, then repaint the cattails while still wet with more paint or clean water. Paint the right side. Last paint a brown grass on the right on wet or dry.

Mix a BIG puddle of blue paint – more than you think you’ll need.

Wet by bird – Carefully wet the area around the left side of the wren with clean water.

Paint the left side background blue, going around the cattails and right up to the left side of the wren.

Repaint cattails – While still wet, repaint the cattails with either more brown and dark brown paint or clean water.

Paint right – Then paint the right side with blue, also.

Lift – Use a paper towel to dab out some of the color around the wren.

Brown grass – Last, paint a small brown grass of the right side.


Step 4 – Lifting Out the Grass and Stems from Out of Focus Background.

Lifting watercolor paint using masking tape for out of focus background

Put masking tape on either side of the grass.

Option 1 – Use a damp piece of Mr. Clean’s Magic Eraser to wipe off the paint between the two pieces of tape.

Option 2 – Use a damp brush (watercolor brush, scrub brush or toothbrush) to reactivate the paint and dab it back up with a paper towel.

Lifting will give you soft edges and a pleasing look for distant, out of focus objects, while trying to paint around objects often leaves splotchy washes and hard lines.

Step 5 – Paint the Watercolor Wren’s Body

Close up reference photo for watercolor wren tutorial

Start with a puddle of light brown – brown + a little blue. You can add some yellow if you like.

Paint the light areas as in the first photo.

Mix a more concentrated yellow brown and medium value brown + blue.

Paint the left side of the body as the second photo. (Mine is wet in that photo and will dry lighter.)

Third, mix a very dark brown with your blue + brown and paint the darkest bits.

Beak – Paint the beak with orange (red + yellow), dark on top and on the inside.

Paint a rich brown over the wing and tail.

Watercolor painting Marsh Wren by Deb Watson for how to paint wren tutorial

Step 6 – Paint the feet and eye of watercolor wren.

Wren head study reference photo for how to paint watercolor wren tutorial

Feet – Paint the far foot very dark. Paint the right leg dark half-way down. Paint the bottom of that leg orange. When it’s dry, add very thin shadows to left side and toes (you can use a pencil or pen for this.)

Eye – Paint the eye a dark brown. When dry, use paint or a pen to put a black pupil in the eye and a dark line around the top half of the eye. Last, add a tiny dot of white.

Eyebrow? – Use opaque white to add the line of white above the eye under the dark cap on top of the head.

Step 7 – Paint Wren’s Cattail

Paint a brown or gray on the left side of the stem and cattail that the wren are perched on. You can dot in some color on the side for texture. When dry, us opaque white to dot on some white on the right side.

Wren with Out of Focus Background Summary

Getting the values right is the biggest piece of the puzzle for realistic painting – not detail or color. This all brown wren makes it easier to focus on value, ensuring maximum watercolor painting success and learning.

I paint for myself. I don't know how to do anything else, anyway. - Francis Bacon