Watercolor Bird Nest Tutorial

by Andrea J. Mahoney

This is my fourth summer in Maine, and I find myself still filled with bubbling excitement as longer days filled with sunshine returns, and I can feel the warmth upon my face. One particular morning, as I looked up to greet the sky, I spotted a nest up in a tall tree, as well as a robin’s nest a bit lower in a group of bushes. Seeing the nest inspired me to attempt a watercolor bird nest that very day.


Watercolor Paint There are TONS of options out there! Did you know watercolor paint is available as pans, tubes, pencils, liquid, and markers? Please feel free to use whatever you have on hand. For this project, I used pans I had on hand, and the following colors: raw umber, burnt umber, vandyke brown, (blue, green, yellow in very small amounts to mix for the eggs). 
Watercolor Paper *or* Mixed Media Paper Please be sure to have one of these before starting your project. I like to use coupons at the local art supply store when purchasing my supplies. As I teach my students online, I explain that these types of paper have millions of tiny little buckets waiting to hold all of our paint and paper. If you take watercolor paint to just printer paper or sketch paper, the paper is not constructed to hold the weight of the paint and the water and it will tear.
Watercolor Brushes I like to use round brushes, as they lend themselves to being used for both straight and curvy lines. I used a size 8 and 3 for this project,  but it can easily be done with a medium and small brush. 
Two Glasses of Water Be sure to use short and solid glasses. I find when I attempt to paint using disposable cups they are far more prone to being knocked over easily. I love using the short canning jars, and I’ve never had an accident since. 
Paint Pallet or Plastic Plate/Tray Get ready to mix colors!
Paper Towel A paper towel to a watercolorist is similar to an eraser to a sketch artist. I use it to help lift color, absorb extra water pooling on my paper, and to practice detail lines to make sure I don’t have a ton of water on my brush.
Bird Nest Outline  You can this outline I created for you, but you can also sketch your own and add your own details. I like to keep my outlines simple, so that it opens opportunities for others to have space to add their own unique style. I like to print my outline, then hold my outline up to a bright window with watercolor paper on top of it to lightly trace the outline. If you happen to be heavy handed (like yours truly) take an eraser to make your lines light. You want your watercolor paint to be the star of the show, and pencil lines might take away the focus with this subject. 


The first step is to begin a base layer of the inside of the nest. Layering is a watercolor technique where lighter colors are used first; then other colors are laid on top once dry. Since this is the inside of the nest, there would be less light, so we are using a darker base. I chose to use raw umber for my wash. Dip your bigger brush into the water, tap off excess, then grab some of your raw umber, then place it onto your pallet. I like to really take my time to swirl my brush so that it has a good coat of paint/water. A wash is where we dilute the paint a bit, and used to cover a larger area or to assist with layering. I let this nearly dry, then added another layer of the same color around the eggs, to show a darker value and the shadow of the eggs.

Next, I took a bit of that raw umber paint, and put some in a different area on my pallet. I then added more water to lighten the color. In other painting mediums, you would add white to a color to lighten it. In watercolor, we simply add water to lighten a color. Using the bigger brush still, paint a wash on the outer part of the nest. I went back over this area, while wet, and added in a little more of the same color. You can see how some areas are darker than others. This is helpful for painting things in nature, as there are irregularities naturally. Let dry before moving onto the next step. 

Next, decide what color you want to paint your eggs.I decided on a cyan color to look like a Robin’s egg. I mixed a bit of blue and green, then a dot of yellow. I kept playing with the colors till I achieved the color I wanted. Don’t be afraid to play and spend some time mixing. It can be fascinating to explore with color theory! 

While the first layer of color is drying on the nest, we are going to begin our branch work. Using your bigger brush, choose a medium or darker brown that is different from the nest color base. I chose burnt umber for this step. Instead of aiming for a smooth wash, I like to paint trees with layering, ridges, and creating blooms to leave ridged lines to look like the bark of a tree. Blooms are splotches of paint or water that are placed on almost dry paint. Begin to paint your branches, using long strokes moving back and forth. As you work, go back over some areas to darken, as well as to form blooms. The picture above shows a ridge on the lower right, see those lines? 

Continue to fill in the branches, and add your own branches by making them smaller as you continue creating off-shoots. Continue to watch how your work is drying, adding more layers on the branches as you work. 

As I continued working the branches, I realized I felt led to add the trunk of the tree in the space to the left. Feel free to alter your work as you become more comfortable, as I have found my favorite paintings are those that I ventured out in trying something that wasn’t my original plan. 

In adding the tree trunk, I wanted to add more contrast and lighter parts. Since I had already added the darker color, I chose to use the lifting technique to remove some of the paint. Using a clean and slightly wet paintbrush, I ran the brush down the trunk of the tree, then wiped the color lifted onto my paper towel. I continued this until I felt it gave the look of a tree trunk. 

I noticed the trunk was still a bit darker than the branch painted originally, so I continued to work in color and make the trunk look connected to the lower branch. I also continued to add smaller branches. 

Using the nest color, I then layered some areas of paint on the nest to make it a bit darker in some areas. 

I then used my paper towel to gently lift a bit of the paint I just laid down. You can see the difference between the harder lines above, and then after the lifting below. 

Now, let’s go back to our eggs and add some gentle details with our smaller brush.  I used the same color as the eggs, and just a touch of water so the brush can glide around the eggs. When detailing, it is important to use the very tip of the brush so that the outline doesn’t overpower the painting. I then like to blend the darker color into the rest of the egg. For blending, I clean my brush to remove any paint, wet it with clean water, then picture myself melting the darker color into the lighter color. It’s a very gentle move and you’ll want to watch your brush movements carefully. I also added a few speckles. 

Now, it’s time to add the twigs and sticks! First, you want to make sure your nest is dry. If you try to do this step with a wet nest, the brown lines will spread out and move where there is water, which will prevent you from having nice crisp stick lines. Also, you don’t want your brush dripping wet. I like to do practice lines on my paper towel to make sure my brush and paint are ready for this type of painting. For this step, I chose 3 browns-raw umber, burnt umber, and dark brown, Or you can choose to use 3 different shades of brown, starting with the lightest first, then moving to the darker colors. You can do this step with either size brush; it just depends if you want smaller or bigger sticks. You can also use both if you want! With your first color (lightest brown of the 3), start laying down your sticks by placing your brush near the inner nest area, and pulling outwards. I found it easier to rotate my piece of art counter clockwise, while my hand continued the same pulling motion as I worked around the nest. Do this however many times you like, you’re the artist! As the paint became lighter, I didn’t retrieve more paint. I liked the varying levels of sticks and this helps me accomplish that. Be sure to complete each color before moving on to the next color. It’s important that layers are done lightest to darkest. 

Repeat the above steps for your next medium brown, filling in more areas. You won’t need to fully cover the nest, so be sure to let some of the original wash and lighter colors poke through.

Then, complete the final layer of sticks with the darkest brown you chose. Again, let the previous layers shine through. 

I chose to let my painting fully dry, then added a very light blue background wash to convey the sky. You could also add leaves, a bird, flowers, anything you choose! Be sure to sign your initials and date your work. Well done!