I paint my birds with acrylic. For this painting, I chose to start with a very watery background layer in order to create some soft, unpredictable background patterns. I also chose to limit my palette in this image to only Cadmium Red Light and Phthalo Green (and Titanium White). Lately I've come to really enjoy the challenge and the freedom that comes with the limited palette. It's exciting to take two or three colors and push them as far as I can figure out how. The colors in this image are fairly simple.
Anyhow, the background is just a mix of red, green, and a lot of water, to create a varied greenish-brown tone.
Once the background is dry, I started to paint in the bird. The paint here is much more opaque, allowing the soft background to recede, and the sharper, fuller bird to "pop out" more. Again, I'm just using the red and green (and white) to create to various shades of red, brown, and black on the cardinal's body.
At this point, I'm starting to think more about how the background and the bird relate. I want to make sure the bird is clear--I want a strong, almost graphic outline to the figure of the bird. A strong silhouette. So I've gone in with a little white mixed into my neutral brown-green tones and emphasized the value contrast around the bird. I want it to clearly look like a cardinal even from a distance, and for the background to not compete. If you squint, you should see what I'm driving at--a clearly defined bird shape popping out from a neutral background.
I also start making some decisions about the branch. I'm not sure yet exactly what color or value I'll want, but I'm beginning to consider it more directly.
Now I'm going back into the bird and enriching the color, as well as adding further detail. I'm mixing the green and red directly to push the black eye-area as dark as it will go in the context of my chosen palette. I'm breaking up the wing area into defined sections and suggesting the long pinfeathers. I chose to darken the tip of the wing on the left, bringing it to a sharper point than it is in nature. This is just to emphasize the shape and silhouette again, and to use value contrasts to pop it from the background again.
Just about finished now. I've gone in with a smaller brush and added some further detail. I worked out the eye, using some green in the reflected areas and allowing the brightest highlight to be in the eye. This gives my bird some personality, even if it's not 100% realistic, and the green also sets it off from the surrounding red nicely. I brightened my red, added a few shiny highlights on the breast feathers (not too strong), and worked out the bill. I have the bill a highlight almost as bright as the eye, but not quite. I also gave it a hint of a smile, to add to the personality and detract from the naturalism. I'm really painting characters with these birds more than nature studies.
Also, I made my decisions on the branch, giving it a colder light and slightly warmer shadow. I think this harmonizes and contrasts well, and doesn't bring too much attention to itself.
Once again, the final painting. Hope this was interesting. I enjoyed the process, experimented a little, played with my limited palette, and had a nice time of it. Total time, about an hour and a half.