DIY: Painting Feathers

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Painting feathers like the pros takes practice, but even beginners (like me) can make a beautiful feather the first time out.

Inspired by the beautiful feather photography and artwork I've been seeing all over the place lately, I decided to try my hand at painting one myself. 

With a little assistance and demonstration, children would easily be able to create their own feathers as well.  They look beautiful framed by themselves or in pairs, and if you cut them out, these painted feathers would look so pretty hanging from the bottom of a dream catcher, too!

To begin the project, I recommend either collecting some feathers from nature (I wish I had some) or find images of feathers that strike your fancy on the computer (like me).  It helps to see the color variations and size scale while you sketch.


2 different sized watercolor brushes (one medium and one very thin), 
a piece of watercolor paper
watercolor paints (you don't need fancy ones!)
a jar of water
a kitchen dish towel
a pencil
and a few images of feathers off the computer,
or a real feather for inspiration
(if you collect real feathers, gently wash them in liquid dish soap, rinse with water, and lay them flat to dry before handling)

DIY: Steps

1.  Lightly sketch your feather(s) onto the watercolor paper.  If you are using a real feather and it is the size you'd like to paint, you could even lay the feather on your paper and trace around it.  Be sure to sketch lightly, as the paint will not hide pencil lines very well.

2.  Step back and compare the sketch to your inspiration.  Add light guidelines with your pencil where you want your color variations to help guide you.  Be sure the edges are uneven and feathery, just like the real thing!

Note: You can always freehand paint your feather, especially if you are an experienced painter.  I am not, and I chose to sketch it out first to guide me along.  The choice is yours!

3.  Painting the first background layer:
 Using your medium sized watercolor brush, dip it into the jar with water.  If you want your colors very translucent, you can paint the area of your feather where you want your color first with a little clear water, then quickly add a little color with your brush.  The color will be lighter and will spread out, bleeding into the surrounding paper giving you the professional blendy look.  The first background layer should be your lightest color.  We will build on top of this with darker colors as we go.  My first background layer was a light gray color.

4.  Next, add in some depth:
Begin shading by lightly layering some more color in the areas where you want your background color to be a little stronger.  Get a little more watercolor paint on your brush than you did with the first layer, and simply paint over.  Watercolors are very forgiving, and if you make a mistake with too much paint, just take your kitchen dish towel or paper towel and dab it off while it is still wet to make it lighter again.  My kitchen towel had a waffle weave which left a very interesting texture when I dabbed, so I did this intentionally in a few areas of my feather as I like the way it looked.  

5.  Blend:
You don't want distinct lines yet- we're still in the blendy phase.  If you need to, wet your brush with water only and gently rub along the edges of areas that have too much of a distinct line to smooth them out.

6.  Add your other colors:
Repeat steps four and five with the other colors in your feather, carefully layering them on one another and shading more where you want more pigment.  My feather had darker colors around the edges and the top, so this is where I layered the most color.  Don't forget to blend the edges if necessary.  You can always add more water to lighten your colors, or dab off some if you need to with your cloth.  If you go outside your pencil lines, don't freak.  Feathers naturally are uneven and imperfect around the edges.  We can add a little fringe on them at the end and no one will know.  Happy accident!  Repeat your shading layers until you've added all the the colors your feather requires.  Add a little shading to the edge of the bottom of the shaft of the feather as well so it doesn't look flat.

7.  When you are finished layering your colors, now is the time to take your tiny brush and add in the wispy details.  Add small feather veins, little fluffs coming off the sides, or a puff of single feathers at the base, whatever you wish.  This paint should be applied with less water and more paint on your brush, as you want the details to stand out and be actual detailed lines, not blendy like our previous layers.  This is your final step!  For my feather I used a dark navy for the feathery tips and fringe along the sides.  Don't overdo this step- the darker color will be more difficult to remove (add a little water and blot off the paint if you need to).  Paint a little fringe, then step back and look at it to see where you need to go next.  If you feel that your feather needs a little filling in, you can return to your first background color and add fringe to the edges of your feather in that color as well until you feel like it is more natural looking.  This part is all eyeballing it and personal preference. 

Let it dry flat so that your paint does not run. 

And, enjoy!  These are addicting- once you paint one you'll want to paint more.  With these easy steps, you and your little ones can make a feather collage, a dream catcher, a Native American headdress, or just a beautiful framed work of art!




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