Feathers can be a perfect canvas for any artist. Not only are the feathers themselves beautiful, they offer a blank slate for an infinite number of paintings.
In this Instructable we go over the basic steps of painting on a feather, with numerous tips and pointers along the way. These steps can be applied to nearly any image, real or imagined.
Step 1: Step 1: Feathers
The most important part of this project is, of course, the feather! Here I have an example of two types of feathers that could work well. Both real or fake feathers can work well, although real feathers give a much more natural look. Here are a couple of things that are important when picking out a feather:
Color - This might be one of the most important aspects when picking out a feather. Do you want to incorporate the natural colors of the feather into your design, or does the background color have no effect? Does the pattern of the feather matter? Try to work with the natural colors of the feather, if at all possible.
Shape - The second most important aspect when picking out a feather is the shape of the feather. Do you want it wide or skinny? Long or short? It's important to have your design in mind when picking a feather. Try to pick a shape that will compliment your design; this will only enhance your overall composition.
Size - The third aspect to consider is the size of your feather. Will you use a large or small feather? Both have pros and cons. A larger feather offers a bigger work area, although it will take longer to paint and requires more attention to detail. A small feather won't take very long to paint, but it requires great precision. Both can be equally impressive if done well.
Step 2: Step 2: Feather Prep (Part 1)
Great! After long hours of deep thought, you've finally picked out your perfect feather. Time to start prepping it for the journey ahead.
For my painting I've chosen this simple medium-sized black feather. However, as you can see in the previous photo, some of the lower portions of the feather were a bit torn apart. Fortunately, this is easy to remedy! Gently grab both pieces, align the edges you want to join, and carefully wiggle them together. This takes very little force, so take it slow. Real feathers are designed to stick back together when they get a little messy and torn up.
Once you are happy with the appearance of your feather, move on to Step 3!
Step 3: Step 3: Feather Prep (Part 2)
Now it's time to prep the surface of the feather for paint. I like to do this by lightly spraying both sides with a workable fixative spray (like the kind I have pictured). This helps to seal the surface and bind the whole work surface together without making it look overly artificial. Two light coats on each side of the feather should do the trick just fine.
*As always, be sure to follow the safety instructions on the workable fixative.
Step 4: Step 4: Supplies and Setting Up
Now that we have our feather prepped and ready, we're ready to set up to start painting. You'll need:
Acrylic paint (Here I use a couple different brands. Any medium-high quality acrylic paint will do the trick.)
A variety of brushes (You'll want some tiny ones for detail, as well as some "larger" ones for bigger patches of color.)
Palette or some surface to mix your paint (Here I am using a notecard since I am too lazy to wash my real palette off.)
Water cup and paper towel (For rinsing and drying brushes.)
Reference image (It is completely okay to work from a reference image, or you can just work straight from your imagination.)
Step 5: Step 5: Outlines
The first step of the painting is to create some simple, thin outlines. This will help you organize your picture and orient it on the feather. Choose a color that's easy enough to see against the background color of the feather but can be easily covered up by the actual colors of the image. Here I chose a yellow oxide. Thinning the paint slightly with water really helps it to flow easily and leaves a more translucent line of paint that can be easily covered up.
Important! Your outlines don't have to be perfect, but they do have to be deliberate. Once paint is on the feather it's hard to remove it or cover it up, so be wise with where you put your paint.
Use a very light hand when applying paint. You should be layering paint on the surface, not dragging paint through the quills. Keep the direction of the feather quills in mind and try to flow with them; painting too roughly against the grain can cause breakage and damage of the feather.
Your painting may look a little rough at this point, but don't worry! This is just a general guide for your future brushstrokes.
Step 6: Step 6: Blocking Out Colors
The next step is blocking out the main colors of your image. These will be your base colors. Generally, these are darker tones, although it's important to avoid pure black and pure white at this stage (unless these are a very important part of your design). Don't worry about being perfect with this step either, although you'll want to be careful to stay inside your outlines.
Here I blocked out the basic colors of the elk's face and the medium tone of the horns. There is little to no feather showing through the paint. This paint can be applied slightly thicker, although still with a light hand.
Step 7: Step 7: Details and Finishing Touches
It's important to work general to specific. Once you get your colors blocked out, start adding more detail with more variation in the paint color to achieve a more realistic look. Leave your brightest highlights and darkest shadows until the very end. Thinning the paint considerably can help you produce thinner, more accurate lines although the paint will dry slightly translucent as a result. It is better to have multiple thin layers of color than one thick layer of color! Take breaks to let the paint dry to accommodate for this.
Keep working with the painting until you're happy with it. Since we are using acrylic, it's easy to just paint over areas that you don't like. Remember, your brightest highlights and darkest shadows are very important, but only use them sparingly! If you want to draw a little more contract between your image and the background color of the feather, you can outline the entire image with a very thin line of color, although this should be used with caution. I wanted to go for a more natural look, so I omitted any sort of outline.
Once you are totally happy with your work, finish it off with a thin layer of sprayable fixative and admire your unique piece of art! Mount it in a frame, add leather or beadwork, or leave it plain and simple.
As always, feel free to experiment with any of the steps or techniques to find what works best for you. Most of all, have fun with it!