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How to Paint Bird Feathers

This video shows how to create subtle shifts of colors to create the illusion of feathers. For the full version join our free painting challenge!

Painting birds is fun, and working on the feathers can be rewarding. Feathers describe the birds anatomy and play a role in both the pose and the bird's character. Not only that, painting feathers can set you off in a journey to find your own style of painting.

When you’re painting the bird feathers, you’re probably planning on creating interesting textures. To create varying textures, you have to know how to layer your paint on the surface. Try painting the first layer, also known as the underpainting, in a thin, darker value than you see on the bird so that you can come overtop with a lighter layer, this allows the dark to show through and will give the effect of texture and depth to the feathers.

The Importance of Painting the Darks First

When you’re painting the dark colors, look for value changes, and different warm and cool darks to place in the underpainting. With that in mind, It’s always good to take time to evaluate the colors that are inside the darks and make sure to have warm and cool darks ready in your palette.

Creating Feathery Textures

Texture is one of those elements that can make a painting more realistic. The texture of the feathers depends on what kind of brush you use. One trick of getting a feathery or grassy texture is to splay edges of a brush before using it.

Work as if you’re creating a sort of flow to the texture and keep in mind the direction of the feathers. This will help you create a better illusion

Before creating new layers, it’s best to clean your brush first and start with the darkest values. Moreover, you should take a step back from time to time and evaluate what you’ve done so far. This will not only give you the opportunity to rest, but also, it can give you a new perspective in regards to your progress.

Step 1: Making Marks for Definition

As always, I start with the darks. Take your essential darks and place them over the defining lines. These lines are usually areas that have the darkest darks and consequently, they give your subject more character.

What you’re doing here is essentially laying in the base of the darks. What you’re looking for are subtle differences in colors and add them to the mix accordingly. Because of their sudden changes in values, these dark areas will give your subject’s wings more definition.

Step 2: The Base Coat

At this stage, what you want to do is to come in with a base coat and come over top with lighter coats and more color. What the base coat is is essentially the general color of the area. When you’re looking for this color, consider what the dominant color is and how it is being used. Consider the base coat as the underpaint layer.

When you’re painting, you should consider the feather patterns. It's not good to add on too much paint at this stage since this is only a base coat. Try spreading what you already have to more areas. Basically, this stage is all about staining the canvas with the red.

If you see some light patches on the feathers, you can either paint over it using your base coat and remove it later, or just leave it be for now.

By having a nice thin base color, you’ll have the opportunity to make other light and richer colors on top of it, and it will show through.

If you feel like there are certain areas where the paint may be too much, you can use a paper towel to pull off color and make the layer as thin as you’d want it to be. Doing so will not only make the base layer thinner, but also, it can start creating feathery textures.

Step 3: Adding Lighter Layers

As mentioned before, the better we are at painting layers, the better texture will have.

As you get further out of the bird, you’ll find there’s more colors to add. Once you find them, add them accordingly.

Basically, the layers on top of our underpaint will create illusions of feathers being on top of each other.

In this stage, we will be also defining the cheek. To define the cheek, use the Orange. As you start going over it, paint lightly until you shape the cheek.

Then, use a fan brush or any feathery type brush to smoothen out some of the strokes and create feathery textures. The fan brush is a very useful tool not only for blending, but also for making textures. When the right stroke is applied, the fan brush can create a grassy pattern on your top layer.

If you don’t have access to a feather brush, you can use a regular soft brush and splay it out. It should give you the same effect. What you want here is to make the ends of the brush thin.

Step 5: Changing Values

From time to time, pick up your reference photo and compare your work. When you’re comparing your work to your photo, squint and look for the value changes and see how accurate your work is.

Essentially what you’re looking for are those subtle changes in value in the reference. Once you’ve gotten to know the change, the next thing you should be thinking about is if you’re creating the same thing on your canvas.

To lighten some of the values, you can scrape off some of the paint on the darker areas. This makes the base even thinner—and we’d want that. It’s always better to have a thinner base than a thicker one.

Usually, when we think of lightening the values, we’re thinking of adding more paint on the layers. However, a more efficient method is to simply take s

When you’re trying to lighten a value, there are two things you should keep in mind: (1) you’d want to add paint that’s lighter than what your value initially was, and (2) you have to be careful not to make it too light.

The second one is very crucial. What you’re doing here is essentially making sure that you’re not lightening it too much so as to make it the same as those areas with the already lighter values.

Remember to bring in more of the other colors as needed. This helps with variety and creates more realistic textures

When you’re creating more layers, it’s best to mimic what you see on your subject. In other words, you should do your best to make your brush strokes correspond to what you see on the picture.

Step 6: Adding More Layers

Adding even more layers adds more variety. Having more variety means better textures. Remember, painting the feathers is mostly about the texture.

Consider the light and how it hits certain areas of the bird. There will be lighter areas than others but they will never be as consistent as you may think. Take a look at the eye of the bird and how there’s a shadow to it’s right. That’s how light can affect the values and colors of your painting.

Painting realistically is about taking your time and noticing all the little details. The more you pay attention and actually incorporate the little details on your work, the more realistic it will be.

With that in mind, as you paint, pay attention to how the feathers fall. This will give you a kind of guide as to how you should approach your strokes. Don’t worry if your edges are messy. You can clean it up once we put the background in.

While adding layers at this stage, you can manipulate the direction of the feathers. This will all depend on what kind of brush you are using and the brush strokes itself. To make your feathers look more realistically, plan the directions of your strokes.

Being meticulous about the feathers defines certain characteristics of the bird—like it’s cheek. This is why adding details is important.

This step is all about bringing in lighter colors and creating new layers as you go. In turn, these layers you make will make more texture and depth.

Step 7: The Highlights

As you may know, the highlights are created because the surface of our subject reflects some of the light. We can create the illusion of a highlight by mixing some of the colors of our sky to create a grayish mixture. You do not want to add white to get the highlights, as this will turn the feathers pink.

If we take a look at our reference, we can find that there are more colors that we think. With that in mind, we should take the time to add them accordingly.

We always encourage you to play around your palette until you feel like the colors you are using are more natural-looking. In this case, we will be adding some purple with the mix to make it more harmonious with the entirety of the bird.

Remember, even the highlights aren’t just one value. So we should bring colors like transparent-oxide brown to it so we can have more values to use.

With that in mind, adding highlights will define some areas of the bird. You can also add more highlights by simply taking off some of the darker paint that’s already on the canvas.

Step 8: Cleaning Up

There will be some areas in your painting that need to be cleaned up. However, this step is more of an eye-balling process. If you feel like there are certain areas where you need to touch up some few things, add more paint accordingly.

One more thing you’ll never do enough is to find the right value changes. In this stage, you’ll have the opportunity to touch up those value transitions. You can do so by simply taking a paper towel and wiping off any excess paint.

Again, you’ll often realize that taking off paint can be better than adding more. Even when creating highlights, it can be very beneficial.

Step 9: Blending

Blending isn’t necessarily the last step because you will be blending most of the time in the process. However, the thing to remember about blending is that it should be done very lightly and with the proper brush. This step, however, is when you’re making the textures realistic.

In painting, there’s never a right way to do something. However, if we’re experienced and resourceful enough, we’ll find that the best way to create these textures is our own way.

Painting feathers can be very fun because you get to show off your texture-making skills. Texture and color are what make feathers realistic. It can take some time to get used to, but once you get used to it, you’ll find that making the textures can be your own painting signature.


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