Outside, Inside

It’s been mighty cold here this week— the temperature most days hasn’t crept out of the teens—decidedly not outdoor sketching weather. But I did manage a walk in snowy woods, where tracks of squirrels, deer, mice, and beaver gave away the presence of far heartier mammals. I also found this fine turkey feather, which was enough to get me started on this sketchbook page. This weekend is the Great Backyard Bird Count, a global count and celebration of birds. I was happy to record 16 species this morning from the warmth of the kitchen, while the thermometer outside read -7 F.

Tips and Techniques– Here my top tips for painting bird feathers, which are trickier than you might think. Practice helps!

1. The Center Vane (Rachis)– Start with this line, keeping your edges clean and tapering from bottom to top. The rachis is cylindrical, not flat, and often casts a slight shadow, which can really make your feather look “right.”

2. Shape– Barbs extend out and upward from the center rachis. Though they are sometimes unlocked at the edge, there should not be gaps at the center; most feathers have crisp edges unless barbs are unlocked.

3. Bottom Barbs– Keep them delicate and downy; wet the paper first and drop paint into it.

4. Color– Even dark feathers are semi-transparent. Avoid overworking. The fewer strokes the better.

5. Shadow– Add if you want to help give dimension, but keep it light.

Note: Feathers are protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. Sketch them where you find them or return them to the field when you are finished.

Workshop this week! The Nature Explorer’s Sketchbook
2/18/21, 5:30-7pm, FREE; ages 10+
Register:  Columbia Land Conservancy
If you like exploring nature or drawing or both, this session is for you! Ask questions and draw along with me as I share some activities and tips from my new book to spark your curiosity. This session is especially suited to the 10+ old artist, explorer, or nature lover — and adults who have wanted to try nature journaling.

12 Comments on “Outside, Inside

  1. Your sketch is inspiring me to try a feather Jean.
    Do you know the reason feathers are protected?
    I understand the reason nests are but for the life of me the feather restriction is puzzling.
    Thanks always for sharing your lovely work.

    Dorothy Person

    • Hi Dorothy- Commercial harvesting of birds for their feathers in the late 1800s and early 1900s decimated many bird populations and led to the Migratory Bird Treaty Act in 1918. The feather trade for women’s hats and fashion embellishment also led to the formation of the Audubon Society, which called upon women not to wear feathers… and expanded from there. You can find out more and also find amazing feather images to study and draw at The Feather Atlas: https://www.fws.gov/lab/featheratlas/feathers-and-the-law.php

  2. Ouch, minus 7! Spring is going to look so, so good! 😉 Your tips are so precise and clear – the one about the downy feathers at the bottom and the fact that even dark feathers have transparency. Really useful advice.
    Your Backyard Bird Count entry is such a smart idea too, Jean. Scatter the names of the birds and feature a few feathers – it gives a whole different dimension to the idea of a list. Wonderful.

    • You leave the nicest comments, Linda! Thank you. And yes– spring is going to look REALLY good. But we still have a lot of winter to go, so I’ve got to pace myself and try to stay focused on winter for a while more. Hope it’s not raining too much where you are.

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